Rick Thomas is in it for the laughs.
Or at least that’s what he claims. He’s the president of College Republicans United and a self-avowed “politically incorrect” Trump-supporting paleoconservative with a history of being inflammatory and at times insensitive on social media.
College Republicans United is a Trump-flavored splinter organization that broke off from the existing College Republicans club in January of this year. At some events around the Tempe campus, the ASU-chartered organization, which has received funding from Undergraduate Student Government, has displayed a flag with origins on the online forum 4chan that some describe as a racist hate symbol.
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But Thomas and the leadership of the organization maintain the group is not racist. He said their demeanor and controversial symbolism are simply rebukes of political correctness gone awry and a display of their right to free speech.
Incendiary Social Media
Thomas’ social media includes a slew of tweets featuring alt-right rhetoric and discriminatory language, including posts calling out what he said is a "White Genocide,” a term often used by white nationalists who advocate for a white ethnostate.
He doubled down on those statements in an interview with The State Press, pointing to what he called a concerted effort by the left to suppress the voices of white males, a movement that he termed a “new kind of racism,” while also insisting that his views were not alt-right.
“Is there an actual genocide of white people going on? No, there isn’t.” Thomas said. “But there is definitely a kind of racism toward white people that I think is kind of new in recent decades.”
Other tweets on his account support aborting pregnancies "deemed likely to produce disabled children" and assert that transgender individuals are mentally ill. He also uses slurs in reference to members of the LGBT+ community and advocates for the deportation of Muslims.
He did not walk back any of these claims when pressed but said the slurs were not meant to be offensive. Rather he said they were ironic, tailored for the culture of the controversial online message board 4chan, which has served as an incubator of sorts for alt-right ideologies.
“A lot of the posts that I make on there are over the top — they’re flamboyant,” Thomas said. “They are almost a parody of themselves, I am kind of mimicking that culture of 4chan.”
Thomas said that it could be a good thing if people with controversial views on the internet were more “flamboyant.”
“Here’s the thing,” Thomas said, “if someone says something controversial … you want to know that they have a controversial view.”
If nothing else, he said, the unfiltered commentary would spark a dialogue with those he disagrees with.
While Thomas said he doesn’t speak for CRU, his Islamophobic and otherwise discriminatory tweets aren’t the only trappings of prejudice in and around the organization.
The group flies a green flag modeled after the Nazi war flag, one which the Southern Poverty Law Center said is a hate symbol associated with the alt-right. CRU used this flag as a recruiting tool at various campus events this year.
The leadership of the organization pushed back on the SPLC’s characterization of the flag, saying it and the culture it represents are simply ways to “troll” liberals and advocate for an incendiary brand of unfettered free speech.
The flag is supposed to be the symbol of a fictional nation called “Kekistan,” which originated as a 4chan meme connected to Egyptian mythology and video games.
“The thrust of the entire enterprise is to mock everything ‘politically correct’ so loudly ... that legitimate issues about the vicious core of white male nationalism they embrace never need to be confronted directly," according to the SPLC’s website. “The alt-right’s ‘meme war’ is ultimately another name for far-right propaganda, polished and rewired for 21st-century consumers.”
CRU says that it was an effective tool to recruit like-minded individuals into their independent conservative campus organization. Chemical Engineering Senior and CRU Secretary Chase Smith owns the flag that the group displays at events.
“That’s why we only use it sometimes, because it brings the right people,” Smith said. “It brings people who believe in freedom and individualism, but it makes us look bad to everyone who has been falsely informed.”
Smith said the flag was created to troll leftists online who were sensitive to certain types of speech, and tried to restrict it.
“Because they were calling us Nazis and saying that free speech was oppressive, we made a comedy version of the Nazi war flag — as a way to piss them off because they saw it as an oppressive symbol,” Smith said.
This view is shared with others on the right, who claim that liberals and the media misidentify the strange irony of 4chan humor as genuine personal politics.
But this is not the prevailing view of watchdog groups who track white nationalist symbolism. Many of these groups say that the flag has become explicitly associated with the alt-right.
The SPLC and others point to the use of the symbols by the alt-right and neo-Nazis.
While Smith and members of CRU claim that there is a clear difference between the alt-right’s use of the flag and their own, the imagery is undeniably similar. There are striking examples of the green flag being flown alongside the Nazi flag at White Supremacist rallies and protests.
