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MESA, Ariz. – An hour into the rally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., is standing in front of the podium, microphone in hand, sways back and forth as she tears into political opponents.
She calls for a Black congresswoman to be expelled from the chamber, brands an openly gay congressman “Mussolini” and dramatically emphasizes former President Barack Obama’s middle name, “Hussein.”
Then she turns to some favorite targets on the far left, four freshman House members, all women of color: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is Puerto Rican; Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both Muslim; and Ayanna Pressley, who is Black.
“These women are a disgrace,” Greene says, gripping the mic with one hand and waving her finger with the other. “They are an embarrassment to the United States Congress. They are terrorists.”
A man in the crowd yells back, “Send them to Palestine!”
Months after President Donald Trump left office, Greene and a cast of other hard-right Republicans, including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, are pursuing an ambitious effort to sustain the former president's agenda, press the GOP further to the right and bring American politics with them.
They’ve turned to seasoned political operatives to help formulate tactics and play to Trump’s most ardent supporters, working to keep energy pumping through that base.
In a parallel effort, some right-wing activists are capitalizing on the world of "dark money" politics, where they can raise cash as groups regulated by the Internal Revenue Service, not the Federal Election Commission, and thus can largely hide their funding sources.
Those groups include the America First Foundation, spearheaded by white nationalist Nick Fuentes, that puts on the America First Political Action Conference, or AFPAC; and Women for America First, led by the mother-daughter duo of Amy and Kylie Jane Kremer. Because the dark money groups face far less stringent disclosure requirements than campaigns, the extent of their fundraising may not be known until after the 2022 midterm elections.
A decade ago, the tea party movement, fueled by grassroots enthusiasm, anti-establishment messaging and dark money, pushed the GOP to the right as activists rallied around shrinking the size of government and blocking Obama's agenda.
The America First activists mirror those tactics, focusing on race-based issues and conspiracy theories Trump pushes about a stolen election.
"Ultimately, what we're up against is an ideology or a worldview, and that has not really showed a sign of remission,” said Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. "That seems to be very much still alive and surging in Republican-aligned political circles."
Greene, Gaetz pair up for fundraising
Greene was a member of Congress for 15 days when members removed her from her committees for comments pushing conspiracy theories and threatening political opponents.
The Georgia congresswoman came barreling back in a campaign fundraising report she filed in mid-April, when she disclosed raising $3.2 million in the first three months of 2021 – the highest fundraising total for a freshman lawmaker, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Soon after, the political newsletter Punchbowl reported Greene was working behind the scenes to recruit an alliance of lawmakers called the America First Caucus. Its platform defined the USA as a “country with uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” The document warned that the country was becoming a magnet for immigrants seeking “an expansive welfare state to fall back on when they could not make it in America … at the expense of the native-born.”
On international affairs, the paper decried “globalist” agendas, terminology used in antisemitic conspiracy theories.
On national security, the paper railed against U.S. involvement in foreign wars and sending aid overseas, echoing the World War II-era America First Committee that opposed the country's intervention in Europe, attracting antisemites and fascists into its ranks.
GOP leaders shot it down. “The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln & the party of more opportunity for all Americans – not nativist dog whistles,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wrote on Twitter.
Greene called off the caucus, saying the policy paper was the work of staffers and an unnamed outside group. She unveiled the next way she would spread her message: aligning with Gaetz to form their “Put America First” joint fundraising committee, which allows the lawmakers to swap contributors with each other. If a donor who has given the maximum $2,900 to Greene writes a check to the joint committee, the extra money will go to the Gaetz camp, and vice versa.
At the pair’s three rallies in May, hundreds of Trump supporters showed up dressed in red, white and blue, some waiting hours to get in. The Mesa event brought about 750 people; one at the Villages retirement community in Florida drew about 500; and a third one in Dalton, Georgia, drew several hundred more. Many made donations to get VIP treatment.
“These are candidates who are heavily supported by people that we might consider to be extremists, but they know that these are the people who constitute a large part of their base,” said Sharon Wright Austin, a University of Florida political scientist.
