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Funhouse Mirrors

Right-Wing Influencers Are Fighting Over What It Means to Be White

Candace Owens’s bitter split with Ben Shapiro, and the rise of “Christ is king” as an antisemitic troll, reveal just how weird things have gotten among very-online conservatives.

Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro during a live taping in 2021
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro during a live taping in 2021. They're not so friendly anymore.

The very-online trolls of the American right have made a habit of turning innocuous things into messages of hate. The “OK” hand gesture was ruined thus, as was a cartoon green frog. Now respectable Christians might think twice before saying aloud a simple tenet of their religion: “Christ is king.”

They can blame Candace Owens. While “Christ is king” was co-opted years ago by white nationalist Nick Fuentes and his Groyper movement, who employ it as an antisemitic dog whistle, this twisted usage only broke into mainstream discourse last week amid Owens’s bitter public split with Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire over her increasing promotion of antisemitic conspiracy theories. (The website, which hired Owens in 2020, apparently had no objection to her degrading Black people for their largely white audience.)

Owens recently alleged on her radio show, The Breakfast Club, that “secret Jewish gangs” terrorize Hollywood, favorited a tweet about Jews imbibing Christian blood, and posted, “You can’t serve both God and money”—an apparent dig at Shapiro, who is Jewish, over his pro-Israel politics amid the war in Gaza. She had also been tweeting “Christ is king,” in the days before and continued doing so after Jeremy Boreing, who founded The Daily Wire with Shapiro, announced her exit.

On the surface, this falling-out suggests that some prominent conservatives have an uncrossable line when it comes to hate speech, at least against Jews. But the tsunami of support for Owens, the platforming of antisemitism by other mainstream conservatives, and the ostentatious praise of (or conversion to) Christianity by white nationalists and incel types reveal quite the opposite: Right-wing influencers are actually breaking ranks with Jews amid a growing rift about what it means to be white—and who gets to claim that badge.

When “Christ is king” began trending on X late last month, some conservative Christians expressed wariness over the phrase’s weaponization even as they recognized it as a core belief of their religion. But they were the minority. The Blaze and Turning Point USA pundit Lauren Chen hosted a live audio show on X to discuss the dustup with Fuentes and Boreing, among other guests, and it swiftly devolved into “a cesspool of antisemitism,” in the words of Ben Lorber, a prominent researcher of the American right.

A guest popularly known as “Sovereign Brah” lamented Jews’ “extraordinary concentration of power in America” and described Judaism as satanic. Fuentes said that American Jews shouldn’t hold political office and that Shapiro should affirm Christ’s kingship. Boreing did express concern at Fuentes’s statements, but only after praising him as “one of the most talented people out there” and saying he regularly listens to his show. Later, calling it “biblical fact” that “Jews had Christ killed,” Sovereign Brah said, “Free speech is completely under assault by Jewish people.”

“It’s a sign of changing times,” observed Lorber, an analyst at Political Research Associates, “that Nick was given space on a mainstream pundit’s platform to directly challenge a prominent conservative media CEO [and] that a groyper slogan took center stage in right-wing discourse.” He added that the likes of Tucker Carlson and Matt Walsh “aren’t far behind.” In an email interview, Lorber told me that growing outrage over Israel’s destruction of Gaza is enabling unabashed antisemitism, and that the right is exploiting such outrage “to spin lurid tales of Jewish world domination.”

Non-Christians on the right have rushed to defend Owens too. Muslim YouTube celebrity Sneako tweeted, “Christ is king,” in what was presumed a gesture to “own the Jews.” Businessman, influencer, and accused rapist and human trafficker Andrew Tate posted, “As a Muslim it warms my heart to see the resurgence of spirited Christian declarations. Christ is King. And I pray Christianity regains its strength and protects its societies against the pervasive and constant erosion of morality by the devotees of Satan.”

