Anyone under the impression that the Right’s intellectuals, politicians, and grassroots in the era of Trump constitute a unified bloc ruthlessly pursuing a political strategy should consider footage from this weekend of Donald Trump Jr. being heckled off the stage during his book tour. The president’s son coming under attack from a group of self-described “America First nationalists”? As Marx would say, the Right has some internal contradictions to work through.
What the footage shows, as Jane Coaston ably explains at Vox, is a battle in the “Groyper War,” an ongoing project of Internet personality Nicholas Fuentes to sic his followers on members of Conservative Inc. (Coaston is wrong, however, that “Groypers” are the same as “Pepes”: same species, different meme.) The Groyper War started when Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk fired a woman from his organization for associating with Fuentes, who can be charitably described as alt-right but with savvier branding. In response, Fuentes’s followers have been showing up at the events Kirk always seems to be having, asking questions about demographic change, homosexuality, the USS Liberty, and other brass tacks. Likely tipped off by Kirk, who sat next to him, Trump Jr. canceled the Q-and-A, depriving guests from hearing more about “how the Left thrives on hate and wants to silence us.”
That’s a funny contradiction, but far from the most interesting. For what the Groyper War represents is Fuentes’s attempt to claim outsider status against other up-and-comers on the right at a time when Trump, the consummate outsider, has plenty of institutional power and more hangers-on. Fuentes is not a Buckley conservative circa 1964 or a Tea Partier circa 2014, but the dynamic now is the same as it was then: Status as a conservative outsider is a valuable currency that helps buy political power, but it depreciates quickly, leaving the powerful vulnerable to the charge of membership in the establishment. Trump Jr. and Kirk risk losing their outsider status. Fuentes wants to capitalize on his.
His strategy appears simple. Suggest that Conservative Inc. has taken unconservative positions on meaningful issues, perhaps for venal reasons. Tie yourself to Trump, who still possesses outsider credibility among millions of ordinary Republican voters. If confronted with evidence that you’re less interested in ordinary political issues and more interested in advocating a white ethnostate and in asking whether the smokestacks at Treblinka were tall enough to incinerate people — which Fuentes is — then insist that you’re being censored and laugh at those who aren’t in on the “joke.” Because Fuentes has been indiscreet about his white nationalism in the past, he needs to sanitize his brand, ideally by securing endorsements from higher-profile and marginally-more-acceptable conservative outsiders. He has 66,000 followers and a livestream, but if he can position himself as the true inheritor of the Trumpist insurgency, there’s nowhere to go but up. Next stop: Ann Coulter.
Nobody ever accused Trump or his fans of seriously policing their rightward boundary, so Fuentes has avoided a rebuke from the president (but coming after his son may prove to be a mistake). Well-meaning but tactically ignorant rebukes from certain commentators have played into his strategy, and helped him launder the “establishment-versus-outsider” message via irresponsible pundits and imbecilic politicians. Ordinary right-leaning Americans may be too busy with their lives to follow the details of what Fuentes believes, and might therefore lump him in with run-of-the-mill Trumpists. That is a scenario we should want to avoid.
Meanwhile, Fuentes is picking enemies whose conservatism tends to be notional, tribal, and shallow, while he and his followers know precisely what they believe and why they believe it. At an event at Ohio State University two weeks ago, a Fuentes follower asked Kirk why the decline of white majorities would not endanger prospects of conservative politics in the future. Kirk’s response was muddled and ineffective, indicating he has never thought deeply about the issue of identity in an era of demographic change. No wonder the exchange seemed to give Fuentes momentum. Far better was Kirk’s forceful approach last night, after which Fuentes admitted, “No getting around it, tonight’s event went poorly.”
The upshot of all this is unclear. Does it represent a gutter front in the ongoing attempt to draw the battle lines of the post-Trump Right? On this view, think tanks and writers on the coasts will supply intellectual credentials to a reactionary politics, while Fuentes gets the kiddos on board. Or is it ultimately an exercise in vanity for a glorified Twitch streamer who will never capture any real power of his own and who is too toxic even for alt-curious publications to touch? One lesson of the Trump administration is that having a real institutional infrastructure, something more than a network of anonymous Twitter accounts, is necessary to effectuate sweeping political change. But another is not to be complacent about sinister elements on the political margins. Outsider status remains valuable, and yesterday’s gatekeepers are losing power. Fuentes could disappear in a matter of weeks, but someone else is already waiting for the opportunity his disappearance — or, worse, his success — will create.