Why are there so many far-right extremists on our ballot?

A primer on how we got here.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
20 min readMar 26, 2024

“Wait, is she actually winning?”

It’s 9:38 PM on primary night and that’s the text I get from a friend about Michelle Morrow, the MAGA frenzied homeschool mom who wants to run North Carolina’s public schools. I’m taking a break from the election results and dancing to Bonnie Raitt in my kitchen. I grab my laptop and press refresh on the screen.

“Nah, it’s just 12% of precincts reporting” I text back, and then turn up the volume on Nick of Time.

But she did win. In a surprise upset, Morrow, who has never held office before, defeated the conservative Republican incumbent who had out-raised her fivefold.

The next day, as the press tried to catch up on who Michelle Morrow was, they described her as an “ultra-conservative activist.” They began to unearth her many statements about banning Islam, about executing Democrats, about QAnon conspiracies, about schools being “indoctrination centers,” about Pride being a form of perversion. And North Carolinians were, in a word, shocked.

But many of us have been watching Michelle Morrow for years — from her associations with the local Proud Boys to her live stream from the Capital on January 6th — and recognize her as not just a loudmouthed conservative wacko, but as part of a growing network of far-right extremists trying to move into positions of power.

Michelle Morrow will be on the ballot in North Carolina’s general election this November. How, in a state once known as leading the forward-looking, new, progressive South, did we get here?

Rebranding extremism

Indianapolis, Indiana

A more recent photo of my old neighborhood, looking spruced up. “Fountain Square” by MCC_Indianapolis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

My neighborhood was one of those places that had been torn apart by multilane highways and gutted by jobs moving south. The city didn’t bother tearing down the burnt-out houses here; one building two doors down from me stood collapsing onto the sidewalk for years after a housefire swept through it.

I had lived there long enough to fall in love with my neighbors; kind and generous people despite the bad hand that unemployment, poverty, and a drug epidemic dealt us every day. So when in 2005 a hate group bought a house a few blocks away, I felt defensive of not just my own family, but the neighborhood as a whole.

The Vinlanders were a neo-Nazi group whose members had been kicked out of the Hammerskins for “being too violent.” They were there to recruit from the poor, disaffected young men who populated my neighborhood. They would goose-step around throwing seig heils. But it was when they boot-stomped a Black man in broad daylight, nearly killing him, that I sold my house and moved away.

Vinlanders in the back of their house in my old neighborhood. Sourced from the SPLC here.

The three men arrested for the assault wore long sleeves to court even though it was a ghastly hot midwestern summer that year. That’s because they were trying to cover the tattoos that they typically loved to show off in my neighborhood. One of them had Hitler’s Waffen SS tattooed on his forearm.

The others, however, couldn’t cover the number 28 they both had tattooed onto their heads ( the second and eighth letters of the alphabet, short for “Blood & Honour,” a common fascist phrase). And the ring leader of the attack, Eric Fairburn, couldn’t cover up the lettering across his neck: M-U-R-D-E-R.

The Vindlander’s tattoos were all about shock value. Up until they were in court, they didn’t hide them because wanted us to know exactly who they were — Nazis. These guys knew they were the fringe and were actively securing their place at the margins, not the center, of our society.

Eric “The Butcher” Fairburn of the Vinlanders is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Sourced from SPLC here.

That is precisely what has shifted between the early 2000s and now. Far-right extremists today want to be in, not out, of the mainstream. They want to be in, not out, of mainstream culture; in, not out, of our schools; in not out of our politics.

And now, they want to be on, not off, of our ballots.

By 2006, Vinlanders all across the country started to go to prison for major crimes — racking up convictions including in four different murders. Fairburn is serving a life sentence on one. But their leader, Brien James, who lived up the street from me and had co-founded the Vinlanders with Fairburn, managed to stay out of prison. Counting his lucky start, James rebranded himself as a Proud Boy, claiming to be a now be not a nazi, but a “patriot.”

Brien James as a Hammerskin then (left), Brien James as a Proud Boy now (right).