Austin described their supporters as “ultraconservative” and “to the right of the right wing.”
“They still have quite a significant base, and they also have a significant fundraising base, so as a result of that, that’s only going to encourage others who have these same types of views to run for office and probably even get elected,” Austin said.
Nick Fuentes builds support for his version of America First
As Greene sought to rebound from the rebuke she faced in Congress, Fuentes, 22, a white nationalist, was building a following of young people using his perch as host of an online talk program.
In February, Fuentes – a participant in the Unite the Right white nationalist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia – hosted his second annual forum, the America First Political Action Conference. The AFPAC event in Orlando, Florida, coincided with the timing of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a high-profile gathering of the traditional GOP faithful. Fuentes’ followers blasted CPAC as too liberal.
Fuentes brought a new ally this year: Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who railed against illegal immigration and “big tech” censorship.
After Gosar’s keynote speech, Fuentes launched into white nationalist themes.
“White people founded this country,” he said. “This country wouldn’t exist without white people. And white people are done being bullied.”
Fuentes warned: “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.”
Fuentes said he sold the event out at $150 a head, hundreds attending in person and thousands watching online. He did not answer questions sent via email by USA TODAY.
Holt, from the Atlantic Council, said Fuentes’ rhetoric has previously kept him out of mainstream circles, but the apparent acceptance by right-wing conservatives could help to “sanitize” him with people who might otherwise shun him.
“And if we're going to sanitize people with such extreme beliefs, I worry that we'll have what people call the ‘Overton window effect,’ where more 'normie,' non-hyper-political audiences might not look at that and recognize it as the extremism that it is and the threat that it poses to society more broadly,” Holt said.
Gosar used his power as a congressman to pen a letter to the FBI director questioning the legality of a no-fly list on which Fuentes said he was placed. The FBI confirmed to USA TODAY that it received the letter but not whether Fuentes is on the list.
Boasting about Gosar’s letter during his livestream, Fuentes called it a “big deal.”
“I think that indicates that there is some hope maybe for 'America First' in Congress,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes' new America First Foundation is a 501c4 organization, which can raise an unlimited amount of money without paying taxes on it and without disclosing donors.
The group’s website says it stands for “traditional values, Trumpian populism, and American Nationalism.” Much like the failed America First Caucus, the website decries a “globalist agenda” threatening the group's efforts.
Fuentes created an internship program and a candidate recruitment site that asks political hopefuls to submit resumés to gain his endorsement.
“It’s time to reject the half-hearted Republican leadership that our party has grown all too complacent with, and inaugurate a new class of America First Conservatives, who will fight to restore the values which once made our nation great,” the site reads. The sign-up form asks whether the candidate would “willingly and publicly defend and support him if confronted on your connection to Nicholas J. Fuentes/America First.”
It’s unclear whether anyone running for office has used the site. Fuentes has backed a Washington man named Joe Kent, a challenger to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of 10 Republicans who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Kent denied working with Fuentes or knowing of the candidate recruitment site. He said that Fuentes should not be on a no-fly list but that his focus was on defeating Herrera Beutler.
Fuentes urged viewers not to vote at all if they can’t vote for an “America First” candidate, calling for a “radical new approach” and “total revolution against the GOP.”
More Trump-aligned ‘America First’ dark money groups pop up
While Fuentes builds up his brand, a separate America First Foundation is set up to receive dark money, this one attached to Women for America First, which put on the rally that preceded the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
In early April, days before news surfaced that Greene was trying to rally support for the America First Caucus, Women for America First hosted a fundraiser called the Save America Summit at Trump’s Doral resort in Florida, bringing donors together with Trump-allied lawmakers and aspiring members of Congress.
Women for America First framed the three-day event as “an exclusive and intimate gathering” with members of Congress and other power players. Many topics echoed those of the failed America First Caucus – election integrity, censorship by Big Tech and protecting the First and Second Amendments.
