On Sunday, the Texas Tribune reported that the irrepressible and reprehensible alt-right influencer Nick Fuentes was a guest at Pale Horse Strategies, a newly important political consulting firm run by Jonathan Stickland, a former state representative. Stickland, who retired from the Legislature in 2021 with few accomplishments to his name, is more influential today than ever. The political action committee he leads, Defend Texas Liberty PAC, takes money from a cluster of far-right donors, led by Midland oil billionaire and Christian nationalist Tim Dunn, and gives it to politicians they support, among them Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and many right-wing lawmakers. For Stickland or his underlings to be hosting Fuentes, a prominent 25-year-old racist and antisemite who has built a substantial following among young right-wingers with pronouncements that are a hair to the left of Goebbels’, was a demoralizing sign to moderate Republicans.

But bleaker still was the reaction of too many Republicans. Fuentes represents a unique threat. But bigots and racists have swanned around the state GOP for a long time. Texas depends on the party’s immune system to screen them out and minimize their influence. While many Republicans, most prominently House Speaker Dade Phelan, did loudly and publicly condemn Fuentes, far too many made excuses for Stickland—or tried to redirect public anger to their enemies. They are unlikely to pay an electoral price for that. But they’re making their party a darker, weirder place. And because their party runs the state, we’ll all suffer for it.

The meeting took place on Friday, on the fringes of the DFW metroplex, where Pale Horse maintains a front in an ugly office park. (The organization’s name comes from the book of Revelation, in which Death rides a “pale horse” to bring about the end of the world.) A photographer snapped pictures of the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, Matt Rinaldi, entering the building too. Rinaldi says he was “borrowing a conference room” for another meeting and didn’t meet Fuentes. The Tribune reported that Fuentes was in the building with Ella Maulding, a social media coordinator for Pale Horse, and Chris Russo, the leader of Texans for Strong Borders, both of whom have preexisting relationships with Fuentes. 

Maulding and Russo point to a deeper problem in Stickland’s organization. Russo is another surrogate of Dunn’s. He has written for Texas Scorecard, the oilman’s “media” arm, and he leads his border advocacy group with Cary Cheshire, a longtime Dunn ally who suffered his own scandal when he was caught on mic making fun of Greg Abbott’s disability. Russo apparently drove Fuentes to the meeting.

Maulding is an employee of Pale Horse and Stickland, and thus indirectly an employee of Dunn’s. She’s a social media influencer from Mississippi who shares Fuentes’s belief that, as she wrote online, “whites are being replaced in Texas,” and she tweeted the day she met Fuentes that “when you speak against anything negative happening in America, you’re labeled an antisemite.” Her social media history is full of jeremiads about “Jews,” “Israel,” and “Zionists.” In one post, she wrote that “we will destroy the GOP before we allow another Zionist bootlicker in office to ‘represent us.’ ”

The Tribune had Stickland dead to rights—Fuentes was in his shop. But the story didn’t contain any additional information about what Fuentes was doing there or why. So as the news ricocheted around Texas, a lot of folks were eager to hear Stickland’s explanation. A day after the news broke, Defend Texas Liberty issued a two-sentence statement. It placed blame for the blowup on Phelan, who had criticized Stickland’s group. About Fuentes, the statement said only that “we oppose Mr. Fuentes’ incendiary views,” without explanation of why those hadn’t precluded Stickland’s employees from meeting him. 

Fuentes’s views are more than “incendiary,” and there’s no plausible deniability available to anyone who consorts with him. A white nationalist and a Holocaust denier, Fuentes started his career after Trump’s 2016 election and got a boost after he attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the one where alt-right protesters marched with torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” He dropped out of college to work full-time on his live streamed show, which has attracted and maintained a young audience by turning his life into a sort of neo-Nazi performance piece. As a Catholic “integralist,” he has praised the Taliban (religious, conservative) as a model for the United States. As an “incel” (that’s “involuntarily celibate”), he has argued that “having sex with women is gay.” Fuentes praises Adolf Hitler to his followers, who call themselves Groypers—it’s a long story—and his life’s work is raising the alarm among young right-wingers about the coming “white genocide.”

“This guy sounds like a freak,” you may be thinking, and you’re right, but he’s unfortunately not a marginal freak. He presents an ongoing, and disturbing, problem for the Republican Party nationwide, including in Texas. Young conservatives of all stripes know who Fuentes is, and those who dislike him are concerned about what he represents, because his brand of radical politics is appealing to many young right-wingers who think they’ve lost the country for good. Fuentes gets hearings with politicians who matter. A year ago, he accompanied Kanye West to have dinner with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where he reportedly advised the former president on to how to come off as more “authentic.”

If you run a political organization on the right, you know Fuentes. He’s moral poison, and the spiritual harm of playing footsie with him should outweigh whatever benefit he might bring to you. He shouldn’t be within a mile of your door. In this case, somebody invited him in. That’s an indictment of the moral character of Stickland’s political effort. But it also reflects poorly on many Republican elected officials, who are too single-mindedly focused on a battle within the party to address the true threat.

