When Rich Ambrosino took control of the Camden County GOP two years ago, the party was shedding members and resigned to its second-class status in a deep blue corner of New Jersey.
“It’s hard enough to be a Republican in Camden County,” said Ambrosino, the county party chairman. “I needed to change the surrender culture that I kind of felt like I inherited.”
Central to that turnaround, he felt, would be a more assertive online presence. It arrived on July 5, 2019.
“Past accusations of malaise or being weak will be dispelled immediately,” the Camden County Republican Committee’s Facebook page declared. “The CCGOP will not tacitly make our case for candidates or positions, we will engage with smash mouth politics on every issue.”
In the ensuing eight months, the page — which posts multiple times per day — has seen its followers quadruple, to more than 6,000, and has helped attract dozens of conservatives to social events for the first time, Ambrosino said. Some of those people are now running for office in towns that haven’t seen Republican candidates in years.
But along the way, the party has amplified Islamophobic memes and other content that two local Muslim groups and the state attorney general’s office say could promote the type of bias incidents that are on the rise in New Jersey and nationwide.
Called out by AG’s office
“One cause for this rise is the coarseness in our political discourse,” said Leland Moore, a spokesman for the attorney general. “At best, it gives comfort to bigots. At worst, it encourages them to act out on their hateful beliefs. We should demand better and expect more when it comes to the rhetoric our public officials use.”
In one post on Jan. 6, the page shared a meme of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim, laughing above an image of the smoldering World Trade Center buildings, adding the comment: “The enemy within.”
The next day came a meme depicting an imaginary back-and-forth in which Omar says, “I hate Trump,” and Trump responds, “Most terrorists do.” Omar, who was born in Somalia and fled the country’s civil war as a child, was among the Democratic congresswomen of color Trump told to “go back” to their “home countries” in a widely condemned July 2019 tweet.
Another post shows a still of actor Jon Hamm from the TV show “Mad Men” with text reading, “When I heard Trump took out the leader of ISIS I thought he got Obama.” This echoes the incorrect assertions that the former president is Muslim.
At least two other posts on the Camden GOP page have been flagged by Facebook’s independent fact-checkers as “false information.” They relate to a quote wrongly attributed to Mark Twain and the value of pens allegedly used by Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Asked about the posts last month, Ambrosino denounced the one depicting Omar in front of the Twin Towers, saying it was “absolutely unacceptable.” The page is run by four people, he said, and none could recall posting that meme.
“People died in a terrorist attack there,” he said. “There’s no politics involved in that. That’s a stretch to put her face on there. That’s ridiculous.”
‘Tongue in cheek’
But he stood by the other posts, describing the ones flagged as misinformation as “tongue in cheek” and denying there was anything racist or Islamophobic about the other attacks on Omar.
“It’s a First Amendment free speech thing and frankly, I guess I would say to people who were offended by it, then don’t look at it,” he said. Of Omar, he added, “She’s made remarks that have angered a lot of people and that can be construed as being anti-Semitic. So, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Since that conversation with WHYY two weeks ago, none of the posts has been taken down. Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Abdul Qaadir Jelani, who handles security at the Gracious Center of Learning & Enrichment Activities, a mosque and community center in Cherry Hill, said the type of rhetoric on the Facebook page can incite violence toward Muslim communities.
“When you open the door to something like this, and something like this is endorsed, then it makes it easier for people to take it and act upon it,” Jelani said. “You have some people who will see that and believe exactly what they are reading.”
Because of the increase in hate crimes against Muslim communities nationwide, he said, the community center now has a working relationship with both the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement. The Camden County Sheriff’s Office patrols the area every Friday during religious services.
“People just want to live, they want to worship as they see fit,” Jelani said. “When you have rhetoric like this coming out from any political group, I think it’s very distasteful.”
A reminder of Islamophobia
Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the Facebook page “an unapologetic hotbed of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim propaganda.”
He said it serves as a reminder of the Islamophobia experienced across the country in this current political climate.
“You would expect to see such racist and bigoted rhetoric in the dark recesses of the internet, but not on the official Facebook page of a local political party,” Maksut said in a statement. “At a time when hate crimes are on the rise, such vile speech is irresponsible and puts New Jersey Muslims at risk.”
Ambrosino said his organization certainly does not intend to promote rhetoric that could incite violence against any group and “will not participate in the dissemination of such.”
“We are trying to build a vibrant, successful county organization and certainly are well aware that espousing anything that may be construed as a ‘bias incident’ is not at all helpful to that cause,” he said.
The posts are hardly the first questionable social media content shared by New Jersey politicos. On at least eight separate occasions since 2018, public officials from both political parties have landed in hot water for racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and otherwise offensive social media posts.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship at Rowan University, said the type of “in-your-face politics” deployed by the Camden County GOP has been used to some success by Republicans nationally.
“This is the style of the president: say what you want to say regardless of the fact-checkers,” Dworkin said. “Democrats, in their own way, are trying to find … a way of appealing to the public that resonates in the same way.”
Ambrosino said his organization will have candidates for the Republican County Committee on the June primary in Barrington, Laurel Springs, Lindenwold and Runnemede — all towns that have not had any organizational representation for at least a decade, he said.
The party is also fielding candidates for mayor or council in those towns for the first time in years.
That’s thanks to connections made through the Facebook page and during monthly breakfasts and happy hours, he said.
“This is kind of a little bit of a salon, if you will,” Ambrosino said of the happy hours. “We’ll just talk policy and politics, and we’ve got people we’ve never met before, in all my time involved in [the] Republican Party in Camden County, who come to say they want to get involved.”
Congresswomen of color have been a favorite target for Republicans around New Jersey.
Last July, a Toms River Board of Education member declined to run for re-election and stepped down from a state position after posting a photo of Omar with the caption, “Terrorist…100%,” and writing, “My life would be complete if she/they die” above a photo of Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib on his personal Facebook page.
Around the same time, the Sussex County Republican chairman came under fire for posts on the county party’s official Twitter account that targeted those congresswomen, as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. One post referred to the women as the “Whores of Babble-on.”
Regardless of their severity, Dworkin said offensive social media posts from either party will only stop to the degree anyone is upset or embarrassed by them.
“As a body politic, we’ve become much more tolerant of people saying some pretty outrageous things. It’s to our detriment that this becomes the new normal,” he said. “There are moments when something like a caricature, or some other kind of social media post, is so offensive that people react to it and somebody has to change it or take responsibility for it, but those are really rare.”
<Emily Scott and Nicholas Pugliese report for WHYY News, where this story first appeared. WHYY News is a content partner of NJ Spotlight.>