On Tuesday morning, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz posted an odd video on Twitter along with the comment, "If anyone asks me about Nick Fuentes today, this is my answer in advance." That answer boiled down to the suggestion that Fuentes is no more politically radical than the Rev. Al Sharpton, that he's faced significant persecution for his beliefs and that if conservatives don't defend Fuentes, they're effectively supporting the Orwellian prosecution of "thought crimes."
So who is Nick Fuentes, who has become abruptly more famous in recent days? He is the young, extravagantly racist, antisemitic and misogynistic head of the white nationalist America First movement, whose members call themselves "groypers" in an obscure homage to alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog. Over the last week, Fuentes has made headlines for his role atop the third annual America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), a meetup held last Friday in Orlando as a far-right alternative to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which concluded Sunday.
In his own AFPAC speech, Fuentes crossed a long-observed red line on the American right, literally praising Adolf Hitler, if only by way of praising Russia's invasion of Ukraine: "Now they're going on about Russia and 'Vladimir Putin is Hitler,'" he said. "They say that's not a good thing."
Fuentes also praised Jared Taylor, founder of the white supremacist group American Renaissance, as his "personal hero," and urged the audience to give "a round of applause for Russia," sparking a brief chant of "Putin! Putin! Putin!" At the climax of his speech, he issued something like a proclamation of war: "To every RINO, every lying journalist, every carjacker, gangbanger, illegal immigrant, every OnlyFans whore, every mobbed-up politician and pundit on the payroll of some Middle Eastern country, to the people that have looted our wealth, addicted our youth to drugs, thrown open our borders to invaders from all over the world, to the corrupt that have sold out our country and our people: we are coming for you. ... You think you can replace us? You're wrong. We will replace you."
The fallout from Fuentes' conference has already lasted a lot longer than the one-night event itself, including the censure of a Republican state senator who addressed the crowd, and calls for action against other leading Republicans who spoke there as well.
Fuentes first gained notoriety as a youthful attendee of the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. On the day that antifascist counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed, Fuentes proclaimed: "The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming."
With the post-Charlottesville alt-right in disarray in 2019, Fuentes and his nattily-attired groypers launched a series of high-profile confrontations at events held by the conservative youth group Turning Point USA, challenging speakers they derided as insufficiently right-wing.
The following year, Fuentes' movement became a key force behind pro-Trump "Stop the Steal" protests, and on Jan. 6, 2021, Fuentes rallied his supporters to action outside the U.S. Capitol, calling on them to "not leave this Capitol until Donald Trump is inaugurated president." Fuentes' participation later landed him under federal investigation, and this January he and another groyper leader were subpoenaed by the House Select Committee looking into the attack.
Along the way, Fuentes has built a massive following through a firehose of provocation on his livestream shows, delivered with a "just for the lulz" sneer and calculated for maximum offense. He gleefully deploys racial and religious slurs. Last July, Fuentes led a frenzied mini-pep rally outside a Texas CPAC event, promising he was about to deliver "the most racist, the most sexist, the most antisemitic, the most Holocaust-denying speech in all of Dallas this weekend," before leading a small band of groypers — looking almost like a group of middle-schoolers in their mirrored shades and backpacks — into the conference venue, chanting "America First" and "White Boy Summer."
In a December guest appearance on another far-right podcast, Fuentes said the Taliban represented "ideal" government policies regarding women, adding that women shouldn't be allowed to vote and neither should "people that don't own property, young people, people that work, like, retail jobs," and that he'd welcome "tyranny" if it meant Donald Trump declaring himself "the Caesar of America."
In the days leading up to AFPAC III, Fuentes eagerly anticipated the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine — and China invading Taiwan, for that matter — "if for no other reason than it's time for America to be humiliated." After Putin indeed ordered the invasion, Fuentes described it as "the coolest thing to happen since 1/6." He muses about what he calls the "Great Replacement REALITY," a reference to the racist conspiracy theory that liberals and Jews are orchestrating the "replacement" of white Americans with nonwhite immigrants. He said that Derek Chauvin's conviction for the murder of George Floyd proves that minorities are "being put at the top of a racial caste system" and compared Nazi concentration camp crematoriums to baking cookies, in an elaborate Holocaust denial analogy.
All of this "strategic display of irreverence" serves a purpose, according to Ben Lorber, a research analyst at Political Research Associates who has followed Fuentes' rise for the last several years. "Fuentes' uses of open antisemitism, racial slurs, virulent misogyny and other offensive rhetoric serves as red meat for his base of alienated, terminally online young men who relish this type of content across the digital groyper ecosystem," said Lorber. "This transgressive posture has remained popular across the right since the Trump presidency, forcing figures like Fuentes to say increasingly more shocking things in order to appear edgier than the rest."
It's also, as Lorber wrote in a piece last month, part of Fuentes' self-described goal to use his movement to "keep pushing" conservatives "further," with his groypers increasingly pulling the rest of the movement toward their formerly unpalatable positions.
But it's not just disaffected teenagers who are drawn in. Despite Fuentes' performance art-level bigotry, in the last two years he's managed to attract a number of right-wing Republican officeholders to his cause. In early 2021, fresh on the heels of the Capitol insurrection, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., headlined AFPAC II. While Fuentes talked about the decline of the white race and called for more of that Jan. 6 "energy," Gosar heralded his followers as "American patriots." When challenged about it later, Gosar responded, "There is a group of young people that are becoming part of the election process, and becoming a bigger force," suggesting that it made sense for conservatives to listen to what they have to say.
Later in 2021, Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines hired a staffer who came directly from Fuentes' movement, subsequently refusing to fire him even after revelations that the staffer had engaged in virulent bigotry online, including founding an internet forum whose members called for "death to all minorities."
This year, Gosar's role was played, with exceptional fidelity, by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who appeared Friday night as AFPAC III's "surprise guest," and immediately greeted the audience of some 1,200 white nationalists by saying, "Well hello, canceled Americans!" Greene, who in 2021 briefly tried to create an "America First PAC" focused on defending America's "uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions," told the crowd that they had "been handed the responsibility to fight for our Constitution and stand up for our freedoms and stop the Democrats who are the Communist Party of the United States of America."
Greene, whose presence at the conference was apparently facilitated by fallen alt-lite star Milo Yiannapoulos, wasn't alone. This year's AFPAC conference, reported Ali Breland at Mother Jones, drew nine former or current elected officials in total. Among them were former Iowa congressman Steve King, who lost his 2020 reelection bid to another Republican after asking in a New York Times interview, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?", along with former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted on criminal charges for detaining undocumented immigrants with no criminal records (and then pardoned by Trump). It also included Gosar, speaking by video; Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, Trump's candidate in the state's current gubernatorial race; and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who has embraced the "great replacement" theory and spoken alongside QAnon adherents.
Rogers, who has previously clamored for Fuentes' approval — including a December tweet in which she swooned, "Because Nick Fuentes says I am BASED, I am now truly BASED" — used her AFPAC speech to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a "globalist puppet" controlled by George Soros and to suggest that unspecified political enemies should be hanged. "When we do take back our God-given rights, we will bring these criminals to justice," she said, calling on conservatives to build new "gallows" to make examples out of "these traitors who betrayed our country."
In advance of her speech on Friday, reported Nick Martin, a senior fellow at the Western States Center, Rogers posted a bizarre meme on the right-wing social media site Gab, photoshopping an image of herself between Fuentes and Gab founder Andrew Torba (another AFPAC speaker) as they crouched over the carcass of a dead rhino emblazoned with the word "CPAC," configured with a Star of David.
"Nick and the other patriots in attendance at AFPAC, please keep doing what you are doing," Rogers concluded her speech Friday. "We must always put our shoulder to the wheel to move the Overton window toward Christ, America First, freedom and our founding documents. Pursue. Stay strong. You and your fellow patriots are our future. We have a nation to save and a gospel to preach. I love you all. America First. Jesus is King. Wendy Rogers out."
What all this amounts to, says Lorber, is a rapidly-changing status quo in the Republican Party, in which even open white nationalism is no longer out of bounds. "Fuentes seeks to position his America First coalition on the cutting edge of the MAGA right. By associating his movement with figures such as Gosar and Greene, he seeks to carve out room for white nationalist ideas and policies around immigration, demographics and white identity to circulate openly within the conversations animating the conservative movement.
"By surrounding himself with white nationalist heavyweights like Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow [founder of the 'racial realist' website VDare]," Lorber said, "Fuentes seeks to dissolve the firewall that has long separated the white nationalist movement from 'respectable' conservatism, in hopes of creating a future in which he and his fellow travelers inherit the keys to the castle."
