The America First Political Action Conference Is Courting Republicans Towards Extremism

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Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast
Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast

White nationalist activists and their sympathizers in today’s far-right U.S. political scene are set to gather this week for a conference meant to showcase their movement’s numbers and its successes courting Republican Party influence in the post-Capitol riot landscape.

The America First Political Action Conference is headlined and organized by white nationalist activist Nicholas Fuentes and derives its name from a merger of Fuentes’ America First podcast and the event it is designed to siphon crowds from: the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Arizona’s Rep. Paul Gosar opened for Fuentes at last year’s AFPAC conference and has continued to root for the young white nationalist. Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, popular with Trump and other 2020 election deniers nationwide, has also sung Fuentes’ praises online. Both Arizona politicians are slated to appear at AFPAC this weekend, in addition to former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and Iowa Rep. Steve King, both of whom hold notoriety for harboring unusually cruel anti-immigrant attitudes. Trump-endorsed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake was advertised as a speaker on one iteration of the event’s flier, though she has since denied that she plans to attend. (Fuentes chalked up the confusion to a scheduling conflict rather than an ideological one, writing to his Telegram followers, “Just a misunderstanding. Take it easy on her we support her.”)

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes wears fake handcuffs backstage during a “Demand Free Speech” rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images</div>

Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes wears fake handcuffs backstage during a “Demand Free Speech” rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

There was a period in time where associating with Fuentes and his posse’s naked extremism and hate was a mark of death on conservative political figures’ mainstream careers, and rightfully so. Though Fuentes often denies considering himself a white nationalist, he espouses the ideology verbatim in public settings often and specifically. Fuentes also regularly proclaims anti-semitic beliefs; he has engaged in Holocaust denialism and once denounced far-right commentator Matt Walsh as a “shabbos goy race traitor” because Walsh, who is white, works for an outlet run by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who is Jewish. Fuentes was a leading figure in 2020’s “Stop the Steal” election-denial movement and has been resultantly subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot. At last year’s AFPAC, Fuentes praised the deadly attack and told the crowd at his conference that “we need a little bit more of that energy in the future.”

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Longtime conservative columnist Michelle Malkin torpedoed her reputation in mainstream conservative circles in 2019 after she decided to commit herself to Fuentes and the movement he leads. (Fuentes’ followers call Malkin their “mommy” in return.) Conservative youth organizing powerhouse Turning Point USA severed its ties with social media personality Ashley St. Clair after she appeared in photographs alongside Fuentes and other extreme right figures. And organizers of CPAC, who are seldom selective of their attendees, have banned Fuentes from attending prior years’ events.

But that righteous stigma has gradually waned from Fuentes and his movement, thanks in no small part to the tokens of validity loaned to him by elected officials like Gosar and Rogers. Media outlets like Fox News and commentators like Glenn Greenwald have also extended varying degrees of sympathy toward Fuentes in the last year. There has been an apparent lack of interest in condemning or correcting those who have effectively sanitized Fuentes to a portion of the post-Capitol riot conservative landscape. After attending last year’s AFPAC conference, Gosar appeared on a panel at CPAC the next morning without fuss from CPAC organizers or other conference speakers. This indifference has enabled Fuentes to expand his tent to include more far-right figures.

Political Research Associates research analyst Ben Lorber said he finds this trend troubling because “it signals to a broader set of right-wing leaders that white nationalists, and the ideas they represent, are becoming acceptable to include within conservative coalitions and discourse.”

“Over the last year, this trend has arguably raised Fuentes' profile in conservative circles and cemented his status as the standard-bearer for white nationalism in the post-Trump era, and it has emboldened many of his Groyper followers to seek further inroads into different corners of the MAGA ecosystem, from QAnon and anti-vaccine movements to electoral campaigns and more,” Lorber said.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Nicholas Fuentes marches through the streets while speaking to people associated with the far-right group America First at an anti-vaccine protest in front of Gracie Mansion on November 13, 2021 in New York City.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Stephanie Keith/Getty Images</div>

Nicholas Fuentes marches through the streets while speaking to people associated with the far-right group America First at an anti-vaccine protest in front of Gracie Mansion on November 13, 2021 in New York City.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

This year’s conference will also host an expanded rogues gallery of extremist movement figures and disgraced far-right media personalities. Gavin McInnes, the Canadian media figure who founded the violent Proud Boys group, is new to this year’s roster. So is Milo Yiannopolous, who fell from his one-time throne in conservative media after an audio clip emerged in which he appeared to defend pedophilia. Longtime publishers of white nationalist writing Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow are announced to be attending this year’s conference, as will Andrew Torba, who runs the far-right social media site Gab. Other notable guests will include noxious far-right conspiracy theorists like Stew Peters and Patrick Howley, anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer, and far-right podcasters Vincent James Foxx and Jesse Lee Peterson.

Hannah Gais, a senior researcher for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that Fuentes’ proximity to less-fringe politicians like Gosar and Rogers “has demonstrated to other parts of the far right that his movement is deserving of their support,” even if those speakers don’t always support the entirety of Fuentes’ agenda.

“He’s shown that he can garner the attention of people with power, and that sort of access is very enticing to more fringe far-right figures,” Gais said. “Fuentes’ goal is to transform the GOP into a ‘truly reactionary party.’ It’s a goal he shares with many of the far-right extremists coming to AFPAC, regardless of whatever ideological differences they may have.”

It is with that common cause that Fuentes and his guests will convene the third year of his conference orbiting CPAC in Orlando, Florida. CPAC regularly attracts and courts large groups of young conservatives from around the country, offering them networking and job-hunting opportunities. Fuentes’ evident strategy is to siphon away an amount of those young faces to his burgeoning hate movement in hopes of strong-arming the conservative movement more broadly toward an unapologetic far-right bent.

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That strategy, which began in the wake of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which some AFPAC speakers including Fuentes attended, has accelerated in effort since the Capitol riot marked the strength of an insurgent anti-democratic movement among the conservative base. Earlier this month, that swell was cemented in the Republican National Committee’s record when it declared the riot “legitimate political discourse.” For Fuentes and his AFPAC allies, the sea change represents a chance to claw further toward the acceptability they seek.

“These figures see the growth of the hard-right, anti-democratic faction of the Republican Party in the aftermath of January 6 as an opportunity to push their own reactionary agendas further into the mainstream,” Gais said.

Without aggressive pushback, that strategy just might work. As the lines between mainstream conservative politics and once-taboo far-right ideologies have blurred, figures like Fuentes are capitalizing on the moment.

AFPAC has two mystery speakers listed on its lineup. Last year, the event’s unannounced speaker was Gosar. If this event is like last year’s, we may see more high-profile names validating a racist hate movement.

It is well past time for level heads in the Republican Party to speak out and act against those enabling people like Fuentes within their ranks. If the Grand Old Party chooses to remain silent as politicians like Gosar lend extremists the keys to influence, they may never get them back.

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