Today you are more likely to see Brien James carrying an American flag at protests instead of a swastika. When he was my neighbor, Brien James was organizing outside the system, brawling and street-fighting, flying a Skrewdriver flag in his front yard. Today, Brien James lives in the suburbs wants to talk to you about electoral politics. On an old YouTube channel hosted by James, his regular videos of skinheads beating each other in his backyard shifted to videos of him wearing an ill-fitting suit giving policy statements, and asking his fellow patriots to help get out the vote.

Shouldn’t we be relieved that instead of leading a violent white supremacist gang Brien James was now encouraging civic engagement? Unfortunately, Brien also started a new group he called the American Guard. No longer a National Socialist, James described this group as “Constitutional Nationalists.” He proceeded to grow the American Gaurd just as he had the Vinlanders, with small chapters across the United States, and they behaved in similar, violent ways. In 2017, James and the American Guard showed up in force in Charlottesville to engage in street battles.

So, was the American Guard just the same as the Vinlanders with fewer swastikas??

Well, yes. But with one difference: By 2019 he had members running for office.

Trying politics on for size

Killingly, Connecticut

Jason Muscara, far left, wearing a shirt that reads “Vice President” with the American Guard logo.

It is not that Killingly residents didn’t raise alarms about Jason Muscara running for school board. Many did. But nobody seemed to know exactly what it was they were looking at.

Muscara was an active leader in the American Guard and had been at anti-gay rallies in Providence and Boston which ended in violent fights. As he campaigned for school board, Muscara lazily distanced himself from the hate groups, never denying his involvement but brushing the concerns aside. When the local Republicans barely raised an eyebrow at a hate group member being on the ballot in their name (“We don’t have the budget to do a full vetting on every candidate,” said Chris Dillon, the chairman of the Killingly Republican Town Committee. “If someone shows a willingness to serve and is passionate about the community, like Jason, we will support them.”), Muscara won a seat on the board. He later, unceremoniously, quit.

Jason Muscara, above, continues to show up ready to fight — less for education and more for… something else?

Muscara was a two-bit candidate running for a two-bit seat in a two-bit town. He made no real difference during his tenure and appears to have evaporated out of politics for the time being. There is no evidence of any other ex-Vinlander or American Gaurd member winning an election anywhere. Why worry?

Because Muscara, and Brien James’ strategy and brand transformation, are part of a growing, organized movement to get white nationalists and extremists elected in the United States.

And in 2024, its coming closer to fruition.

A new plan

Steve Bannon’s Airwaves

Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick Little, a virulent anti-semite, ran for Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat in 2018 on a holocaust-denying platform. Arthur James, a member of the American Nazi Party, ran for Chicago’s 3rd Congressional District on a platform of creating all-white neighborhoods. All told, the Anti-Defamation League reports that at least eight candidates connected to white supremacist groups ran for office on the national level in 2018.

Little and James lost… by a lot. When Little received only 1.4 percent of the vote, he unsurprisingly blamed “Jewish supremacists and Zionists” for his defeat. But the real reason why these doofus candidates lost was because they ran campaigns that were clearly and unabashedly racist in ways that Americans could detect, and be repelled by, from a mile away.

Savvier extremists were developing a different plan. Like Brien James, they knew they needed to change their look. Unlike Brien James, they put their back into it.

It wasn’t but a few weeks after January 6th that Steve Bannon hosted an Arizona lawyer on his podcast, The War Room, with an idea more calculating than street fighting and more discerning than wearing a swastika canvassing.

The War Room had (and has) a huge audience; it boasted 29 million streams to date in January 2021. Bannon had urged his audience to fight on January 6th, and by multiple accounts, was instrumental in convincing not just his followers, but Donald Trump himself, that the Stop the Steal rally was their moment to strike. On January 5th, Steve Bannon told his War Room listeners to “strap in “ for the next day.

Whatever Steve Bannon thought could be done on January 6th didn’t fully work. If an insurrection was truly the plan, it flopped. The election was certified and Joe Biden became the president and, at least at the moment, Americans were aghast at what they saw happen that day. Bannon quickly realized that most people were upset by the spectacle of the assault on the capital, and quickly shifted gears to regain credibility for the movement.