Thomas said that his group denounces those who use the symbolism in that way.
“If we have a radical person in there who is openly anti-Semitic, we are obviously not going to entertain them,” he said. “We are going to kick them out of the group, we are open about that.”
The flag's controversy isn't limited to ASU. A civilian contractor working with the armed forces in Afghanistan was fired in September after he was seen with the Kekistan flag on the side of his helmet in a video. The official twitter account of the Spokesperson Army Col. Dave Butler tweeted about the incident shortly after it was pointed out on twitter, calling the symbol racist.
Analysis of the Kekistani culture is sparse, but one of the few academics who’s researched the topic said that those who support the Kekistan culture are mostly, though not universally, right leaning.
University of Southampton political scientist Justin Murphy has written about the Kekistan phenomenon on his blog.
His analysis is based on a sample of users who posted status updates containing #Kek, #Kekistan or #PraiseKek over a six-to-nine day period.
He looked at the tweets in an attempt to measure issue priorities of Kekistan, their associations and politics.
“A fairly clear picture emerges,” Murphy wrote. That is, “more than anything else, Kekistanis talk about Trump and Making America Great Again.”
Beyond that, they only have one real unifying priority, he said: free speech. The rest is non-uniform, random and “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Murphy also said that the Kekistani culture is unabashedly right-leaning “but with a ‘long tail’ of centrists and leftists.”
Murphy said in an email that the flag would be a natural fit for a conservative group on a college campus due to its adopted meaning.
“It does not surprise me that conservative college students might want to display this flag, in part because, to some conservatives, the flag now represents unfair overreach by social liberals to smear many non-racist conservatives as racist,” Murphy said.
Thomas said any assertions that he or any members of his group are racist are categorically false and that his group is all-inclusive, pointing out that the group has had "atheists, Muslims ... Blacks and Hispanics."
CRU Vice President and political science senior Joshua Bernard said he took offense to the allegation that CRU is racist.
“Me personally, being a black man and Native American, and also hearing from some other minorities … being accused of having some racial issues, especially when they’re trying to call someone like me racist, it’s like ‘dude are you blind?’” Bernard said. “I’m black, so I’ve dealt with my fair share of racism in the past, I have seen it firsthand.”
While the meaning of Kekistani flag is up for debate, the club will still be able to apply for USG funds unless the Dean of Students office finds the club to have broken the student code of conduct, said Maxim Quint, the Chair of Appropriations for USGT, which handles funding for student organizations on the Tempe campus.
Quint, after being made aware of the tweets, said that “USGT awards funds from a viewpoint neutral manner.”
Quint declined to comment on whether the appropriations committee thought the tweets and actions rise to the level of violating the student code of conduct.
“When we at appropriations suspect that a code of conduct violation is occurring, we do always report them,” Quint said.
The President of USGT, Allison Sorgeloos, said in a text message that it was not within the purview “of USG to do anything about the CRU situation,” and that “the Dean of Students office is now aware and are the proper folks to investigate it if there is anything improper.
“ASU is committed to free expression, and we are not responsible for determining what is or is not a violation of the student code of conduct,” she said. “We will continue to work with our partners in the Dean of Students office, Student Organizations and Programming and Student Rights and Responsibilities to ensure we are following proper procedure and guidelines.”
When asked about the University’s policies toward student groups displaying signage that could be construed as hateful or racist, a University official said in an emailed statement that the University supports students’ free speech so long as that it is lawful and non-disruptive.
“ASU recognizes and supports the rights of students to engage in lawful free speech activity including: peaceful demonstrations and circulation of petitions that do not disrupt the normal educational and administrative function of the University, or interfere with the legitimate rights of others,” the official said.
Thomas said that if the University took action against the group, it would increase membership and prove the group’s point about free speech.
“It would be a violation of our First Amendment rights, absolutely,” Thomas said. “And I would have the ACLU and any other groups come in to look at those policies because that is not fair.”
Ultimately, Thomas said that an environment permissive of all speech — no matter how hateful – was the one to which he was accustomed.
“I've always been the type of person who (thought) everything was allowed, everything was okay,” Thomas said. “Maybe not okay, but … it was a free for all.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @isaacdwindes on Twitter.
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Photo illustration by Stella Atzenweiler.