Pale Horse Strategies is near the center of the new nexus of groups connected to Tim Dunn and the Wilks brothers, fellow oilmen from Cisco, who have been waging a war since 2010 or so to remake the Republican Party of Texas—a war that started, it has to be said, with Dunn’s ire that the speaker of the Texas House was (a) governing in a somewhat bipartisan manner, and (b) Jewish. Back in the day, Dunn’s money flowed through groups associated with consigliere Michael Quinn Sullivan. But Sullivan caused one too many scandals, and Dunn seems to have put him out to pasture. (He recently wrote a science fiction novel.) Stickland is the new middleman, the would-be kingmaker, a remarkable achievement for a man who served in the Legislature for eight years and passed only one bill. The face of the Dunn coalition is Rinaldi, who through his improbable life journey now leads the state party. Its enemy is Phelan, a fellow Republican who leads the last part of Texas state government that has proved somewhat independent of Dunn’s right-wing pressure groups.

There have always been cranks and bigots and racists in the Republican Party, of course, just as there have been cranks and haters of a different kind in the Democratic coalition. In each generation, there’s a fight about how much these figures should be brought into the tent and to what extent they have to be kept out. The good guys have been slowly losing that fight for a decade.

In 2014 a member of the executive committee that guides the Texas GOP, Sara Legvold, tweeted prolifically about subjects including how Israel caused 9/11 and how Muslims were “vermin.” She helped write the most anti-immigrant party platform in years. The most important tea party group in the state at the time was the NE Tarrant Tea Party. One of its members was a prolific poster on Stormfront, the white supremacist internet forum, where she bragged about her burgeoning relationships with Republican elected officials. But there were antibodies still around: the members of the party with really extreme beliefs had to be quieter or remain anonymous. The relationships between them and folks in power were a little more indirect or indefinite. Folks in the NETTP and Legvold, who eventually dropped off the state Republican executive committee, had real influence, but they were more isolated and often at odds with the party’s elected officials.

Over time, the distance between the cranks and those in power has become smaller. In 2014, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick won the Republican primary on an unprecedentedly strong anti-immigrant platform. His campaign iconography was that of a white picket fence with a padlock on it. Up-and-coming Texas political consultant Vincent Harris, who took credit for creating that sign, later advised the German Alternative für Deutschland, the spiritual successor to another political organization run by those whose leaders Allied officials tried and hanged in Nuremberg.

As the nation got more radical and polarized over the last decade, so did conservatives, and especially young conservatives. The ascension of Trump and his advisers, including the rabidly anti-immigrant Stephen Miller, gave license to many to be more explicit about views they’d held for years but kept fairly quiet. A kind of Volk conservatism emerged that was at once fuzzier and more indistinct. Where Texas Republicans such as Governor Rick Perry once felt comfortable praising diversity and immigrants to Texas, the new party was more strongly xenophobic and reactionary. It bristled at any discussion of racism in schools, at land ownership by foreigners, and at the undocumented laborers who had helped build the state over the preceding five decades. In 2020, Governor Greg Abbott said the state would not participate in the federal refugee resettlement program, something Texas GOPers used to be quite proud of.

But the most depressing case study by far is the 2019 El Paso massacre, in which a white nationalist from the DFW suburbs drove to West Texas fired up by fears of “the great replacement” of whites by Black and brown newcomers and shot 45 mostly Hispanic Walmart shoppers, killing 23. The shooter published a manifesto, which observers noted used language strikingly similar to that in a fund-raising appeal Abbott had sent out just days before, warning potential donors that Democrats hoped to “turn Texas blue” by facilitating illegal immigration, adding to the state’s population “the entire population of Galveston—every three weeks.” Voters could “DEFEND TEXAS NOW” by sending him a check.

In fact, this language had become a mainstay for many prominent Texas Republicans. Abbott apologized for the letter a few days later. But it didn’t take him long to go back to firing up the base with “great replacement” tropes and doubling down on “invasion” rhetoric. The day after the El Paso shooting, Fred McCarty, the husband of the founder of the NETTP, wrote that “you’re not going to demographically replace a once proud, strong people without getting blow-back.” If that bothered elected Republicans such as Ted Cruz, it didn’t stop them from continuing to court and rely on the group’s reach to voters. With the blessing of the Dunn wing of the party, the group went statewide, becoming the True Texas Project, a post–tea party grassroots organization.

Even if the party was not exactly Disney’s “Small World” ride a decade ago, there were stronger norms against explicit fascist or authoritarian discourse. Elected Republicans who helped bolster those norms were providing a valuable service to the state.

Which brings us to the deeply demoralizing reaction of Texas Republicans this week to the Fuentes news. Republicans who are nominally aligned with Stickland and Pale Horse could take this opportunity to bolster the stigma against the fascism-curious right in the party. Instead, the response has been tepid and muddled. Some Republicans have offered brief criticism of Fuentes, buried in their press releases, but the main response from Stickland’s allies has been to try to protect him and his donors. 