The Arizona lawyer Bannon brought onto The War Room is Dan Schultz. For years, Schultz had been arguing that extremists should adopt what he called a “precinct strategy” (Pro Publica unearthed records of Schultz trying to recruit Oath Keepers into this strategy as early as 2014, before Trump was even a twinkle in a fascist’s eye). In February of 2021, Steve Bannon realized that street fighting strategies as we had seen in Charlottesville, Portland, and on January 6th weren’t sustainable and figured that more mundane but coordinated electoral strategies were.

Schultz’s precinct strategy, loosely, understands both how disengaged Americans are from local politics and what power local precincts could have. Schultz argues that precincts specifically, and local politics more broadly, are the places where extremists can infiltrate our political system with the least resistance.

Precincts and local politics were a perfect target: With most people focused solely on federal elections, extremists could gain control undetected.

Take over

Spokane, Washington

Photo by wsmedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“The Republican Party has its problems and has its c — — , but the only way that we’re going to replace these people is by accumulating political power and then forcing them out. The fact is that if you are a college guy, or a college girl, and you are on a college campus, if you have three or four fashy goy friends, you can take over your school’s College Republicans group and move it to essentially being an alt-right club.”

That was James Allsup back in 2017 on Fash the Nation, a popular white nationalist podcast. Allsup talked about being fascist (fashy) all over the place; he wasn’t shy. He co-hosted a podcast on the neo-Nazi network The Right Stuff and he was a popular YouTube personality until his channel was removed for promoting white supremacy.

But Allsup wanted everyone to know he was more than just talk. He was networked with known white nationalists like Richard Spencer, with whom he shared a stage in June of 2017 in Washington, DC. Two short months later, Allsup was also among the tiki torch-carrying crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was seen marching the next day with Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi group that called themselves “identitarians.” To his credit, he never pretended to be anything but a white nationalist.

A screengrab of the tweet from “Yes, You’re Racist,” shows James Allsup at Unite the Right in Charlottesville

Allsup was an early adherent to Shultz’s precinct strategy; in fact, he was set out to show others how it could be done. He was elected (he ran unopposed) to be the Precinct Committee Officer for Precinct #129 in Washington. As he told a white nationalist podcast: “You have a seat at the table, and that’s the most important thing, getting that seat at the table, and you can get that seat at the table by, yes, showing up, yes, by bringing people in.” Allsup had exploited the loophole of an uncontested candidate like himself being the automatic winner, and he had purposefully chosen a place to run where competition was lacking. It wasn’t illegal, but it sure wasn’t on the up-and-up.

Fortunately, just six months after he was installed, the Whitman County Republican Party Central Committee voted unanimously to eject Allsup from the party ranks. This took care of the situation locally, but Allsup had already made a splash in the white nationalist world through his win. He began speaking on podcasts and at rallies to encourage other white nationalists to get involved in electoral politics. He explained the strategy of engaging in places where the politics have a low entry barrier but still offer real opportunities to shape party priorities and determine leadership.

After hosting Allsup on his nationalist podcast, Mike “Enoch” Peinovich was jubilant about this shift in the white supremacist strategy. If storming government buildings wasn’t going to work, then maybe they had uncovered a new, slower, more slick route to a coup.

“If you’re a registered Republican, which I’m guessing most of you are,” Enoch elated gushed to his audience, “see if you can grab a local seat and shift politics in our direction at the local level. I mean, why not? You don’t have to out yourself as anything.”

Backdoor men


Proud Boy Dan Tooze participated in violent riots and assaults in Portland and went into Republican politics instead of jail.

Dan Tooze didn’t get Enoch’s message that you didn’t have to out yourself as an extremist. He was all about people knowing he is a Proud Boy.

Dan spent most of 2020 and 2021 in the streets of Portland, Oregon, dripping from head to two in black and yellow, the Proud Boy colors. He would wear a Proud Boy shirt, a Proud Boy bandana, a Proud Boy hat. He even carried with him a long metal baton that he had decorated with black and yellow electrical tape, so no one would not know that he belonged to the extremist neo-fascist street fighting gang.

