On Jan. 6, 22-year-old Nick Fuentes stood outside the US Capitol among his followers — young, white men known as "Groypers" who were clad in matching red MAGA hats.
Raising a megaphone, he called for revolution.
"And I hope bloodlessly, or it can take place another way," Fuentes said , standing behind Vincent James Foxx, another white nationalist. "But either way, this revolution must take place because our sovereignty, our Constitution, and our country has been stolen from us."
As an 18-year-old steeped in the internet meme culture of the alt-right, Fuentes had traveled to Charlottesville, Va. to join the Unite the Right rally, where antiracist Heather Heyer was murdered in a car-ramming attack by fellow rallygoer James Fields Jr., in August 2017.
Using language that subtly if unmistakably invoked antisemitism, Fuentes celebrated the rally on Facebook, as reported by the New York Times: "The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming. And they know that once the word gets out, they will not be able to stop us. The fire rises!"
While many of the groups that comprised the Unite the Right coalition collapsed under the strain of legal troubles, infighting, inept leadership and antifascist opposition in the streets, Fuentes quietly assembled a national following through his "America First" podcast and Twitter presence. The Groypers hit on a novel approach to garner publicity — trolling mainstream conservatives, first the Turning Point USA tour in the fall of 2019, and then the CPAC conference in March 2020.
When the Stop the Steal protests began shortly after the November 2020 election in battleground states carried by Joe Biden, the Groypers, along with the Proud Boys, turned out.
Before then, Fuentes had been a marginal figure in the white nationalist movement.
"I think that Fuentes, more than anyone else, he saw it as an opportunity to sharpen the contradictions within the GOP, a chance to polarize," said Ben Lorber, a research analyst with Political Research Associates who has been closely tracking the Groypers over the past few months. "Every other speaker at the Stop the Steal rallies was railing against Democrats, and he redirected the anger at the traitorous Republicans.
"They're media savvy," Lorber continued. "Their movement is very focused on optics. They had a message chanted over and over at rallies: 'Destroy the GOP.' They wanted to capture media attention. It was remarkable. For many months, white nationalists were very cautious about appearing in public because they were afraid of getting doxed and losing their jobs. Very early on, Fuentes saw it as a pivotal moment to get his guys out front and center at a time when many Republicans weren't showing up. He knows that after Trump leaves, the future of the GOP is uncertain, and there are a lot of people vying to inherit the mantle of Trump's legacy."
While members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have been swept up in the national dragnet and face federal conspiracy charges for their role in the Capitol insurrection, the Groypers have, at least so far, largely avoided prosecution. As one of the most high-profile participants in the events of Jan. 6, Fuentes has used his stature to hector the GOP politicians angling to inherit the Trump legacy while embracing some of the most extreme figures in the party.
The squabbling over the future of the Trump movement continued over this past weekend, with Fuentes hosting AFPAC — short for America First Political Action Committee — as a shadow convention to the more established CPAC in Orlando, Fla. Complicating matters, Trump gave the keynote speech at CPAC on Sunday, forcing Fuentes and other speakers at AFPAC to recalibrate their support for the former president.
The Groypers were at first unimpressed by Trump's speech, with Fuentes writing on Twitter: "(this sucks)" Among commenters, the most frequently expressed theme was disappointment with the former president's invocation of "Judeo-Christian values" with posters expressing suspicion about the influence of Jared Kushner, Trump's Jewish son-in-law.
But about an hour and 15 minutes into the speech, Fuentes signaled that he was on board, tweeting in response to Trump's attack on insufficiently loyal GOP allies: "LETS GOOOOOOO."
"Now, more than ever is the time for tough, strong and energetic Republican leaders who have spines of steel," Trump said. "We need strong leadership."
In what would be the closest Trump came to acknowledging the insurrection, he said, "We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country."
One of Fuentes' followers responded on Twitter: "Trump calling out the Republicans who betrayed him — this is what I was waiting for."
Another wrote: "WE ARE BACK." And yet another chimed in: "45 is ready! Let's fucking go!"
While claiming to be Trump's true supporters, speakers at Fuentes' AFPAC gathering lobbed rhetorical hand-grenades at the more established convention where the former president was speaking. And while Trump pledged to unify the party, AFPAC speakers positioned themselves as insurgents.
"But the Republican Party is united," Trump insisted at CPAC on Sunday. "The only division is between a handful of Washington, DC establishment political hacks and everybody else all over the country — I think we have tremendous unity…."