One politician did come out with a strong statement: Phelan. The Fuentes incident was “not just a casual misstep,” he said. “It’s indicative of the moral, political rot that has been festering in a certain segment of our party for far too long. Anti-Semitism, bigotry and Hitler apologists should find no sanctuary in the Republican party. Period. We cannot—and must not—tolerate the tacit endorsement of such vile ideologies.” He also noted that the meeting between Fuentes and Stickland took place in the same week of the Hamas attack against southern Israel, when the West was saturated with stomach-churning videos of the murders of Israeli civilians. Phelan called upon Republicans who had taken money from Stickland to return it. This was directed primarily at Patrick, who had taken $3 million from Stickland’s PAC before the Paxton impeachment trial. 

Most will read Phelan’s statement one way—as broad and uncontroversial. Indeed, 76 members of the House Republican Caucus joined Phelan in signing a letter denouncing the Fuentes meeting. At least two state representatives who received small donations from Stickland or one of his groups, Stan Kitzman and Jared Patterson, announced that they had donated or would  donate that money to charities or pro-Israel groups this week.

But many Republicans who are locked in a grudge match with Phelan, a coalition that includes Stickland, Rinaldi, Patrick, and their donors, are afflicted with a terrible myopia: they can’t see anything else but that war. If they condemned Stickland for allowing the Fuentes meeting to happen, or even just demanded an explanation, they would (they believe) be driving a wedge in their coalition and weakening their drive to run Phelan from office.

Patrick’s statement in response to Phelan contained two lines about Fuentes: his words were “antisemitic” and “vile, loathsome.” The lieutenant governor devoted significantly more attention to Phelan, whom he called “revolting, repulsive, and repugnant.” Phelan’s mention of Hamas showed that he was “[using] the war in Israel for [his] own political purposes.” Phelan had hit “rock bottom” and should resign. “At this point, he’s simply got to go,” Patrick wrote. In a later statement, Patrick seemed to offer his services as Dunn’s spokesperson. He’d talked to Dunn, he said, who called Stickland’s meeting with Fuentes a “blunder” and promised that it would not happen again (at least, not in front of cameras). He would not be returning the money.

State GOP chair Rinaldi followed the same playbook, utilizing the same language. “Phelan has indeed hit rock bottom.” There was, sure enough, a brief mention of Fuentes in his press release: “We continue to stand against antisemites like Nick Fuentes and his repulsive, vile ideology,” but there wasn’t even a period in that sentence before it finished with “and those like Phelan that would use tragedies like the war in Israel to score cheap political points.” 

Rinaldi’s statement alleged Phelan had slandered his opponents as antisemites. Tim Dunn, Rinaldi’s sugar daddy and Stickland’s, “has been recognized by the Israel Allies Foundation as one of America’s top 50 allies of Israel,” Rinaldi’s statement went on to say.

That doesn’t say anything about Dunn’s attitude toward American Jews. You can be an antisemite and support Israel: the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, for one, calls himself a White Zionist. But more to the point, the IAF is run overwhelmingly by Christian conservatives and former congressmen and features Dunn as the chairman of its “advisory board,” as a prominent “philanthropist.” His being named a friend of Israel by the group is sort of like getting a “World’s Best Dad” mug from your adult stepchildren who rely on your trust fund.

Most spectacularly, though, Rinaldi said the Wilks brothers, his other sugar daddies, are “messianic Jews.” As a general rule, messianic Jews, who believe in Christ, aren’t Jews. But the Wilks brothers aren’t even that. They practice a religion created by their father and grandfather who separated from the Church of Christ, and the idea that they represent a Jewish voice within the party is one that many Jews would find offensive. Rinaldi was being either thick or disingenuous.

Within Phelan’s caucus, his critics were even more shortsighted. Their statements could generally have been written by ChatGPT. State representative Brian Harrison, of Waxahachie, called the Tribune’s reporting “allegations from a liberal media outlet,” while state representative Nate Schatzline, of Fort Worth, called it “a hit piece from a liberal media source”—apparently ignoring the photo evidence of Fuentes entering Pale Horse. But perhaps the most telling reaction came from state representative Steve Toth, who, like Schatzline and Harrison, is a longtime critic of Phelan’s.

Toth, a former evangelical pastor in Montgomery County, north of Houston, castigated representatives who condemned the Fuentes meeting, warning state representative Jared Patterson, who had signed the Phelan letter, about the dangers of being “unequally yoked.” That’s a term evangelicals typically use to describe a marriage between a believer and a nonbeliever. Toth seemed to be saying that it was better to be in league with a believer (Stickland) who’d tolerate a fascist than it was to be in league with nonbelievers (more moderate Republicans, Democrats) who wouldn’t.

Toth also tweeted that “if everyone’s a ‘white supremacist’ then no one’s a ‘white supremacist’. Every time Republicans pander and apologize to progressive Democrats on issues of race they show the world how little backbone they actually have.” If Toth thought he was showing himself to be a Republican with a backbone, he was grievously mistaken.