In the summer of 2021, Dan Tooze led a charge of Proud Boys to chase down anti-racist activists through the streets of Portland, swinging at people of color and their supporters with his baton. He helped flip over a van, he smashed out the windows of a car. A number of his fellow Proud Boys caught felonies that day; it’s unclear how Dan got away.

It’s not a huge surprise that when Dan ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, he made his campaign signs black and yellow. He lost the primary in 2020 and again in 2022, so Dan Tooze changed his strategy and instead won a bid to serve as vice chair of the Clackamas County Republican Party.

With Dan as vice-chair, they got to work. When a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives became vacant, Dan helped guide the precinct to appoint James Heib to the seat. Heib had no political experience and had never run for office, but, like Tooze, he had been in crowds of white nationalists fighting in the Portland streets the previous summers. One widely circulated video of Heib shows him spraying Black Lives Matter protestors with mace alongside the Proud Boys. Avoiding the election process or having to secure the will of the voters, Heib assumed his seat in the House.

Tooze and Heib figured out a way to use the precinct strategy to go around local voters and leverage unelected power to secure a seat. After he was appointed, Heib was arrested for disorderly conduct in another incident at the local fair. He’s now on the ballot for the Republican primary again this May and voters will finally get to decide if they want him or not.

Proud of your boy?

Everywhere, USA

Proud Boys crowd a school board meeting in New Hanover County, North Carolina. Photo from Carolina Forward.

Tooze is by no means the only Proud Boy who has run for office.

Six months after January 6th but a good year before he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for sedition against the US government, Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio explained the group’s new strategy in an interview: “I’ve always said my goal for this year … was simple. Start getting more involved in local politics, running our guys for office from local seats, whether it’s a simple GOP seat or a city council seat.”

Boy howdy are Proud Boys good at following orders. Not only did Proud Boys everywhere start showing up regularly at school board meetings, often intimidating or even assaulting local residents and board members, but they also began filing their candidacies.

Jeffrey Perrine ran for school board in San Juan. Joel Campbell ran for Topeka City Council. Nick Ochs ran for the House of Representatives in Hawaii. All Proud Boys.

After January 6th, Proud Boys began showing up more locally, both at local government meetings and at small town events, such as this protest outside a drag storytime in Sanford, NC. Many also filed for office, including John Fisher, far right, of Johnston County. Photo used with permission from Anthony Crider

It’s hard to say how many Proud Boys have run or are running for office across the country because, unlike Dan Tooze, many play down or outright hide their affiliations. Enrique Tarrio himself promised you wouldn’t necessarily know if you were voting for a Proud Boy or not. In my home state of North Carolina, we know that three identified Proud Boys ran for office in 2022 (only one, Thomas Greene, made it to the general election. He got trounced).

Of course, we know it isn’t just the Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, and American Guard who are shifting strategies towards electoral politics— the tactic is being broadly embraced across the far-right extremist landscape. By January 2022, the Anti-Defamation League positively identified over 100 right-wing extremists running for office nationwide. We don’t yet have numbers for 2024.

Curating extremists

North Carolina

Mark Robinson is the MAGA extremist pick for North Carolina’s governor who has quoted Hitler, denied the Holocaust, called for violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, and thinks that Black people owe reparations to the US government. Photo by Anthony Crider.

They’re still working out the kinks on elections. Wearing Proud Boy colors while campaigning hasn’t worked. Introducing yourself as part of the American Nazi Party is a sure flop.

In 2023, fewer than one-third of Moms for Liberty endorsed school board candidates won their election- a lower rate than in 2022. Similarly, the majority of known Proud Boys who have run for office have not won. Here in North Carolina, a neo-Nazi candidate in Rockingham County is 0–2 on his bid for the state house.

Far-right extremists are currently building out their political infrastructure to address this and to secure more wins these elections. There is a heavy focus on building out PACS, hosting candidate trainings, developing media networks, and creating issue/messaging structures for extremist candidates to use. Some extremists are trying to infiltrate and co-opt existing PACS (white nationalist activist Nick Fuentes met with a Texas PAC last fall), and out-of-state dark money is being pumped into states to support some of the most extreme candidates on local ballots.

