Joker Politics

Joker Politics

$lave’s Note: This is a chapter out of the book “Meme Wars” by Joan Donovan. This chapter delves into Nick Fuentes and his groyper movement and how they have had an effect on American politics. Donovan is coming from a leftist perspective, but this is still a well written historical account that details the beginning of the revolution taking form. This text also shows how much of a radical Fuentes truly is.

Eighteen-year-old Nicholas Fuentes flew into Charlottesville, Virginia, with a friend around 11:00 A.M. on August 12, 2017, and immediately started streaming to his small but interested fan base.

“It’s a beautiful day in the South,” he reported, except for the fact that “some dumb woman” had mass-reported all his misogynistic tweets and gotten him locked out of his account. “I can’t wait to see my people. It’s gonna be a real powder keg.”

Fuentes and his friend got into an Uber outside the airport. Fuentes told the stream the driver had “some exotic name.” He joked that he hoped he didn’t identify as a white nationalist on the way to the rally. “There was some trendy liberal reporter on the plane next to us,” he said with a coy smile. “I wanted to get all up in his face and be like ‘Hey buster, we’re gonna consolidate the white race today and we’re gonna win bigly.’ ” He hadn’t.

The day before, from his freshman dorm room at Boston University, Fuentes had expressed doubts about his trip. He told the audience of his show, America First, which he’d been airing on the pro-Trump Right Side Broadcasting Network (RSBN) for the past few months, that he was going to attend Unite the Right, but he was “a little bit worried.”

“I’m excited to go,” he said on the stream. “I’m excited to meet everyone that’s coming out there. I saw Sam Hyde is gonna be there. I love Sam Hyde! I met him at He Will Not Divide Us in New York City, but I am a little bit worried as much as I am excited to go and meet people of like-mind, people that know what’s going on, people that are not dumb, and are in the matrix, and on the blue pill. People that we can talk about how we’re gonna fix the country, fix the demographics. As excited as I am for all of that, I’m nervous.” He said he worried the whole thing could be a trap to gather “the top guys, the top brass, all the tin-pot soldiers” in one place and take them down.

Now, as he and his friend approached Emancipation Park, he told his followers, “In choosing to go here we basically decided that if push comes to shove we may have to die for our beliefs.”

“I didn’t decide that. I don’t wanna die,” the friend chimed in. He had been quiet this whole time.

“I decided that,” Fuentes told him. “I’m ready to lay it down on the line for my people, my heritage, the blood and the soil.”

His friend didn’t answer.

The Uber dropped Fuentes and his friend off at Emancipation Park, and they quickly found his online friends, like Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet. Sam Hyde wasn’t anywhere to be seen, to Fuentes’s disappointment. The small crew stopped to greet the few fans that recognized them, livestreaming the whole time on Periscope. At one point, they came across an Infowars reporter with a camera and proceeded to drop red pills on stream about Jews and demographics. And that was about as exciting as it got for Fuentes at Unite the Right. He stayed on the edges of the rally and cleared out early. He wasn’t anywhere near the violence. He didn’t carry anything that identified him with other white nationalist groups. And he wasn’t able to tweet from the protest, because his account was locked. But he did post on his personal Facebook.

“Wow—what an incredible rally here in Charlottesville,” he wrote. “A tidal wave of white identity is coming.” He ended his note with a quote (“The fire rises!”) from a Batman film that was a popular 4chan meme. Like his heroes, Fuentes used memes as a lingua franca to reach people with similar ideas.

His presence at the rally would cost him, after a former friend leaked a screenshot of his Facebook post. The uproar at his college, and from the CEO of the network where his show was broadcast, was intense. When he returned to campus, he received “death threats,” he told the AP in a video interview, and so he retreated to his parents’ home in suburban Chicago. “The fix is in, it was a setup,” Fuentes fumed on a livestream after the event. He blamed everyone from George Soros to federal narcs, but mostly he blamed mainstream conservatives. UTR cost him his show, and lost him more moderate conservative friends. Fuentes believed the subsequent violence gave conservative pundits an excuse to condemn the entire alt-right movement as antisemites and Nazis once and for all.

Too green to be a ringleader, and not as extreme as some of the white nationalist militias that drew national attention, Fuentes continued broadcasting, tweeting, and writing after UTR. He was ready to play the heel, and thrived equally on positive and negative attention. Back in 2016, Fuentes introduced himself to the world in an essay titled “The Villain America Needs.” The title was a reference to Batman, but instead of a hero like the titular caped crusader, Fuentes was writing himself as a bad guy.

