Their leader, a former Ku Klux Klan member, shares memes with Nazi logos. Their meetings take place at a podium draped with an “anti-antifa” (anti-anti-fascist) flag, along with a sun cross—a common hate symbol.
And somehow, this represents their attempt at a rebrand.
American Patriots USA, a far-right group, is trying to make inroads with Georgia Republicans, including hosting a speech by a sitting state representative. But Georgia political observers on the left and right say the group is just hiding its foundational racism, a too-common ploy in a state with a long history of violent hate.
In March, the leftist group Atlanta Antifascists tweeted a picture of state Rep. Matt Gurtler smiling in front of an American Patriots USA banner, next to the group’s founder Chester Doles. The timing of the photo-op was conspicuous: Doles was a longtime fixture of the white supremacist movement and only claimed to renounce those ties weeks earlier. His new group, APUSA, was chock full of other men who nominally disavowed recent racism. As APUSA, the group used boilerplate right-wing language to brand themselves as a “constitutionalist” organization and boast of meet-and-greets with mainstream Republicans like Gurtler.
Gurtler wasn’t the only political candidate to pose for a photo with Doles at an APUSA meeting, according to pictures uploaded to Doles’ and the group’s social media accounts and reviewed by The Daily Beast. But most APUSA-backed candidates, including a wealthy QAnon supporter, are long shots at best. Gurtler, on the other hand, is already in state office.
Doles has his own credentials. A longtime member of the white supremacist movement, he has sampled widely from a buffet of racist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan (he was a fifth-generation member, he told the Washington Post in the ’90s), to the neo-Nazi National Alliance, to the skinhead Hammerskins. He served prison time in the ’90s for beating a black man with a Klan colleague, and in 2017 (shortly after marching at a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia) pleaded guilty to assault charges for slamming a woman’s head into a wall in a barroom brawl alongside fellow Hammerskins.
Not exactly a good photo-op for an aspiring congressman. But Gurtler, whose campaign did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, has hardly disavowed Doles.
Last week, two months after the Atlanta Antifascists first tweeted Gurtler’s photo with Doles, Gurtler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the picture’s “context is straightforward.”
“I was asked by a voter to speak to a pro-gun, conservative group that supports President Trump. There was a group picture with all the candidates and speakers,” he told the paper in an email.
APUSA, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, may brand itself as a simple conservative group, but its leader’s ties to organized hate are extensive. Doles officially renounced his white nationalist associations in an APUSA meeting in late February (God “turned me upside down and shook me out,” he said). And the group endorsed several conservative candidates of color.
As Atlanta Antifascists first revealed, however, Doles’ own social media is still rife with bigotry. In April he shared an anti-Semitic screed by the leader of the neo-Confederate group League of the South calling for white-ruled civilizations. Other posts, like an “anti-antifa” meme with a Nazi totenkampf, further called his conversion into question. At the same meeting where Doles announced the group’s supposed break from bigotry, a member gave a rambling, anti-Semitic speech attacking Sen. Bernie Sanders.
That same month, APUSA was trying to associate itself with more respected Republicans. The group advertised an event with Republican congressional candidate Eugene Yu, whose campaign later squashed the event.
“It seems like they just latched onto us to gain our traction,” Ryan Lynch, Yu’s communications director, told The Daily Beast, adding that the campaign had no affiliation with the group. “We’re not going to endorse any of those hateful ideologies.”
Lynch said he wasn’t even sure that APUSA had properly reached out to the campaign, and couldn’t find any campaign communications about the event. It wouldn’t be the first time the group had attached a more prominent Republican’s name to an event without the politician’s blessing. In September, Doles and his associates organized a “Salute to President Trump” event in Dahlonega, Georgia.
Some Republicans in the state—including the man Gurtler is trying to replace in Washington—were quick to express their displeasure.
“White supremacy and white nationalism have no place in our country, and I will continue to denounce any and all forms of hate,” GOP Rep. Doug Collins said in a statement at the time. “For that reason, I will not be attending the event in Dahlonega on September 14, which has been organized by known associates of hate organizations.”
And since Gurtler’s appearance at an APUSA event hit the headlines this spring, at least one of his competitors has seized on the opening. (The Georgia Republican Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.)
“As a Christian, I’m repulsed by bigotry and hatred in all forms, and racism has no place in our state or in the 9th District,” GOP primary candidate Kevin Tanner told The Daily Beast in a statement. “North Georgians are decent, faithful and hard-working people. They deserve elected leaders who reflect that, not those who would embarrass us with their poor judgment. Just as Congressman Doug Collins refused to attend this group's rally last year, I wouldn’t engage with them in any way, shape or form.”
If AUSA and its leaders have struggled to achieve a remotely convincing image beyond hate, they’re certainly not alone.
While straight-up violent racism remains plenty visible in American life, the extremism on display at events like 2017’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has gone somewhat out of vogue, with some organized racists realizing they could face consequences for walking around in Klan uniforms and Nazi tattoos. Sensing the shift in attitudes, some racist groups rebranded as “patriotic” movements. The neo-Nazi group Vanguard America reinvented itself as Patriot Front to avoid the pesky fact that one of its associates murdered an anti-racist protester with a car at the Charlottesville rally. Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group connected to multiple violent incidents, changed its name to the American Identity Movement and ditched its old logo (inspired by a European fascist group) for a kitschy American flag motif.
Individual members of racist movements have also made recent efforts to reinvent themselves as reformed, despite public doubts that they actually cast aside racism. Longtime former National Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep made the turn last year, conveniently while facing a lawsuit over his group’s involvement in the Charlottesville rally. Another defendant in that lawsuit, Matthew Heimbach, made an even less credible public reversal, given his recent white supremacist activity. Despite their supposed reformations, both men have been accused of failing to cooperate in the lawsuit, with a representative for the plaintiffs telling the Southern Poverty Law Center that their change of heart was likely “a sham.”
For his part, during an appearance on a far-right podcast in October, Doles cited a famous neo-Nazi and suggested fellow travelers pose as more mainstream conservatives to push a racist agenda. He called a black conservative woman he’d befriended “my Trojan horse” for tricking Republicans into adopting his views. When a follower on the Russian social media site VK (beloved among far-righters banned from Facebook) asked why APUSA was supporting candidates who weren’t “wp” [white people], Doles said the candidates’ “constitutionalism” was “the common ground. They all hate socialism and are die hard constitutionalist.”
When the group held a meeting this month, with the podium draped in an anti-antifa flag and a sun cross, some of the speakers were black.
In a Twitter thread this week, Gurtler said that “racism doesn’t have any place in our community. I firmly believe that all individuals are created equal and that no person is less deserving or less important based on color or origin. And I find these lies further disgusting as the woman I love with my entire heart, my beautiful wife Marissa, is Mexican-American.”
He did not, however, explicitly disavow Doles or APUSA. His harshest words were directed at his detractors. “People who use lies and propaganda to advance their political agenda are no better than the racists they claim to call out,” he tweeted, presumably including the Atlanta Antifascist group that first brought the meeting to light.
The anti-fascist group hit back at him in a statement to The Daily Beast.
“It is reprehensible for Gurtler to portray anti-racists as the problem rather than taking responsibility for his own poor judgment and the harm he has done,” they said.