This infrastructure is how my home state has ended up with the two most extreme candidates in the nation for 2024.

North Carolina is a purple(ish) state. We voted for Trump twice, but also voted for Obama once; we frequently elect Democratic governors. We have a large and growing number of unaffiliated voters. Extremists are hoping to exploit this perceived “centrism,” assuming North Carolinians are wishy-washy or somehow disengaged. I suspect they’ll find that is not true.

Mark Robinson is a far-right holocaust denier who calls gay people “filth.” He advocates arresting trans people, makes fun of children who have survived gun violence, and pushes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “the New World Order.” Robinson is also the GOP candidate for Governor right now and not only does he have his party’s backing, but he was hand-picked to run. You get the sense that a lot of Republicans here are deeply uncomfortable with him, but just as extremists now want to be seen as mainstream, Republicans are desperate to be seen as counter-culture.

A few years ago, Robinson was a total unknown (he’s from my hometown and I had no idea who he was), but after he gave fiery public comments at our local city council about gun rights, he was hoisted into the spotlight by the far-right media infrastructure. He’s also Black, which the people doing that hoisting are hoping will split up voters in our very multiracial state.

Michelle Morrow wasn’t hand-picked by the establishment; It appears that she upset it (which she relishes). Like Robinson, she doesn’t have any direct known ties to hate groups, besides her frequent fetishing about the Proud Boys. But, also like Robinson, she echos all hate group’s racist, xenophobic, and homophobic talking points.

Morrow came to her role by attaching herself to the extremist infrastructure, using the language and culture war breadcrumbs laid out for her by Bannon et al. to propel herself toward power. She successfully used the systems that groups like QAnon, Proud Boys, and fascist groups are creating and leveraged them for her own amplification. If she hadn’t done that, she’d just be another wacko on the internet.

After winning the primary, Michelle Morrow started to shut down her old accounts — but the internet is a awash with screenshots of what she has said.

This is not happening organically in North Carolina. Neither Robinson and Morrow reflect the people who live here, nor have they risen through our grassroots as they may try to claim. Without all the extremist candidates running elsewhere (regardless of whether or not they won), without the manufactured issues being pumped out by the monied interests behind the War Room and extremist blogs and chatrooms, and without the extremist infrastructure being built, North Carolina wouldn’t even know Mark Robinson or Michelle Morrow’s name.

But now those names are on our ballot.

Attaching hate to power


North Carolinians protest extremist Mark Robinson when he announced his bid for governor in 2023. Photo by Anthony Crider.

I don’t call conservatives extremists. I don’t call all Republicans racist. I don’t hate people with whom I disagree. But I do call fascism fascism.

I don’t use the term “fascism” merely to ring the loudest bell I can find. I talk about it because of the clear rise in authoritarianism in our country.

The most clear-eyed way to understand fascism is to see it as a total fetishization of power — valuing domination and control over negotiation, compromise, pluralism, diversity, or sharing.

When extremist ideas and extremist people attempt to attach themselves to power, that is the route towards fascism. While the Vinlanders up the street from me were dangerous physically and were repulsively hateful, in the early 2000’s they had no hard power. This shifted when Donald Trump became president. By connecting grievance, loyalty, and violence to US political power, he laid the groundwork for a fascist state and a path for fascist candidates.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the racist up the street, but I do pay attention when they organize. When your garden variety racist joins a hate group, they have become an extremist because they are trying to organize around and put power behind their bigotry. When a mom who tweets about Islam being evil and about executing people she disagrees with joins a coordinated network of far-right actors to campaign for office on an anti-diversity platform — she’s no longer just a noxious bigot, she’s an extremist.

I don’t know what will happen. The extremist candidates on the ballot in 2024 may win: If so, that is democracy. But it’s also likely that these extremists will declare fraud if they do not win: That is not democracy. And the specter of that — the disingenuous way these candidates are engaging in our electoral system and the violence they each regularly evoke — is not democratic. It is fascist.