Asked about Tate’s remarks, Lorber told me that the influencer is happy to set aside glaring theological differences in the name of a common crusade against Jews. “Much like Fuentes—with whom he shares an ultra-misogynist incel fan base—for Tate, ‘Christ is King’ signifies opposition to a Jewish cabal that engineers U.S. support for Israel while emasculating men, pushing LGBTQ rights, and advancing other perceived ills of liberalism.”

It certainly appears that Tate is an all-too-eager bedfellow of Christian fascists. But his and other head-turning avowals of Christianity come on the heels of highly sensationalized conversions and near-conversions from men with a history of misogyny, racism, or antisemitism. In recent months, and to much fanfare from conservative influencers like the “bodybuilding bishop” Robert Barron, Jewish-born actor Shia LaBeouf converted to Catholicism and announced plans to become a deacon. Fellow Hollywooder Russell Brand has also come to Jesus, swiftly gaining endorsement deals with the Hallow prayer app. Both LaBeouf and Brand have been accused of sexual assault.

At a Catholic Prayer for Trump event at Mar-a-Lago just last month, an emcee introduced Tim Ballard, the Mormon whose efforts to combat child trafficking were fictionally depicted in the blockbuster film Sound of Freedom, by telling the audience that Ballard has been wearing a miraculous medal and is contemplating becoming Catholic. The audience erupted into cheers, prompting Ballard to beam and touch his medal. Ballard is accused of sexually assaulting five women who accompanied him on sting operations for his anti-trafficking organization, Operation Underground Railroad. The film memorializing his work is widely thought to promulgate the blood libel myth, according to which Jews mutilate Christian children and then harvest their blood. Ballard himself avers that children are being “adrenochromed” in Africa.

And then there’s Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who seems to have made a whole grift of an apparently looming conversion. Though notoriously cagey on God’s existence, Peterson widely and tearfully lectures on Christ. Last year, soon after slamming Pope Francis for calling his flock to social justice, Peterson was spotted in St. Peter’s Square with Bishop Barron, who calls the psychologist a “sign of hope” for the church. Peterson is currently on international tour for his book We Who Wrestle With God. In March, following months of intensifying anticipation of his conversion, he announced that his wife would be received into the Catholic Church on Easter. Tammy Peterson decided to give her life to Jesus after being “miraculously” cured of cancer. Just this past Sunday, Ms. Peterson was initiated with her husband by her side. Also on hand: a photographer from the conservative Catholic news network EWTN.

While allowing for the possibility of genuine devotion, some Catholics have wondered if the likes of LaBeouf, Ballard, and Peterson see the church as a refuge for bigots and abusers. They’ve also expressed concern about the red carpet treatment these personalities tend to receive. Writing for Black Catholic Messenger in 2022 about an interview in which LaBeouf confessed to Barron his initial awe of the Church, Gunnar Gundersen opined, “There is no excuse for an institution with a track record of institutionalized abuse to amplify and platform abusers—especially those still struggling with the attitudes and beliefs that led to that abuse.” Gundersen condemned Barron for “chuckling along” as LaBeouf spoke of supplanting a “soft,” “feminized,” and “Buddhist” Jesus with a more masculine one.

Whiteness, masculinity, and Christianity are becoming more tightly yoked in the public imagination, with people hyperinvested in one category apprehending a need to outwardly invest in the others. These are historically knotted categories, the very concept of race an outgrowth of gendered Christian thinking about Jews. As scholars like M. Lindsay Kaplan, Willie James Jennings, Magda Teter, and Tudor Parfitt have shown, conceptions of Jews as dark, weak, fleshy, and fated to servitude were extended to debase people of color and authorize their enslavement. American legal arguments about the inferiority of Black people, such as the Dred Scott decision, echoed European arguments about the inferiority of Jews.

So it’s ironic that Owens, a Black woman, would seek to “own” Shapiro, a Jewish man, with the phrase “Christ is king.” It’s also a sign of just how badly some right-wing influencers will contort themselves for acceptance by the white boys online.