“I was born 3 years before the World Trade Center fell,” he wrote. “5 years before Saddam Hussein fell; 10 years before the election of a fifth columnist to the Presidency; and 18 years before the stakes of a Presidential election were raised to the fate of a civilization.” He traced his lineage as a pundit to Trump, Yiannopoulos, and Pat Buchanan, and described himself as “a devilishly handsome 17 year old mischief maker with grit, a full head of hair, and some balls.”

Born August 18, 1998, to an Italian mother and a father of mixed Mexican descent, Fuentes had been brought up Catholic and conservative in the Chicago suburbs. He was vice president of the student council at his school and in Model UN. On November 5, 2015, he started the first show to bear his name: The Nicholas J. Fuentes Show on his school’s TV station. He honed a careful, deliberate delivery, aided by his naturally baritone voice.

Throughout high school, Fuentes won speech tournaments and devoured classic libertarian and conservative texts, drawn to the paleoconservatism of Pat Buchanan. He enrolled as a freshman at Boston University in the fall of 2016 and quickly became red-pilled. After being exposed to revisionist World War II documentaries and befriended by some other hard-right BU students, Fuentes said he started to “notice things” that made him conclude that “ethnic conflict is real, that we can’t all live together in the same country.”

On his personal political blog, Fuentes began writing his way through these new ideas. On September 12, 2016, he published “The Ascendancy of the Madman,” in which he wrote, “Donald Trump is the George Washington of this century, a war-time president who we entrust with our lives and the lives of our families to lead this people once again to that shining city on a hill, to wage a guerilla campaign, with only God on our side, to defeat the forces of tyranny which have infected our republic.” Heady words for a college freshman.

“For years the Alex Joneses of the world were called madmen,” he went on, signaling the impact Jones had in the MAGA community Fuentes was growing up in. “Hillary Clinton and her globalist sponsors snicker at the deplorable hordes of alt-right psychopaths rejecting the great globalist lies erected over the past 25 years. The ascendancy of the madman heralds the end of the old regime, and they know it.”

Fuentes’s rhetoric grew more revolutionary as the election grew closer. On October 30, 2016, in a piece titled “America Needs Trump More Than Democracy,” he wrote, “To hell with the democratic process9 if we continue down the rabbit hole of corporatist, globalist tyranny.” The next day he was featured in a BU student roundup where he stumped for Trump and revealed his newfound obsession with demography. Decked out in a red MAGA hat, with the practiced delivery provided by years of broadcasting experience, Fuentes used this platform to praise Trump’s anti-immigration attitudes, but took it one step further: “The multi-cultural movement in America is subverting any efforts that a conservative could ever make to change the country.”

The video made Nick infamous—and despised—on campus. The BU student body president challenged him to a debate, in which he accused Fuentes of being a “crypto Nazi” and a “digital brownshirt” on Twitter. Fuentes’s high school years had prepared him well for this style of debate, and he mercilessly mocked his opponent, to the delight of campus conservatives.

On the evening of November 8, 2016, he livestreamed his reactions to Trump’s victory, excitedly asking his audience, “Are we living through the rapture, because it certainly feels like it.” Elated, Fuentes and a friend (an Iraqi student who also supported Trump) went around campus to a bunch of liberal student viewing parties and rubbed Clinton’s loss in their faces.

His notoriety attracted the attention of some campus conservative leaders in Massachusetts, particularly Mount Holyoke student Kassy Dillon, who helped him get a show on RSBN. At that time, according to former friend Will Nardi, she called Fuentes “the next rising star in the Republican party.”Fuentes’s show, America First, was a hit with edgy right-wing Gen Z kids. Fuentes prioritized engagement with his audience, replying to questions in his livestream chat at the end of every show, sometimes for upward of an hour. These questions ranged from national politics to thinly veiled racial dog whistles. And Fuentes relished engaging with it all, not shying away from reactionary comments around race and gender. He gave his audience the feeling that he wasn’t just talking at them but enjoyed their company and valued their anonymity, solidifying the bonds within his growing online community. Fuentes’s increasingly radical rhetoric and caustic style led many of his more establishment conservative friends to distance themselves, particularly Dillon, who denounced him and leaked his celebratory Facebook posts after the Unite the Right rally.

When asked by a viewer who would be his dream debate, Nick replied without hesitation: “Ben Shapiro.” “He’s sort of a character foil for me,” he said. “We fought a bit on Twitter before, I fought a lot of his followers, minions and friends.” The media darling Shapiro, he said, was basically a liberal, along with the rest of what Fuentes called “Conservative Inc.” With a massive audience on YouTube and hundreds of thousands in book sales, Shapiro had a significant reach and a devoted following, and was something of a meme himself. Shapiro was also Jewish and, despite his right-wing leanings, was openly critical of the alt-right and their overt antisemitism. While Shapiro may have begun as an inspiration for Fuentes, now he was a target.

