Ever since controversial right-wing Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) were publicly linked to plans for an “America First Caucus” organized around fealty to “Anglo Saxon political traditions,” Republicans have rapidly scurried away from the idea.

The Hill reports that the ranks of Republican critics are growing: They include GOP leaders and vulnerable House Republicans alike. And most Republicans probably wouldn’t dream of joining such an entity.

But, as determined as those distancing efforts have been, this story illustrates something unpleasant about how the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable discourse can get slowly pushed further afield by the cycle of controversy and backlash.

Greene and Gosar both quickly disavowed any knowledge of the document, which includes explicitly nativist and white nationalist ideas. That came after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) flatly decried its “nativist dog whistles.”

But, notably, this came right after a leading right-wing TV personality — one whose show is a regular stop for many Republican lawmakers — pushed the envelope dramatically with some nativist dog whistles of his own.

Only last week, Tucker Carlson doubled down on his claim that Democrats want more immigration because they hope to “replace” native-born U.S. voters with “more obedient voters from the Third World.”

Importantly, Carlson condemned the addition of immigrant voters to the polity as an inherently bad thing. He said in various ways that local culture all over the United States is succumbing under a tide of migration, with some states becoming “unrecognizable.”

These two controversies occupy somewhat different places on the spectrum of despicable nativist and white nationalist viewpoints. But they are related. With the “Anglo Saxon traditions” controversy drawing more attention, we are also seeing versions of Carlson’s viewpoint edging into the realm of Republican respectability.

Writing at the Atlantic, Adam Serwer provides a way of understanding this spectrum. During a previous nativist craze, Serwer notes, the “Anglo Saxon” badge was used to denote good Whites of northern European descent, as distinct from bad Whites of southern and eastern European descent, not to mention other inferior Whites “who had names such as, well, McCarthy.”

This undergirded nativist sentiment in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One leading proponent of these ideas at the time summed up prevailing theories by claiming non-Anglo Saxons are not fit for “self-care and self-government.”

This “Anglo Saxonism,” of course, might be flexible on which groups are deemed unfit for self-government at any given moment (before, that included southern and eastern Europeans; now, it wouldn’t).

But, as Serwer points out, you can still draw a line straight from that to today’s controversies:

Despite McCarthy’s effort to distance the GOP from the America First Caucus document, it’s clear that prominent Trumpist officials and intellectuals, some of them descended from the very immigrant groups Anglo-Saxon was intended to vilify, agree with some of the presumptions of Anglo-Saxonism.

Echoes of the idea that various ethnic groups (wherever you draw this line) are incapable of self-government “can be heard regularly on outlets such as Fox News,” Serwer notes.

Indeed, Carlson’s claim that Democrats want to replace U.S. native voters with “more obedient voters from the Third World” subtly traffics in this. The insinuation is that Democrats want to import these voters precisely because they’re pliable and can be manipulated into voting for Democrats regardless of their own interests. That’s close to claiming they’re incapable of self-rule.

Now, almost no Republican lawmaker would endorse this position. But note that several very prominent Republicans have crept right up to this ugly line.

For instance, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) recently suggested that “many Americans” believe that “we’re replacing” Americans born here expressly to “permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation.”

And Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) suggested that Democrats support immigration expressly because they “want to remake the demographics of America” to ensure that “they stay in power forever.”

Again, the suggestion here is that adding immigrants-turned-citizens to the polity as voters is inherently an affront to the self-rule and democratic aspirations of the native-born citizenry. This, even though the decision to expand the polity this way would generally be made by our representatives, chosen in legitimate elections, making this fully compatible with democracy.

What happened here is Carlson attracted intense controversy with “replacement” rhetoric, which cleared space for Perry and Johnson to occupy an intermediate position that now comes across as relatively less controversial.

The explosive “America First Caucus” document noted that American political culture derives strength from “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” and that it is “threatened when foreign citizens are imported en masse.” Neither Perry nor Johnson referred explicitly to Anglo Saxon traditions. But what they did say really isn’t too far removed from that latter idea.

This is how the boundaries get moved. Remember, in 2016, leading Republicans condemned candidate Donald Trump’s explicit call for a ban on Muslims as an affront to American principles of religious freedom. But when, as president, Trump came up with a facially neutral “national security” rationale for accomplishing much the same thing, those Republicans switched to supporting it.

Now we’re in the middle of a big controversy over the idea of a House caucus expressly organized around nativist ideals. But two prominent Republicans have voiced support for a position that’s not far from its underlying ideology, and it isn’t seen as particularly controversial.

Read more: