On November 19, 2016, days after Donald Trump’s startling election victory, White nationalist Richard Spencer stood in an event space near the White House, feeling the wind of history in his sails. Addressing the approximately 200 attendees of his National Policy Institute’s yearly conference—a hodgepodge of middle-class Millennials, aging White nationalists, neonazis, hipster identitarians, and other Alt Right figures—Spencer yelled, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Several audience members raised their forearms in Nazi salutes. Captured on video, the stunt bewildered and frightened the U.S. public, and helped lend the Alt Right national infamy.
Four years later, on November 14, 2020, Spencer and the Alt Right had faded from prominence, and Washington’s streets played host to Generation Z’s version of White nationalism. In a corner of the Million MAGA March—a gathering of between 11,000 and 15,000 Trump supporters who’d come to the capital to protest Trump’s electoral loss—22-year-old Nick Fuentes repeatedly bellowed “America First!” into a megaphone while more than 100 of his followers roared in approval.
Fuentes’ army of self-described “Groypers”—a name borrowed from their online mascot, a cartoon toad closely related to the Alt Right icon Pepe the Frog—looked like clean-cut, Generation Z, White kids: campus Republican types in polo shirts, jeans, and MAGA hats, wielding American flags and edgy memes on their phones. The Groypers blended into the larger MAGA crowd, distinguished only by their cluster of blue “America First” flags, while Fuentes, in a speech carefully tailored to appeal to mainstream Trump supporters, championed “the American people, rising up and taking control over our government and over our country once again.” There were no audible calls to save the White race from extinction at Fuentes’ rally, though, in endless talk of preserving the “tradition” and “heritage” of “our people and our historic nation,” the undertone wasn’t hard to detect.
Still, just as Spencer had four years earlier, Fuentes also seemed to feel himself on the brink of history. “We’ve finally arrived into the Trump faction,” Fuentes exulted the next day, speaking to his Groypers on his nightly “America First” broadcast on the alternative streaming website DLive. The Million MAGA March, he went on, “was really the moment when America First arrived.”
But what exactly had arrived wasn’t yet clear. While Spencer and Fuentes share an overarching political agenda—saving the “White race” from demographic “extinction”—the 2016 Alt Right and 2020 America First/Groyper movements differ significantly on questions of movement strategy and tactics, optics and orientation. How is it that, over Trump’s four years in office, the once vibrant Alt Right—itself a strategic rebranding of previous White nationalist formations—has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, while Fuentes’ mainstreaming star has continued to rise? What can we learn from the past, and what can we anticipate for the future of U.S. White nationalism?
The Optics Wars
When an 18-year-old Nick Fuentes left his family home in the Chicago suburbs for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, he’d already completed a journey familiar to many on the Alt Right: traveling from the free-market libertarianism of his early high school years to a “race realism” fixated on narratives of White dispossession and ethnonationalism. Fuentes, like many others, was energized by what he’d seen: the coalition of Identitarians, National Socialists, Klansmen, neo-Confederates, and militia members that had flexed its collective muscle on the streets of Charlottesville. “The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming,” he proclaimed jubilantly on Facebook on the second day of the rally—the day White nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. murdered counterprotestor Heather Heyer in a car attack that would horrify the country. “The fire rises!”
Over the next year, however, the Alt Right fell into confusion and gradual decline. With the nation shocked by the brazen bigotry on display, the chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” and Heyer’s murder, public initiatives to limit the spread of the movement took on a new intensity. White nationalist personalities and organizations came under a wave of doxxing and social media deplatforming, and were further stymied by lawsuits, infighting, vigorous counterdemonstrations, and general incompetence. By the time “Unite The Right 2.0” was held the following summer, most leading White nationalist groups had fallen into disarray.
At the same time, tensions within the movement came to a head around a series of strategy debates across the Alt Right’s online ecosystem of blogs, forums, and social media platforms, pivoting around questions of “optics”—debates which continue today. The optimism that once led many to believe the insurgent Trump presidency would serve as a wrecking ball to the conservative establishment, flinging open the gates for dissidents like them, had given way to disillusionment. Trump’s 2016 campaign appeals to White identity politics, anti-globalism, foreign policy isolationism, and economic nationalism had, to their eyes, been co-opted, subverted, and defanged by the “globalist” conservative establishment and donor class: a faction they saw as embodying an anti-White agenda of open borders for immigrants and trade, liberal cosmopolitanism, and slavish support for Israel.
Given this reality, the movement debated whether it should prioritize mainstream respectability—working within the political system to gradually transform conservative institutions and public opinion—or instead develop inward-facing institutions, catering to a seasoned cadre of pure ideologues, often striving for the revolutionary overthrow or collapse of the entire system, by any means necessary.
The vanguardists, or “wignats”—a loose label meaning “Wigger Nationalists,” usually used as a pejorative by critics of the faction—chose the latter path. “Mainstreaming is running out of time,” wrote White nationalist polemicist Brad Griffin, later a vocal critic of the Groypers, on his blog Occidental Dissent in 2018. “We’ve only got around 20 years now until we are an outright racial minority in the United States.” Convinced that there was “no political solution” capable of halting the quickening demographic extinction of the White race, many advocated violence, including “accelerationist” terror against minorities and the state, up to and including mass shootings. Some of their supporters even followed through, and a wave of FBI crackdowns against accelerationist terror cells ensued. Many vanguardists came to embrace the bleak pessimism of “the black pill”: movement terminology, riffing off the “red pill” of conservative awakening, to describe despair and hopelessness. Many retreated from activism entirely, preaching the virtues of self-transformation, White family-rearing, and off-the-grid homesteading. Total independence had a hopeful upside for the black-pillers: if they got their wish and the American system collapsed, they would be prepared to care for their families, protect their allies, and launch a new White nation.
By contrast, the mainstreamers, who came to be pejoratively called “AmNats” (American Nationalists), recommitted themselves to transforming mainstream institutions. Often maintaining qualified support for the broader movement of Trumpism, groups like Identity Evropa (soon to rebrand itself as the American Identity Movement) attempted to infiltrate local GOP party infrastructure and campus conservative groups, quietly introduce and normalize ideas of White Identitarianism, find recruits, and affect policy. “There’s nothing wrong with having grandiose visions for the future (e.g. the ethno-state), for these can motivate and inspire,” explained Patrick Casey, Identity Evropa’s executive director and a future Groyper leader, in a series of 2018 tweets. “Nevertheless, we need to focus on concrete, achievable goals that make things better for people of European heritage. And above all else, we must be strategic. Short of a cataclysmic event, incrementalism is the way forward.” Eventually, however, these groups found their momentum stymied by waves of deplatforming and doxxing, their rebranding attempts tarred by unshakeable association with the toxic Alt Right brand.
In April 2019, Fuentes outlined his theory of change on a private, members-only episode of his “America First” webcast. The task at hand, he outlined, is to “break away and form a new periphery,” made up of “people who are right on the [White nationalist] issues…[but] don’t have all the baggage, all the crazy stuff, all the fringe extreme ideas, talk about violence, symbology that is repugnant to Americans.” Things could change, he reassured his followers, “if enough people get in there, introduce the talking points, infiltrate, start converting people, and build bridges… Bit by bit we start to break down these walls and we start to get back in…and then one day, we become the mainstream.” The critical strategy, he explained, “is we have to start changing our look and aesthetic to blend in…put on the American flag…make the appearance of ‘hey, maybe we can create this new space, maybe there are these new guys…they’re a little bit out there, but they’re not like these other guys [the Alt Right]… There’s maybe this new category’….That’s the kind of uncertainty we have to create.” Soon, Fuentes, joined by Patrick Casey at the head of the Groyper movement, would find an opportunity to put this plan into action.
The Groyper Rebellion
In the fall of 2019, the Groypers burst into public view with a series of disruptions of speaking events on college campuses held by the conservative youth outfit Turning Point USA (TPUSA). Night after night, in auditoriums packed with campus conservatives, a bevy of clean-cut young White men holding crucifixes packed the audience Q&A line, bombarding speakers with questions designed to bridge the gap between the culture wars of the mainstream Right and the race war sought by White nationalists. “According to the U.S. Census Bureau population projections, in 2045, Whites will account for less than 50 percent of the population in the United States,” began one Groyper in a question to TPUSA head Charlie Kirk at Ohio State University in October 2019. Given that most non-White groups vote Democratic, he continued, “how can we be sure that said American ideals will be maintained when millions of immigrants come in with majority Democratic support? Can you prove that our White European ideals can be maintained if the country’s majority is no longer made up of White European descendants? If not, should we support mass legal immigration?”
Other questions, sourced from the playbook of far-right homophobia, gender normativity, and antisemitism, chastised conservative leaders for abandoning the culture wars against “anal sex” and “drag queen story hour,” and, to paraphrase common movement parlance, for putting “Israel First” and “America Last.” The goal, with these and future public confrontations, was to drive a wedge between leading right-wing figures, portrayed as emblems of a milquetoast, degenerate conservative establishment—derisively shorthanded as “Conservative, Inc.”—and the movement’s energetic, ultra-nationalist, and youthful future.
When Groyper heckling shut down a TPUSA event featuring Donald Trump, Jr. at UCLA in November 2019, the “Groyper Wars” made international news, and voices across the Right wondered if, in fact, conservatism under Trump was undergoing a seismic, generational lurch even further Right. When the Groypers were barred from attending the annual national gatherings of TPUSA and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), they held their own suit-and-tie America First conferences outside both events, presenting themselves as a credible counter-hegemonic alternative to establishment conservatism. “The America First movement has basically taken the initiative as the central challenger to conservative inc,” Fuentes gloated on the alternative social media site Telegram on March 1, 2020. “We are consolidating the dissident Right sphere behind America First against conservative inc….increasingly this is becoming a central and defining fault line.”
From there, Fuentes continued to cultivate his cadre of Groypers as a largely decentralized network: a motley crew of mostly anonymous online racist trolls and disaffected campus conservatives who clustered around the charismatic personality of Fuentes and his “America First” show. With a laser focus on right-wing youth, the Groypers launched their inaugural America First Students chapter at Kansas State University over the winter of 2020, and planned for a campus speaking tour to further influence young conservatives. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they doubled down on online organizing, storming the Generation Z social media app TikTok with a flurry of quickly-banned America First accounts and challenging young conservative influencers on the app to public confrontation and debate.
In a series of late-night Zoom video salons held with Fuentes beginning in late April 2020, dozens of influential Generation Z conservative tastemakers—including the creators of the mega-popular Conservative Hype House, commanding a combined 54 million likes and 1.5 million followers on TikTok alone—reacted variously, with combative disagreement, skepticism, curiosity, and measured sympathy as an affable Fuentes argued patiently for the core tenets of White nationalism. “You need a racial core to anchor the country,” Fuentes told his audience that night. In a later call, Fuentes said that in order to protect American greatness, their generation must end immigration, since, as he put it, “you cannot replace the population of the country and have the same country.” In order to truly solve racial divisions, he continued, conservatives must accept that disparities in education, income, crime rates, and more are rooted in irreconcilable and biological racial differences in intelligence and other faculties, and that liberal notions about multiracial societies threaten to doom 21st Century America to failure. When one interlocutor admitted that “alot of us in Turning Point USA are very sympathetic to Nick and the Groypers,” and asked how they could help “fuse those two worlds together,” Fuentes advised him to be careful “not to get kicked out, and the easiest way to do that is to be way too open about your sympathies.” Intead, Fuentes suggested, “begin to share some of your inquiries or ideas with your fellow Turning Point members and see how they react.” The goal was to keep “one foot in one world and one foot in the other,” in order to influence future leaders of U.S. conservatism.
“We Are Not the Alt Right”
The spirit of the Groyper movement, at its core, is the Alt Right warmed over: a White nationalist boys’ club channeling virulent misogyny, racism, antisemitism, and homophobia into edgy meme warfare, with seasoned Alt Right veterans in their movement base and leadership, and Alt Right figureheads, such as livestreamer Baked Alaska and Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin, in their broad movement orbit. Since their entry upon the national stage, however, the Groypers have strategically modulated their White nationalist beliefs in a careful register of apple-pie Americanism and Christian nationalism—a synthesis that significantly departs from other strands of White nationalism and which they hope will resonate with the zeitgeist of movement conservatism, making it palatable to a much larger constituency. “We are not the Alt-Right,” Fuentes insisted emphatically in November 2019 on Telegram. “[The Alt Right] was a racialist, atheist, post-American, revolutionary and transnational movement. America First is a traditionalist, Christian, conservative, reformist, American Nationalist Movement.”
The “White race” Fuentes seeks to conserve, far from some mystical Aryan essence, is American through and through, finding its substance and expression in the inherited history, culture, mythology, and, above all, bloodline of generations of White Americans on U.S. soil. While many White nationalists envision a coming apocalyptic collapse of the existing order and subsequent genesis of a radically new, all-White ethnostate, Fuentes’ more modest, and deeply nostalgic, orientation aims to restore a lost “golden age” of White demographic supermajority, while claiming to allow a non-White minority to remain and advocating for alliances with right-wing Latinxs in the GOP base.
This vision allows the Groypers ample room for coalition-building and some degree of ideological flexibility as they seek to attract disaffected conservatives, including by (very) occasionally highlighting the rare racial minority voice in their overwhelmingly White, and deeply racist, milieu. Among that small number is Fuentes himself, whose father is half-Mexican and who occasionally identifies as Latino (mostly in an attempt to rebuke charges of White nationalism). Other putatively multiracial far-right formations, such as the Proud Boys, claim to champion a non-racial brand of civic nationalist chauvinism. By contrast, the Groypers, by imbuing buzzwords like “tradition,” “heritage,” and the “historic American nation” with a distinct, if sometimes subtle, racial core, are engaged in a metapolitical project of dislodging the formally “color-blind” Reaganite conservative consensus, and inserting racial nationalism into the ideas that constitute modern conservatism.
Fervent appeals to a hard-edged, exclusionary Christian nationalism—replete with virulent polemics against gender and sexual “degeneracy,” calls for patriarchal dominance, and Christian control over civic and political life—allow the mostly Catholic Groypers to graft their campaign to “save the White race” onto an already-established Christian Right framework, lending it the flavor of a militant moral and religious crusade. These appeals also allow Fuentes—who has flirted with Holocaust denial, regularly lashes out against “the Jewish media” and “world Jewry…running the show,” and demonizes conservative Jewish opponents as Christ-haters and “luciferian shapeshifter[s]”—to add overtones of theological anti-Judaism to his populist conspiracism. “This is about the satanic globalist elite,” Fuentes thundered into the megaphone at the Million MAGA March, naming frequent Jewish targets of the Right such as George Soros, “versus us, the people of Christ.”
Suits vs. Boots
The Groypers are hardly the first White nationalist formation to choose “suits” over “boots,” in the traditional shorthand for conventional respectability over militant rebellion. Indeed, the contemporary White nationalist movement, as it evolved in the Civil Rights era and beyond, consistently debated the merits of a mainstreaming versus vanguardist approach. In the 1960s, for example, Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby committed to what one author called a “white supremacist realpolitik”: establishing itself as a Capitol Hill advocacy outfit, becoming active in the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, and seeking to grow its base and build bridges between far-right conservatives and open White nationalists.
Movement vanguardists like influential organizer and terror propagandist William Pierce—best known as the author of the violently White supremacist book The Turner Diaries—were unimpressed with these mainstreaming efforts, and instead recruited small cadres of dedicated White nationalist foot soldiers into underground counter-institutions. Over the next several decades, many White nationalists, devastated by the victories of the Civil Rights movement, the rise of the New Left, and other societal transformations, would follow in Pierce’s footsteps, embracing revolutionary violence against the “Zionist Occupation Government” in an era of bloodshed that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing by White nationalist Timothy McVeigh.
During the same time, neonazi and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke also pulled off the most successful White nationalist mainstreaming effort to date, running a series of electoral campaigns for various Louisiana offices that captured national attention. Much like the Groypers, Duke modulated the radical core of his beliefs, playing on fears of White dispossession and victimization felt by a broad segment of White Louisianans.
When Duke won a surprising 55 percent of Louisiana’s White vote as the Republican candidate in the 1991 gubernatorial runoff election, he caught the attention of conservatives around the country, including paleoconservative leader Pat Buchanan, then launching his own insurgency within the GOP against the interventionist, free-trade, neoconservative consensus. “The way to deal with Mr. Duke,” Buchanan noted as he prepared his own presidential run, “is the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues; and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles.”
Buchanan’s 1992 campaign, with its direct appeals to White resentment, its populist and isolationist invectives against globalism, and its flirtations with authoritarianism, would enshrine “America First” paleoconservatism on the rightward edge of movement conservatism for decades to come, helping pave the way for Tea Party populism under Obama and the rise of Trumpism. “The intrepid former Klan wizard,” wrote antifascist author Lenny Zeskind, “had opened the door. But it was Pat Buchanan who walked through.”
Today, it is Fuentes who, in a sense, follows in the footsteps of Buchanan, claiming the paleoconservative legacy as his own as he grafts an explicit racial lens onto the narratives of cultural and civilizational decay popularized by his predecessor, and made mainstream in the era of Trump.
“America First Is Inevitable”
In the final months of 2020, Fuentes continued to speak to sizeable crowds at “Stop the Steal” rallies around the country, and the Groypers’ sustained presence at these events drew a new wave of media attention for the movement. While most Stop the Steal speakers focused their ire on Democrats, Fuentes consistently redirected rage against a Republican establishment that, he insisted, had betrayed and abandoned “King Trump” in the leader’s hour of greatest need. Calling for Groypers to embed themselves in local GOP infrastructure and run candidates in state and federal primary elections in 2022—a popular insurgent plan to “destroy the GOP” and “replace it from the inside with people who are America First”—Fuentes hoped to use this unstable interregnum to establish a narrative of GOP treason, sharpening the contradictions within electoral conservatism and securing a niche for America First on its far-right flank.
After the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building, Fuentes—who promoted the rally, floated the prospect of killing legislators to his followers two days before, and helped incite the crowd outside the Capitol—was banned from his streaming platform DLive, where he’d earned more than $43,000 in donations in the last two months of 2020 alone. While the long-term repercussions from that event remain to be seen, in many ways, the Groypers have arrived right on time for the U.S. Right. The Trump revolution unleashed torrents of conspiratorial, authoritarian, populist Christian nationalism that were long brewing in the fractured heart of modern conservatism, catalyzing a mounting process of radicalization across the Right that only stands to accelerate in the wake of the economic and social dislocation caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the bitterness of the Biden victory, and more. And as the conservative coalition reshapes itself in the post-Trump era, there will be no shortage of inroads for mainstreaming movements like the Groypers, and no shortage of recruitment opportunities for vanguardist formations as well. Meanwhile, the results of the 2020 census, to be released in early 2021, may escalate debates around changing U.S. demographics, with studies already indicating that millions of White people increasingly see themselves as a marginalized and beleaguered racial group.
