Paul Nehlen hates Jews. He doesn’t bother to hide it.
The Wisconsin Republican running to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) once wrote that Jews are destined to “burn in hell.” He has mocked the Holocaust on white power podcasts. In January, Twitter temporarily suspended Nehlen after he posted neo-Nazi propaganda depicting journalists (not all of them Jewish) branded with the Star of David. When Nehlen returned to Twitter a week later, he posted a list of “Jews” (not all of them Jewish) he claims have attacked him. He didn’t last long. Twitter permanently suspended his account this week after Nehlen posted a racist image targeting Meghan Markle, the mixed-race fiancée of British royal Prince Harry.
An open bigot like Nehlen has little chance of winning election ― although the same was once said of Donald Trump ― but holding office might not be the point.
Nehlen’s Gestapo-light behavior has made him a celebrity among “alt-right” white supremacists, the social media-savvy millennial update of yesteryear’s skinhead thugs. Think fascism in polos and preppy haircuts. But it’s still the same hate. Nehlen lets this new generation of extremists dare to dream.
And his behavior has attracted other Jew-haters to his cause. Perhaps the most prominent of them is Nehlen’s campaign spokesman, Josh Smith, a 36-year-old Pennsylvania lawyer with an Anglo-Saxon patronym so banal that it hardly feels real.
A boisterous supporter of Nehlen’s “shall not censor” bill to prevent social media platforms from banning users for hate speech, Smith is even more anti-Semitic online than his boss is. On Gab, a social media platform favored by racists and fascists, Smith opposes women’s suffrage and writes things like “Get fucked, faggot” and “Who on Earth could ever take these filthy kikes seriously??”
He favors social media handles derived from “Ebolamerican,” the name of a parody Twitter account he created during the Ebola virus scare in 2014. When Twitter initially suspended Nehlen in January, it also indefinitely suspended Smith, who had been tweeting white supremacist fare under @ebolasweden and using an avatar of Dan Halen, the scheming cartoon villain from the Adult Swim show “Squidbillies.”
But Twitter suspensions are often little more than public relations bluster, and Smith quickly fired up @EmericaFirst, a dormant account he’d created in March 2010. He went right back to posting messages by white power icons such as Richard Spencer and Mike Peinovich. He promoted neo-Nazi groups like Identity Evropa and tweeted approvingly of white supremacist felon David Duke, whose radio show Nehlen went on recently.
Smith voiced support for a white ethnostate and urged white men to “wake up.” He spoke of “race war” and used Nazi terminology like “lugenpresse,” which means “lying press.” He put up a post denying the Holocaust and tweeted approvingly about expelling Jews from America:
Smith also tweeted about “cultural Marxism” and evil Jews, about Jewish control of the media and Hollywood, about Jewish censorship of right-wing speech and Jewish subversion of America through “deep state” plots. He wrote that “censorship of the goyim” runs through the “blood” of Jews.
He attacked Nehlen’s critics by asking if they were Jewish.
Last week, HuffPost asked him essentially the same question:
Were you raised Jewish?
Smith wrote back to say that he was.
Lawyers, Guns And Money
In January, HuffPost learned that Josh Smith hasn’t always been Josh Smith. He grew up Jewish in Pittsburgh as Daniel Joshua Nusbaum, the son of Maury and Barbara Nusbaum. His maternal grandmother, Sylvia Feldman, was buried last month in Pittsburgh’s Cneseth Israel Cemetery. None of Smith’s relatives contacted by HuffPost responded to requests for comment.
Smith’s father, who is also a lawyer, was the only one in the household who had any interest in Judaism. “My father insisted that I have a bar mitzvah, after which I was allowed to decide my level of future involvement with the religion,” Smith told HuffPost. “I chose ‘no involvement whatsoever,’ and never looked back. Judaism just wasn’t for me.”
But does Smith still consider himself Jewish?
“In the racial sense, yes, because one obviously cannot change one’s DNA. (Although I’ve not had my DNA tested, I’m certain that it would be some percentage Ashkenazi Jewish.) In the religious sense, no,” he said.
Smith said Nehlen and many others in the alt-right already know about his heritage. “I can’t say that they were thrilled about it, but trust is earned, not given, and they have come to realize that their trust in me is well-placed,” he said.
And his commitment to the cause appears sincere. “I refuse to stand idly by and allow Whites to be dispossessed of their homelands, and I will sacrifice my own self-interests to ensure that Whites may secure their existence and a future for their beautiful children,” he told HuffPost in an email, using a variation of the “14 words,” a white supremacist slogan.
