The Outrage Industry’s Latest Child Soldier
Oh, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Many are the times that conservatives have set out to excommunicate the extremists in their midst. These purges are sometimes necessary (the Birchers, Ayn Rand) and sometimes hasty (Joe Sobran), but they always tend to target perceived bigots, those who use their so-called conservatism as a cover for hatred of abstract groups. This was true even of Rand, whose contempt for dissenters inspired one of Whittaker Chambers’ better lines: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard from painful necessity, commanding, ‘To a gas chamber—go!’”
Now the kids are getting in on the fun. Enter Nick Fuentes, a 22-year-old Donald Trump supporter and head of something called the Groypers, which, far from being the Bill Clinton tribute group that a cursory read of its name might suggest, is actually an alt-right online front. The Groypers made headlines last week when they heckled a speech by that notorious RINO Donald Trump Jr. Their intent, it appears, was to drive a wedge between Trump and event moderator Charlie Kirk, a conservative campus organizer whom they deem to be insufficiently right-wing. The disruption they caused was so protracted that both Trump and Kirk were eventually forced to flee, allowing Fuentes to declare victory.
So now there’s talk of a “college Republican civil war,” as conservatives line up to file their ostraka against Fuentes, and a few immigration hawks—notably Michelle Malkin—fly to his defense. For his part, Fuentes appears to live up to all his press—he is both a diehard Donald Trump supporter and an execrable racist. But what jumped out most to me was this description of him from a recent Vox profile: Fuentes, Vox said, is “a former conservative radio host.” Former conservative radio host? How in the hell is a 22-year-old a former conservative radio host? Was he filling in for Rush during middle school homeroom? Was he deejaying whilst in amniotic fluid? This is how old I am: I can’t fathom that a radio show is now a mere stepping stone to online fame rather than the career capper that it used to be.
To understand how a bigot like Fuentes can suddenly become a public figure, you have to examine these new dynamics of conservative media. All the old gatekeepers, those stodgy opinion page deans and drawling debate show hosts of yore, have fallen away. This has allowed virtually anyone to become a right-of-center celebrity—all you need to do is grab a webcam, start ranting, and pray to YouTube’s household gods that you’ll go viral. It’s especially easy for students, as older conservatives love to see their views reflected back by the young. The problem is that with so many prospective Tomi Lahrens jostling around, the market for conservative personalities has grown crowded. These days, you really need to stand out if you want to get noticed, and the easiest way to do that is to claim that you’re a True Conservative™, or at least truer than what’s currently out there. Those more established voices might be compromised, sullied by liberalism, but not you; you’re ideologically pure, you’re ready to fight.
This dynamic has touched off a seemingly endless sequence of creative destruction, as one conservative tries to out-conservative another, only to be out-conservatived himself a few months or weeks or seconds later. Now the market has coughed up Fuentes, who claims his is the truest conservatism of all. He contrasts his spotlessness with Kirk, whom he charges is too libertarian (Kirk himself was once a True Conservative, but that was almost two years ago, epochs in internet time). Yet Fuentes’ so-called conservatism is little more than warmed-over racism. Fuentes has said of segregation that “it was better for them, it’s better for us.” He’s questioned the Holocaust using a crowbar-fingered analogy involving Cookie Monster. He’s denied being a white nationalist but only because the left uses it as a defamatory term. He seems generally unpleasant. He sits in front of a half-assed backdrop of New York City and whines about his mom, looking like a fetal Guy Smiley about to start waving his learner’s permit around.
He is, in other words, a typical online hater. But it would be unfair to look at his feud with Kirk and see only a game of conservative leapfrog. Beneath all the posturing and flexing is a substantive disagreement that’s worth examining. Kirk believes that the United States is what’s called a propositional nation, meaning, as he puts it, that “America’s just a placeholder for timeless ideas.” On this, he echoes Ronald Reagan, who said in a 1988 speech that “America represents something universal in the human spirit” and that “anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.” Fuentes thinks this is nonsense. The American people are not mere ideological vessels; it is they, along with their landscapes and monuments and customs, the physical United States, that constitute our country. And there, at least, he has a point. The notion that a country can be a mere idea is woefully incomplete. We’re Aristotelians; the form needs its material.
The correct answer, then, is that America is both its people and its ideas, that the latter grew out of the former as a kind of philosophical encapsulation of the way we live. The problem comes when you go to the opposite extreme, when you try to jettison the classically liberal ideas entirely. This may be the exact moment that a conservative becomes a reactionary. Because if you look at American history, you find an awful lot of people animated by those ideas, working to extend liberty and the franchise to the disempowered. Without that national narrative—one might even call it an identity—you have to find an alternative story, one that usually ends up being fundamentally false. You might claim, for example, that the United States is actually a Catholic nation and that our real founding is wrapped up in the miracle at Guadalupe. You might also assert, far more perniciously, that America is a country meant for whites.
This is how those like Fuentes reach their delusions (though typically the racism comes first and then the ideas are cast away). And while I’m sure he’s enjoyed spilling his Spaghetti-Os in front of an online audience, I wonder whether Fuentes has ever really considered the consequences of his actions. Because in railing against the mixing of the races, you doom yourself to a fixed path. Even if you eventually grow up and repudiate your views, YouTube is forever. And no real estate firm or graphic design company is going to hire someone who cut his teeth screaming about how his babysitter is under the influence of Jewish power. So while the right-wing outrage market might tempt with the promise of fame, its incentives are at odds with those of the greater economy: you can accrue Twitter followers by dabbling in racism, but ultimately you’ll ruin yourself.
In a way, then, this is our fault, my fellow conservatives. Too many of us prized willpower over consideration, purity over dialectic, and before us now stands a total caricature of our philosophy, a white nationalist child soldier who’s gaining followers because he promises to fight. Then again, who knows? Maybe the standards will change again and another True Conservative will arise. Maybe the next Democratic president will come out against the worship of toucans and conservatives will trip over themselves pledging their fealty to tropical birds. Maybe Fuentes will be found lacking on the toucan question and another 400 YouTubers will whiz past him into the maw screeching about their ornithological purity. The conservative personality market, like a couple others I can think of, is lurching towards absurdity. It would be a good thing if we could find a way to slow its roll.