Halfway through his second semester, Fuentes grew even more red-pilled. “Who runs the media? Globalists. Time to kill the globalists,” he said in an April 24, 2017, broadcast on RSBN. “I want people that run CNN to be arrested and deported or hanged.” The clip came to the attention of watchdog Media Matters, and RSBN was forced to apologize. Fuentes didn’t lose his show, but he did learn a lesson about explicit calls to violence; he’d be careful about crossing that line in the future. Even though he was barely able to contain himself, he was one of many young men red-pilled during this period. What made him different was his willingness to put his real name on his hard-right shitposting, and to follow the memes into the real world in Charlottesville.

Fuentes faced personal repercussions from the fallout of UTR and felt the weight of disappointment and disillusionment. The alt-right leaders who organized UTR and urged people like Fuentes to show up had seemed to know what they were doing. Fuentes and everyone else had trusted them. Now it turned out they were losers, too.

The world was a clown show.

Fuentes Embraces His Power Level

Unlike many others who organized and attended UTR, Fuentes hadn’t lost his Twitter or YouTube accounts, and he was able to reach a growing audience via his nightly broadcasts. He also became a frequent guest on the anti-social-justice-warrior YouTube punditry circuit that had grown out of Gamergate. In the aftermath of UTR, when the alt-right was no longer welcome in more mainstream spaces, this community still offered the red-pilled fringe a place to gather, and an increasingly lucrative way to make money.

On November 6, 2017, Fuentes proved himself a ruthless debater during a YouTube stream that brought together various alt-right, alt-lite, and leftist influencers—the kind of people Fuentes was dead set on bringing down. These sorts of large debate streams were pulling in serious viewership, sometimes more than 500,000. Fuentes argued traditionalism and racial realism, attacking trans YouTuber ContraPoints (Natalie Wynn). This was the first time Fuentes appeared on a stream with Gamergate legend Jim, who was still the preeminent tastemaker in the red-pilled right. Fuentes’s viciousness was praised by fans. From there, he quickly became a star in the debate space, embraced by Jim as a rugged individual with no equal or mentor.

But if Fuentes was going to use this new underground fame—as well as his moderate fame in the mainstream—to dethrone the elders of the conservative and alt-right movements, he’d need an army.

He found one in a new trolling faction that had been growing on /pol/ for a few months. The group took on the name of Groypers, a neologism first used by a beloved troll on 4chan’s /r9k/ board in 2015. As the year was coming to a close, the Groypers were popping out of their holes and emerging on Twitter just as the Pepe posters of the 2016 meme war had littered the site with their cartoons. Groyper became a character, a mascot, and a meme. Just like Pepe, Groyper was a green frog (some would argue, a toad), smug and calm with folded hands. Groyper was described by Slate as a “Fatter, More Racist Pepe the Frog.”16

“Groypers like to relax and drink tea. Groypers are all WWII revisionists in the sheets, but proper and almost non offensive in the streets. They show a bit more class,” a Groyper fan told reporter Will Sommer. Groypers stayed home, cozy, behind their screens. Fuentes gravitated to this new pseudonymous community, increasingly disconnected from the alt-right that was left in disarray after UTR.

There was a decidedly misogynistic streak to this new subcommunity. The sexism of the Groypers appealed to Fuentes, and when they tuned in to his stream, he celebrated them. This turned him into the highest-profile Groyper, and therefore their de facto leader. Like them, Fuentes hated women and prided himself on his hypertraditional sexual values, his virginity, and his essentialist views on gender. This differentiated him from the mainstream views of the anons on /pol/ or even 8chan, who were antifeminist but low-key still wanted to have sex with women. On the message board Kiwi Farms, one poster wrote of Fuentes, “This dude and his legion of incel followers are just stealing /pol/ memes and bringing them outside of the internet.”

By December 2017, with a growing fan base of young right-wing men, Fuentes’s popularity scored him invites to livestreamed debates about race realism, gender essentialism, and the Jewish question, which he dominated. These debates were so based and depraved that the troll Jim named them “Internet Bloodsports—the Jerry Springer of YouTube content,” and devoted himself to covering their drama. Nothing was off the table. People pushed the idea that the white race was experiencing a genocide caused by immigration, and they embraced the meme “White Sharia,” the idea, rooted in dark irony and Islamophobia, that white men should invoke laws to control white women—a concept first promoted by neo-Nazi hacker weev. Fuentes used these debates to further a “thot war” against women of the alt-lite and alt-right, which he and the Groypers waged by attacking female and trans content creators. Thot was an acronym for “that ho over there,” popular rap slag referring to a woman with many partners. To the Groypers, all women were thots, and thots had no place in politics at all.