In his youth, Nusbaum ― as Smith was known then ― was something of an academic prodigy, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh at the age of 18. But he only scored in the 75th percentile on the LSAT and matriculated to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where he studied for two years before transferring to Cornell Law School. He was an editor at the Cornell Law Review and contributed one article as Daniel J. Nusbaum. He graduated in 2003 and also interned that year at the American Enterprise Institute.
After law school, Nusbaum worked for about a year in New York as a litigation associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, a prestigious white-shoe law firm that used to employ Peter Thiel. Nusbaum left the firm at the end of 2004, telling HuffPost that he found the work “miserable.” Nusbaum’s bankruptcy records list an approximately $11,000 credit card debt and the law firm as a co-debtor. Sullivan & Cromwell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“It seems as if he is traveling under a black cloud, some of which he causes.”
Nusbaum moved back to Pittsburgh, where he would soon earn some notoriety. He claims on his résumé to have started work in November 2004 as the manager of legal affairs for a local information technology business. But he told HuffPost that he didn’t move back to Pittsburgh until January 2005 and didn’t start working for the IT business until several years later. By June 2005, he was employed as a waiter in the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, a fancy seafood restaurant with panoramic views of the Pittsburgh skyline. He earned $2,500 a month.
In court documents, Nusbaum admitted to suffering at the time from “debilitating psychological disorders” such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and major depressive disorder. His doctor prescribed him Adderall to treat his symptoms, but higher and higher doses of the stimulant failed to have an effect. The doctor switched him to Desoxyn, which is lab-pure methamphetamine — literally meth. The drug is highly addictive and can cause psychosis and delirium. It can also suppress appetite, and Nusbaum, who stands only 5 foot, 6 inches and at the time weighed as little as 120 pounds, said his doctor had ordered him to eat at every opportunity.
“I have been directed to consume food whenever possible,” Nusbaum later told a court.
The Monterey Bay Fish Grotto tried to accommodate Nusbaum’s impairments with a special policy that allowed him to “scarf down” food he brought during eight-minute breaks — two per shift — throughout which he stood in a corner of the kitchen, eating while the restaurant staff watched him. But these sessions did not sate him. He was taking meth twice a day and wanted to snack on some of the restaurant’s food for free. Diners lodged a formal complaint about his jittery behavior. Nusbaum continued to flounder and filed for bankruptcy, having amassed over $130,000 in debt from unpaid college loans and years of bills he’d ignored. In January 2007, the fish restaurant canned him.
A few months later, Nusbaum sued the restaurant in federal court, claiming that the business had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to address his eating requirements. He represented himself and filed angsty motions that described the “megalomanic [sic] nature” of his boss. He skipped his own deposition.
The case dragged on, and Nusbaum moved into the home of a boyfriend he’d met online. The man owned a local business and shared an interest in bondage and sadomasochism. “I was the submissive one,” Nusbaum later told another court in a different proceeding. Living rent-free in his lover’s house, Nusbaum focused on lashing a settlement out of the restaurant.
Over the course of the next year, however, Nusbaum’s romantic relationship deteriorated, and he began to harass and threaten his boyfriend, who on one occasion had to barricade himself inside his room, according to court records. Nusbaum raged explosively. His boyfriend took to sleeping in his office at work, afraid that Nusbaum would attack him at home. When the man broke off the relationship in November 2008, Nusbaum refused to move out. That month, he also legally changed his name to Joshua Smith.
“At the time, I was not speaking with my family, and I decided that I did not wish to carry on the family name,” said Smith, as this piece will now refer to him.
In March 2009, Smith applied for a gun permit under his new name and omitted a key detail: As a 16-year-old, his parents had him involuntarily committed for two days to a psychiatric facility. Smith told HuffPost that the involuntary commitment happened after he discovered a family secret that prompted a dispute.
“I was released after two days. This was not a mental health issue ― my family was just highly dysfunctional back then. My parents have admitted it was a terrible mistake, and have repeatedly apologized to me for it. I have, of course, forgiven them.”
Back then, he was Daniel Nusbaum. But under Pennsylvania law, he still couldn’t own a gun as Josh Smith, and his attempt in 2009 to obtain one frightened people. His ex-boyfriend sought a six-month restraining order, which Smith protested in court. A judge looked at Smith’s “sufficiently disturbing” behavior and granted the order. Smith had a meltdown in the courtroom.