The event featured Greene and Gaetz, who held separate $500-a-plate fundraising dinners, plus other lawmakers: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Reps. Kat Cammack, R-Fla.; Byron Donalds, R-Fla.; Louie Gohmert, R-Texas; and Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas. They mixed in with two candidates for Congress and former Trump administration immigration officials, among others.
At the end of June, Women for America First hosted a town hall on election integrity in the Atlanta area. The event coincided with efforts in several states to mimic the Republican-backed audit happening in Arizona.
This America First Foundation identifies itself as a 501c3 and shares its chairman and executive director with Women for America First, the 501c4 organization that hosted the rally Jan. 6 in Washington to promote the false claim that Trump was the rightful winner of the presidential election in 2020.
Amy Kremer, the chairman of both groups, has described herself as “a true Southern belle.” On Twitter, she rails against Vice President Kamala Harris and Ocasio-Cortez. Kylie Jane Kremer, the executive director of both groups, has shared tweets criticizing the same coalition of four congresswomen that Greene targets. The tweets call the women “bigoted racists” who should be expelled from Congress.
The linked 501c3 and 501c4 model is identical to how Amy Kremer built organizations to support the tea party a decade ago. Both are regulated through the IRS, which does not require either to disclose donors, and the 501c4 can spend almost half of its money on political advocacy.
'America First' effort active in the courtroom
Simultaneous to these efforts, a group of former Trump aides uses the federal court system to take aim at the Biden administration's efforts at racial justice.
Stephen Miller, a top former Trump aide who supports hard-line immigration policies, leads the America First Legal Foundation, which files suits to protect white people from what the group considers racial discrimination.
America First Legal won a court order in May that temporarily blocked a Small Business Administration program from distributing $28.6 billion to restaurants with a priority to those owned by women, veterans or the “socially and economically disadvantaged.”
“This order is another powerful strike against the Biden administration’s unconstitutional decision to pick winners and losers based on the color of their skin,” Miller said in a statement.
The case is pending. The SBA said after the lawsuit was filed that it paused processing priority applications, so all applications could be considered in order, and it distributed funds to the groups Miller represented. America First Legal continues to urge the court to review the legality of the initial priorities.
Another suit targets a U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidy program that seeks to help reverse decades of discrimination against Black farmers. The lawsuit says that white people should be eligible.
Outside the courtroom, the group uses the Freedom of Information Act to find out about the Biden administration’s efforts on teaching racial justice and whether those efforts take place within the Department of Defense. The group sends out regular news releases on how it demands such information.
Professional political staffers back the organization: Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff; Matthew Whitaker, former acting attorney general; and Russ Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The organization is connected to the Conservative Partnership Institute, a group started by tea party pioneer and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint after he was pushed out of the Heritage Foundation. Meadows is also on its staff.
Formed in April, the America First Legal Foundation said it has applied for 501c3 status, which would allow it to receive tax-deductible donations, though it would not be able to create political ads. The 501c3 status does not support political advocacy.
‘A little swamp left to drain’
After their big speeches, Gaetz, Gosar and Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, return to the Mesa stage, stand in front of a semicircle of chairs and wait. They sit down once Greene catches up with them.
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They’re in the middle of a casual conversation in front of the audience when a man in the crowd shouts Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s name. Greene lights up. “That’d be something fun to talk about!” she replies.
Nine days before the Mesa event, House Republicans removed Cheney from her leadership post over her repeated criticism of Trump for promoting the false claim of a stolen election. It was a victory for Greene and Gaetz, who want to rid the party of Trump critics.
“We had a vote (to remove) our chair early on, a few months ago, and I can tell you the people on this stage voted correctly,” Greene says. “We were just grateful when the rest of the conference caught up with us and decided to vote a second time to remove Liz Cheney as the chair.”
Gaetz tells the crowd that House Republicans should have listened to the four of them earlier about Cheney.
“We’ve still got a little swamp left to drain in Washington, D.C.,” Gaetz says, “but I think that if you’ll send us some backup, we’ll stay on.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump-aligned 'America First' groups try to bring nativism mainstream