At AFPAC, two days earlier, Vincent James Foxx fumed against GOP lawmakers as perfidious cowards betraying conservative voters through their disloyalty to Trump.
"Betrayed, stabbed in the back, over and over again, year after year, election after election," he said. "But the 2020 election and the actions that followed were the ultimate betrayal."
As an example, Foxx cited Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who actually voted against the certification of the electoral college for Biden on Jan. 6.
Foxx mockingly characterized Hawley's position as saying "we should fix the election issues in the next election," while accusing him of "staging a very theatrical and inevitably futile objection to the electoral results."
While burnishing outsider cred, Fuentes' conference also claimed some mainstream legitimacy by attracting a sitting congressman. Fuentes introduced Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) as the surprise keynote speaker and "another America First legend, a true great, and somebody I'm proud to say fought alongside us and Alex Jones and everyone else during the Stop the Steal protests in Arizona." (Gosar, like Hawley, also cast a vote against certifying the election, after the Capitol police regained control of the building.)
Gosar has been credited by Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander with conceiving of the Jan. 6 protest that led to the insurrection.
"I was the person who came up with the January 6 idea with Congressman Gosar, Congressman Mo Brooks, and then Congressman Andy Biggs," Alexander said in a video originally posted on Periscope. "We four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting so that who we couldn't lobby we could change the hearts and the minds of Republicans who were in that body hearing our loud roar from outside."
Gosar posed for a photo with Fuentes and Foxx at AFPAC, along with fellow speakers former Rep. Steve King, columnist Michelle Malkin and former Blaze TV contributor Jon Miller. King was removed from his committee assignments after questioning why the terms "white nationalist" and "white supremacist" should be considered offensive in a January 2019 interview with the New York Times.
Fuentes plainly articulated his belief in white nationalism during his Feb. 26 speech at AFPAC, while describing it as the true meaning of America First.
"So, if America ceases to be this people, if America ceases to retain that English cultural framework and the influence of European civilization, if it loses its white demographic core and if it loses its faith in Jesus Christ, then this is not America anymore," he said. "And that's got nothing to do with rights."
During the same speech, Fuentes, who notably has a Spanish surname, candidly explained the utility of having two people of color in speakers' slots for the conference.
"Just take a look at the AFPAC lineup," he said. "The more diversity you have, the less they can call you racist. This is very advantageous, the consultants tell me."
Speaking across town at the rival conference on the same day, Hawley outlined themes that sounded strikingly similar to Fuentes' argument.
"What we need is a new nationalism, a new agenda to make the rule of the people real in this country, and give the people America back — give it back to them!" Hawley said. "Give it back to you! No more rule by oligarchs — rule by the people."
Like Fuentes, Hawley argued for restrictive immigration policies.
"We're proud to be Americans," Hawley said. "And when you come to America, you join a family. In this family, we stick up for one another, we protect one another, we believe in one another. That's what citizenship means. That's why it's worth protecting. That's why we need a border."
But Fuentes seemed to almost pity Hawley in his remarks at AFPAC.
"There is also a new cadre of people that are coming around that are even seeking to coopt the message that we're talking about," Fuentes said. "They're a little more faithful to the substance of what I'm describing. Some people like Josh Hawley and some others. They use words like 'industrial policy'; that's one of their antidotes to the problems going on in the country."
Crudely summing up the distinction between his America First movement and those he considers GOP pretenders, Fuentes said, "Frankly, they're gay, and we are based."
The daylight between Fuentes' position and Hawley's comes down to Hawley's refusal to explicitly attach race to nationalism, said Ben Lorber of Political Research Associates.
White nationalists like Fuentes, Lorber said, "think the mainstream GOP can only ever support civic nationalism. As long as the Republican establishment is backed by the wealthy and industry, they're always going to jettison racial nationalism. They're more about America as an idea."
And while many GOP leaders are attempting to airbrush Jan. 6 out of their party's legacy, Fuentes insisted that it should be celebrated. Recalling how he watched rioters surround the Capitol building and police retreat as reports came in that lawmakers were going into hiding, Fuentes said he told himself: "This is awesome."
Fuentes poured scorn on the idea that the insurrection was "an attack on the sacred temple of democracy."
"The Capitol building and the District — they are the seat and they are the capitol of an evil empire, an evil empire spreading its tentacles around the world and oppressing everything that's good," he said. "And so, to see that Capitol under siege, to see the people of this country rise up and mobilize to DC with pitchforks and torches, we need a little bit more of that energy in the future."