Smith unsuccessfully appealed the ruling, playing victim and later demanding $250,000 in damages in a separate proceeding that was dismissed. In one motion, he used racial slurs to liken a judge’s treatment of him to actual racism. “[T]his would be no different than if a court had a party before it who was of a certain racial class (say, for instance, black),” Smith wrote, “and the court stated, ‘well, all n****rs say that,’ or ‘all n****rs say the same thing in the end.’”
It’s worth noting here that the alt-right doesn’t know what to make of gay people. Some white nationalists like Richard Spencer don’t seem to care much about sexual orientation. Others such as Matt Heimbach believe white nationalism is only for straight, white people and consider everything else “perversion” and “degeneracy.” Andrew Anglin talks about executing homosexuals by throwing them off rooftops. But desperate movements can’t be choosy, and Smith’s sexuality, like his heritage, hasn’t disqualified him from membership.
When HuffPost asked Smith about his sexual orientation, he refused to discuss it. “It is now clear to me that such behavior (homosexuality, transgenderism, all of it), as well as the culture that surrounds it, is fundamentally degenerate and destructive to the very foundations of civilization, and thus can never be promoted in any healthy society,” Smith emailed.
A few years ago, however, he sounded a different note on an online radio show while defending an Indiana law that allowed Christian business owners to turn away LGBTQ customers. “OK, so I’m gay – openly gay, proud of it, it’s great,” Smith told the host.
One of the few subjects on which prominent white nationalist figures have near-unanimous agreement, however, is Jews. Heimbach sums it up: “Jews have zero place in our movement.” They see Jews not simply as a religious group, but as a distinct racial subgroup that is genetically predisposed to subverting white countries. So what might inspire a gay Jew to join forces with far-right extremists? Could it really be, as Smith contends, about free speech as imagined by a movement whose members routinely threaten journalists with death and make no secret of their desire to silence political opponents?
Far-right extremists champion free speech as a way to advance an ideology with an end goal of extinguishing voices:
The Jewish Anti-Semite
The phenomenon of the anti-Semitic Jew has a long history. As far back as the 13th century, Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity in France, played a key role in putting the Talmud on trial in the “Disputation of Paris” in 1240, resulting in a decree to burn copies of the religious manuscript. Pablo Christiani, another Jew who converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages, continued Donin’s efforts and persuaded Louis IX of France to give him permission to enforce an edict that required Jews to wear badges.
Why would Jews side with their persecutors? Even the question can raise stereotypical assumptions about Jewish people, who for centuries have been demonized as making self-interested “tribal” decisions determined by their ancestry.
“A person’s heritage is just one small component of what motivates them,” says Aryeh Tuchman, the associate director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “What do Jews stand for? Jews have a huge variety of opinions about every single issue. They can have radically different opinions.” And some of them, Tuchman notes, can just be “crazy racists.”
Consider Bobby Fischer, the world champion chess player who was raised Jewish but by the time he was a young man in the 1960s had turned into an ardent Holocaust denier and fan of Adolf Hitler. Medical professionals now believe Fischer suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder. That, of course, hasn’t stopped the alt-right from celebrating the chessmaster as a “based Jew,” a term used to celebrate Jews who embrace the white supremacist movement.
Another “based Jew” was Dan Burros, a hardened Ku Klux Klan leader and member of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party. Burros was such a devout anti-Semite that in 1965, after The New York Times exposed his Jewish ancestry, he shouted, “Long live the white race! I have nothing to live for!” and shot himself dead with a .32-caliber revolver.
In the 1980s and 1990s, David Cole became an infamous Holocaust denier, according to Tuchman. Though Cole rejects the term “denier,” preferring to be called a “revisionist,” leading Holocaust denial experts such as Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University, maintain the distinction is effectively meaningless and often used by anti-Semites to soft-peddle their bigotry.
Cole appeared on a range of talk shows to play Nazi heel. Eventually, he changed identities to become David Stein and reinvent himself as a popular Republican gadfly and pundit in Los Angeles. But Cole/Stein never gave up his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. “I haven’t changed my views,” he told The Guardian in 2013.
Today, Cole writes a regular column for Taki’s Magazine, a far-right publication where Richard Spencer once worked as an editor and that has published several notable white nationalists. In an October 2017 column entitled “How Many Jews Can Be Gassed on the Head of a Pin?”, Cole tried to cast doubt on the widely accepted number of Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. Instead of 6 million, Cole “put the total at somewhere between 3 and 3.5 million.”
“Some aspect of denying the Holocaust really spoke to him,” says Tuchman. “It’s very hard to understand.”