In the wake of AFPAC III, there's been substantial if largely toothless condemnation of Greene, Gosar and other elected officials who spoke alongside Fuentes. Asked about Gosar and Greene's participation on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "There's no place in the Republican Party for white supremacists or antisemitism."
Greene, speaking to CBS reporters after her own appearance at CPAC on Saturday, claimed to know virtually nothing about the conference she had addressed the night before. "I do not know Nick Fuentes, I've never heard him speak, I've never seen a video," she said. "I don't know what his views are so I'm not aligned with anything that might be controversial. What I can tell you is I went to his event last night to address his very large following because that is a very young following and it's a generation I'm extremely concerned about."
In a Twitter thread on Sunday, the Georgia congresswoman elaborated further in melodramatic religious language, decrying "journalists and Washington insiders who fear the name of Our Lord" and the "Pharisees in the Republican Party" who "attack me for being willing to break barriers and speak to a lost generation of young people who are desperate for love and leadership." She continued, "The atheist media demands no disavowal from left-wing politicians who hang out with jihadis and abortionists. But they demand immediate disavowals of any Republican willing to speak to 1,200 people gathered to declare that Christ is King, & brands them only by their sins."
McGeachin, the Idaho lieutenant governor, offered reporters a similarly awkward and defensive response, also claiming she knew nothing about Fuentes, despite her ties to a number of people in the groyper orbit. Charging that journalists were engaging in "this guilty-by-association that the media tries to do with conservatives and conservatives only," she said, "This movement is bigger than any one individual. Who cares what Nick Fuentes has to say?"
On Tuesday afternoon, the Arizona state Senate voted overwhelmingly to censure Rogers. In anticipation of the vote, on Tuesday morning Rogers posted on the right-wing social media site Telegram, "So today is the day where we find out if the Communists in the GOP throw the sweet grandma under the bus for being white."
But while tepid condemnation has come from figures like McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said Lorber, the America First wing of the Republican Party "has been far more circumspect. This faction — and the larger MAGA faction — are as likely to call out McConnell for submitting to 'cancel culture' as join in his distancing."
Amid all this publicity, on Tuesday morning Matt Gaetz weighed in on Fuentes' behalf, calling the groyper leader "a charismatic internet personality" with some "well-informed and thought-provoking" perspectives and also an "ethnonationalist." Gaetz didn't agree with that latter part, he made clear, explaining that he objects to both white and Black ethnonationalism, the latter apparently exemplified by activists like Sharpton.
What he couldn't tolerate, Gaetz continued, was how Fuentes was being targeted by the federal government. Citing a white nationalist website run by another AFPAC speaker, Gaetz described Fuentes' claims of legal persecution since the Jan. 6 riots. Even if Gaetz's viewers might not entirely approve of what happened that day, he continued, "should the FBI have the ability to target people just for having bad politics?"
"'Matt Gaetz is defending white supremacists,' the press will freak out when I drop this episode," he continued. "So predictable. And I'm not. I've just seen enough to know that if we aren't judging people based on their actions, if we want to create a new class of thought crimes, it won't be long before we're all labeled or banished for one reason or another."
People might not think "what happened to Nick Fuentes" could happen to them, Gaetz darkly continued, but they're wrong. "This is how they win," he said, without specifying quite who "they" were. "This is how they destroy our great country: to demoralize and temper you, to snuff out the firebrands."
Maybe Gaetz, who only spoke at the marginally more mainstream CPAC event, was feeling left out. Maybe his preemptive defense of Fuentes followed from his suggestion at CPAC that the Department of Justice's continuing investigation into allegations that he engaged in sex-trafficking a minor amounts to political retaliation. Either way, the result is the same: a rebranding of Fuentes' noxious hate as nothing more than unorthodox political opinion, and of his "firebrand" edginess as just another color in the rainbow of conservative belief.
As Philip Bump notes in the Washington Post, after Trump praised Greene in his own CPAC speech on Saturday night, Fuentes perceived it as a win: an endorsement that could drown out the critiques, and maybe a suggestion that AFPAC IV or V could draw the big guy himself.
In the meantime, Fuentes is setting his sights on bigger game. He said on Friday night, "I look at some of the political delegations that are here tonight — and I've got my eye on Arizona, Idaho, Florida — I've got my eye on a lot of state governments in this country. And this decade, they are going to belong to America First."