Connecting violence and politics

Franklin, Tennessee

Neo-nazi organizing, especially through “active clubs” has increased in Tennessee since the state government has begun to pander to the far-right. Photo source Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium here.

Violence and fear are the center of fascism — and it is these two pieces that we are going to see these candidates and this infrastructure strategically connect in 2024.

If Brien James and the Vinlanders were all violence with no political strategy back in the early 2000’s, what is happening in Tennessee right now brings us full circle. Neo-Nazis there are re-engaging violent tactics, but this time around the violence is in support of political strategy, not something on its own.

In the suburban town of Franklin, Tennessee last fall, a large group of neo-Nazis showed up as “security” for Gabrielle Hanson, a town alderman and Christian Nationalist who was running for mayor. The Nazis were members of the Tennessee Active Club, also seen last fall doing Seig Heils at a protest outside a drag show. Their modus operandi is to intimidate, dox, harass, and threaten their opponents to try to control the field.

Hanson — who refused to denounce the neo-Nazis — lost her election in a landslide, but Sean Kauffman, the leader of the active club, continues to activate his network to threaten and harass journalists, politicians, and voters to create a climate of fear. He was using Hanson just as much as she was using him.

Mayorial Candidate Hanson refused to denounce her Nazi supporters and instead invited them to share about their beliefs.

Hanson is evasive about her connections to the Tennessee Active Club, but it is clear that she appreciated the white nationalists creating an atmosphere of intimidation around her campaign — she knew that violence was a useful political tool. Similarly, Tooze, Heib, Allsup, et al do little to mask or denounce the political violence they have been engaged in, understanding its value and appeal in an emerging fascist landscape.

In North Carolina, there is no evidence that Robinson and Morrow have been involved in violence themselves, though Morrow frequently praises the intimidation done by the Proud Boys and was at the US Capital on January 6th. However, both Robinson and Morrow frequently conjure violent imagery or call for violence directly. Morrow called for a public execution of Barak Obama while Mark Robinson said he owns AR-15s “in case the government gets too big for its britches.” By dehumanizing others, by calling for or engaging in violence, each of these candidates is participating in anti-democratic fascist structures meant to undermine our democracy.

We will let them win?

Regrets and pushing back

Enid, Oklahoma

Local residents in Enid, Oklahoma are organizing to recall neo-Nazi Judd Blevins from office. They’ve formed a group called the Enid Social Justice Committee and have succesfully scheduled a recall vote.

There is a different kind of vote underway in Enid, Oklahoma right now. On April 3rd, the town is trying to get rid of their Nazi.

Judd Blevins does not deny being in the tiki torch lite march, chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville. He can’t: The photos of him from that night are obvious and clear. Blevins was a leader in Identity Evropa, a white nationalist hate group that helped organize Unite the Right. After that deadly rally, he remained active in the white nationalist movement. If you want, you can find podcasts of him talking openly about his neo-Nazi beliefs, but I wouldn’t recommend them.

In white nationalist chats, journalists found Blevins recommending to other supremacists that they should run for local office: “Basically positions where one can fly under the radar yet still be effective.”

Judd Blevins at Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sourced from Unicorn Riot Discord Archives)

When Blevins ran for office in Enid, he didn’t talk the same way he talks in those chats and on those podcasts — and he got elected. When people started to ask more questions, Blevins has refused to answer if he was still involved in the white nationalist movement or not.

The thing about democracy is anyone can run for office. When the votes are counted up, it’s even true that anyone can win. Right now, dark money, organized PACs, subversive candidates, and extremist media networks are coordinating to put our democracy — and our families — in danger. But Americans don’t have to stand for fascism, white nationalism, or far-right extremism in their towns. They can name it, they can call it out, and, when they make a mistake, they can call for a recall election like they now have in Enid, Oklahoma.

After all, yes, anyone can run for office — but everyone can fight fascism.



Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

Mother. Southerner. Storytelling Bread and Roses. Bottom up stories about race, class, gender, and the American South. *views my own*