In a February 2019 members-only broadcast, Fuentes predicted that “Generation Z is going to save us.” As part of the first U.S. generation to be nearly 50 percent people of color, in a cultural milieu where the salience of race relations and identity politics looms large, White members of Generation Z, he argued, “will be the first generation that is truly White”—meaning they will more readily see themselves as a marginalized group, and utilize the language of White identity to articulate perceived group interests and grievances. While acknowledging that much of the generation actually leans liberal to Left, Fuentes insisted that an “extremely vocal minority” could help “change the way that right-wing politics work and identity politics work in the country.”
“All the ingredients are there,” he continued, “for a real traditionalist, White identitarian movement to rise.”
The vanguardist “wignat” camp, for its part, condemns the Groypers as naive and destined to be co-opted by a GOP that remains structurally incapable of saving the “White race.” Most grudgingly admit, however, that at least for now, their camp has captured the center of gravity for a White nationalist movement at a crossroads. “The divide isn’t really AmNat-Wignat anymore,” acknowledged CounterCurrents writer Travis LeBlanc, “so much as it is AmNat versus Not AmNat.”
But in whatever formation, and beyond the vicissitudes of any election cycle, White nationalism continues to pose a full-frontal threat to multiracial democracy. Its threat takes the form not only of tiki-torch marches and sporadic terrorism, but also of mainstreaming efforts like the Groyper movement. Yesterday and today, these efforts have proved themselves capable of winning White nationalist recruits, mobilizing new White conservative constituencies, casting dangerous ideas deeper into the political field, and realigning the conservative consensus for decades to come.
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 Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, 278.
 Peter Wade, “MAGA Protesters Chant ‘Destroy the GOP’ at Pro-Trump Rally,” Rolling Stone, December 12, 2020, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/protesters-chant-de….
 “Nick Fuentes FULL BULLHORN SPEECH Washington DC MAGA Million March November 14 2020,” YouTube, posted by Kyle Frank on November 14, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n24ggkCGZ6k&feature=youtu.be+3%3A50.
 Chuck Tanner, “’My mission…is to destroy the GOP,’ says white nationalist Nick Fuentes,” Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, November 25, 2020, https://www.irehr.org/2020/11/25/my-mission-is-to-destroy-the-gop-says-….
 Nicholas J Fuentes (@NickJFuentes), Twitter post, November 23, 2020, https://archive.is/6R5dM.
 “Extremists and Mainstream Trump Supporters Plan to Protest Congressional Certification of Biden’s Victory,” Anti-Defamation League, January 4, 2021, https://www.adl.org/blog/extremists-and-mainstream-trump-supporters-pla….
 Megan Squire (@MeganSquire0), Twitter post, January 4, 2021, https://twitter.com/MeganSquire0/status/1346478478523125767?s=20.
 Left Coast Right Watch (@LCRWNews), Twitter post, January 11, 2021, https://twitter.com/LCRWnews/status/1348549176343216132?s=20.
 “Building a Safe and Welcoming Community,” DLive, January 9, 2021, https://community.dlive.tv/2021/01/09/building-a-safe-and-welcoming-com….
 Michael Edison Hayden, “Meet DLive: The Livestreaming Platform Used by Trump’s Capitol Insurrectionists,” January 7, 2021, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2021/01/07/meet-dlive-livestreaming-platform-used-trumps-capitol-insurrectionists.
 Zack Beauchamp, “Study: 11 million white Americans think like the alt-right,” Vox, August 10, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/10/17670992/study-white-americans-alt-right-racism-white-nationalists.
 Nicholas Fuentes, “The Case for Gen Z,” America First, February 8, 2019, https://nicholasjfuentes.com/premium/rec9nP2HwD9lDZToy/.
 Travis LeBlanc, “The Bernie Bro Question, Part Three: Cringe Encounters of the Third Position,” Counter-Currents, April 24, 2020, https://archive.is/2mWDy.