Equally hard to understand is that Nehlen may have more than one anti-Semitic Jew working for him. A Florida man named Matt Fischer who claims to be Jewish tweets as @MattsOurSemite and acts as the Republican candidate’s “Semitic Liaison,” a trollish title that fits the alt-right’s strategy of using humor to deflect criticism. “The truth is many Jews harbor serious pathological self-hating tendencies,” Fischer has tweeted in the past, by way, perhaps, of explaining his own bigotry.
The derogatory term “self-hating Jew” is often used by Zionist Jews to criticize Jews with anti-Zionist views. But Fischer twists the term even further, in particular because the alt-right holds up Israel as a model for the white ethnostate it seeks. (If Jews can have their own homeland, the crooked logic goes, whites should get one too.)
Compare Fischer’s self-hating comment to the eulogy George Lincoln Rockwell gave for his friend Burros: “[The Jews] are a unique people with a distinct mass affliction of mental disorders ... symptoms of paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and delusions of persecution. Dan Burros was the product of this unfortunate Jewish psychosis. It cost him his life.”
Two years later, Rockwell would be murdered by one of his followers, a violent gentile with a history of mental illness.
Psychosis doesn’t discriminate.
And Rockwell’s eulogy wasn’t describing a problem unique to any ethnic group. He was talking about the type of fearful, broken mind that is drawn to fascism. Half a century later, his words could easily apply to the alt-right, the political movement of last resort for today’s racist kooks and conspiracists. Regardless of background, all these people manage to find their way to the butt end of the same mental cul-de-sac.
Josh Smith did too.
A Troll Is Born
In early 2010, Smith had a stroke of good fortune when the fish business bailed him out. He hadn’t worked in almost two years, and the Monterey Bay case had become his lifeline. After years of squabbling, the restaurant finally paid him $35,000 to go away. But Smith failed to declare $30,000 of the settlement as income and ran afoul of the IRS, according to records from United States Tax Court.
“It seems as if he is traveling under a black cloud, some of which he causes,” his mother wrote of her son in an email that is part of another case file.
Smith had by then set up his own one-man private legal practice. His firm’s motto: “Live Invincibly.” He posted Craigslist ads: $99 to handle traffic citation hearings; $300 for DUI cases. He offered to barter his legal acumen for “services” and “property.”
As an advocate for others, he hoped to replicate his fish restaurant success and tried to wring money out of a wireless infrastructure company with a discrimination suit. But he failed to appear at a key conference, according to a motion filed by the defendant, and the case was dismissed. Smith next went after a local race track and casino for “employment discrimination.” He threw temper tantrums in legalese and was admonished for dilatory, unprofessional behavior and “bad faith conduct.” He tried to buy time by telling the court that he had “severely injured his right wrist” and couldn’t write or type. When a judge ordered him to appear with his client to explain himself, he didn’t show. Instead, his client turned up with a different lawyer. The judge terminated Smith as the attorney on the case, which was soon dismissed.
One night in June 2012, according to court records, Smith materialized elsewhere ― outside his ex-boyfriend’s house. It was the third time since the restraining order that he’d crept up on the man. The ex-boyfriend called the police, who arrived a few minutes later and ordered Smith to leave.
Smith texted his ex later that night. “It has taken me a few months just to ring your doorbell let alone tell you how much I miss you and think about you,” he wrote. “I haven’t even had sex in three years because I don’t want to with anyone else but you. … I just want you to know how incredibly special you still are to me but it seems you are determined to never let me tell you that. You have no idea how much that breaks my heart, dude.”
A judge signed off on a second restraining order, this one for three years, and threatened Smith with jail time. Smith rushed out of the courtroom as the judge issued a warning about the traits shared by people whom restraining orders fail to deter from violence: obsessive jealousy, fixed ideations, previous legal problems. “Mr. Smith has all of those markers,” the judge said, advising the victim to be careful in public places.
The courts were never going to offer Smith, who remains a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania, a suitable outlet for his brand of wild-eyed disputation. He required a more lawless forum. Like many other angry, unstable young men, he found it on social media.
His career as a far-right troll began in 2014, when a manufactured panic about Ebola gripped the national conversation for months. Americans visiting and working in West Africa had been infected with the virus. One of them subsequently transmitted it to two nurses in a Dallas hospital. Conservative isolationists such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bill O’Reilly whipped Ebola concern into a conspiratorial, racialized hysteria to call for West African travel bans and attack the Barack Obama administration. Donald Trump tweeted about how “the plague will start and spread inside our ‘borders.’”
Smith saw opportunity in “Fearbola,” and his pathologies played well on Twitter. He set up a parody account called “Ebolamerican,” from which he tweeted as a “patriotic, irreverent virus” that had come to America eager to “live the dream.” He’d stumbled on a new calling as a far-right Twitter noodge.
Smith made the Ebolamerican meme his online brand so people could easily recognize him. Soon he was bantering with other far-right extremists such as Mike Cernovich and Gavin McInnes. He’d found his new family. He’d found purpose.
By 2016, Smith had achieved enough celebrity in America’s online racist and fascist community that he appeared in a Breitbart story written by alt-right apologist Allum Bokhari, who criticized Twitter for repeatedly suspending Smith for reasons that Bokhari chalked up to the attorney just being a “conservative.” This straw man is routinely used by far-right propagandists who masquerade as “free speech absolutists” ― the same kind that celebrate Peter Thiel’s destruction of Gawker ― to pressure social media companies not to take racist, hateful content or political disinformation offline.
In 2016, Smith also did some work for Chuck Johnson, a Holocaust-denying far-right troll and fake news merchant who used to write for Breitbart and has connections to the Trump administration as well as Thiel, Julian Assange and neo-Nazis such as Andrew Auernheimer, the webmaster for The Daily Stormer. Smith refused to tell HuffPost what he’d worked on with Johnson. “As a matter of professional ethics, I am not at liberty to answer that question,” he emailed.
But chat transcripts show that Smith helped Johnson, who received a permanent ban from Twitter for soliciting violence against a Black Lives Matter activist, with a crowdfunding project called WeSearchr that Johnson launched in 2016. WeSearchr allows a user to create a “bounty” to finance a project. And Smith had an idea for a bounty. On YouTube, he’d been defending Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of felony sexual assault after he was caught trying to rape an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Smith wanted to start a bounty to out Turner’s anonymous victim.
“[A]nonymity for accusers ― for any crime ― is terrible public policy,” he explained to HuffPost, pointing to a harsh public statement the victim read at Turner’s sentencing. “[I]t is fundamentally unfair to the public and the defendant to allow this anonymity to be utilized as both a sword and a shield.”
Most members of the alt-right, of course, hide behind fake names so they can harass, slander and threaten without consequence. Anonymity is the group’s most powerful weapon. And Smith’s understanding of both the law and the group’s social media clout, made him a good person to work for Paul Nehlen. Smith told HuffPost that he reached out to the Republican candidate in November 2017 to pitch him what is now known as Nehlen’s “shall not censor” legislative proposal, which would federally regulate social media companies from banning, suspending or otherwise restricting the accounts of users who spew hate speech and propaganda. In other words, themselves.
“It was a brainchild of mine,” Smith said. “I’d spent over two years thinking about the issue, what could be done about it, and what solutions would be viable. Paul recognized the importance of the issue, and decided he wanted to make it a centerpiece of his campaign. As it turns out, we also have a shared vision for putting America First, so it was not long before he asked me to be the spokesman for the campaign.”
In December, however, Nehlen lost the support of a different, more powerful ally in political strategist Steve Bannon, who was backing the Wisconsin Republican as part of his populist insurgency against the GOP establishment. Bannon cut ties with Nehlen after news broke that the candidate had appeared on white power podcasts. But Nehlen’s white nationalism was never a secret. In 2016, Richard Spencer described Nehlen to me as “kind of an alt-right candidate” and, by way of example, pointed to a question the candidate had asked about why Muslims are even in the United States. According to Smith, Bannon was “intimately aware of Paul’s politics” before he backed him.
It was, rather, Nehlen who hadn’t been aware of Bannon’s politics, Smith said. By this, Smith meant Bannon’s “philosemitism” and “Breitbart’s heavily Jewish leadership.” He interpreted Bannon’s decision to reject Nehlen as nothing more than a public relations move “designed, coordinated, and executed by the Jewish media.”
And so Smith arrived, whelped fully into his role as an extremist, the gay homophobe, the Jewish anti-Semite, a tangle of psychodynamic contradictions, a welter of hate. An alt-righter.
That he wants to enshrine into law his ability to be the worst possible version of himself online might be the only thing about his journey that comes as no surprise.
On Valentine’s Day, Smith tweeted his support for ethnic cleansing. “I’m not that concerned if some violence happens,” he wrote.
This story has been updated to include additional information about Cole’s writing and public comments.
Oliver Mushtare contributed reporting.