As he got more and more attention, however, the doubts about whether Fuentes was white enough to be a white nationalist also got louder. After all, his last name was Spanish, and he had admitted to some Mexican ancestry. The established white nationalists in the far right demanded that he take a DNA test.

Fuentes was skeptical of DNA tests, and 23andMe in particular, believing that Jews could be messing with the test results to “deracinate” the white population. But he agreed to take a test, and he liked the results he got: primarily European, with a small percentage of Sub-Saharan African. To his relief and pride, his results showed no Jewish ancestry, so he shared them on stream in December. The white nationalists were happy with that. Fuentes was white enough, despite the marginal African traces. This became a running joke for Fuentes, who would refer to himself as “Afro-Latino” in ironic attempts to escape accusations of white supremacy.

Fuentes just got stronger. He launched America First as a donation-based show on YouTube that he could control entirely on his own, and began taking direct shots at the millennial alt-right leadership, like Spencer, whom he called a “pedophile CIA LARPer” based on passing comments Spencer made about the merits of using child pornography to reduce sex offenses. This was the same basic allegation that had gotten Yiannopoulos canceled, and it irked Spencer enough that he reportedly called Fuentes and angrily called him a “spic.”

The fact that Fuentes, who just six months before had almost no real connection to the alt-right leadership, could make Spencer that mad showed how much power he had been accruing as the old guard was in tatters.

Optics Debate

Perhaps the biggest lesson from UTR was the necessity of controlling public perception of contemporary American white nationalism, and the importance of good optics for recruiting. Apparently, just because Trump was in the White House, that didn’t mean people could wear their racism on their sleeve—the mainstream culture could still destroy you when overt racism, antisemitism, and misogyny went from the privacy of the wires to the scrutiny of the weeds. And so throughout the months that the Internet Bloodsports were taking place and Fuentes was becoming the leader of the Groyper army, all across the extremely online far right—from /pol/ to Reddit to 8chan—people debated what constituted good optics. What was the best way to red-pill normies and exist in the world? Should they hide their beliefs, and not say explicitly racist things, or should they put it all out there?

Journalist Luke O’Brien described this divide between “the real-world extremists who want to continue holding rallies and mixing it up in the streets, and the ‘optics cucks’ who think the best approach to the mainstream is to keep pushing alt-right ideas through better propaganda.”Optics cuck or not, here Fuentes was generally more cautious with his words and appearance than someone who would describe themselves as a conventional neo-Nazi. He advised his followers to be smart, not explicitly using antisemitic or anti-Black slurs on Twitter, for example.

At the start of the year, the alt-right leadership and Fuentes endorsed one of these followers—a self-described “America First” candidate for Congress named Paul Nehlen, who had swallowed the JQ red pill and run a failed but admired campaign in 2016 that had drawn approval from Bannon and Trump. But as 2018 wore on, Nehlen got on the wrong side of the optics debate. He would not stop making openly racist comments on Twitter, so the site banned him.

Spencer condemned Nehlen, saying that he “clearly couldn’t keep a lid on it.” “Paul Nehlen is out of the movement, he’s gone!” Fuentes declared on his show in early April. Wrapping himself in a Trump flag, Fuentes held a knife to a Nehlen campaign sign and said, “Knife nation, raise your knives. We are declaring War. The America First coalition is here, we’re smart, we’re vindicated, we’re not going anywhere.” His menacing theatrics soon earned him the nickname Nick the Knife.

The movement infighting and optics debate came to a head in August 2018, when disgraced Proud Boy Jason Kessler attempted to hold another Unite the Right Rally on the event’s one-year anniversary. Every major figure of the alt-right urged their followers not to attend, from Fuentes to Spencer. Andrew Anglin warned readers in the Daily Stormer to “lay low,” and that attending UTR 2 could ruin their life. Anons on /pol/ also believed it to be a trap. One wrote, “Seriously, don’t go to the UTR. it’s a false flag. Just like the last one, it’s infiltrated with AntiFa types and only 1 or 2 boomers who actually want to unite the white.” “Even CIASpencer is telling people not go to UTR 2.0,” wrote another. Kessler and about thirty supporters showed up for a short march, washed out by rain and vastly outnumbered by thousands of counterprotesters. The showing was pathetic.

By this point, most of /pol/’s faith in the last generation of leadership had been permanently shaken. Within the greater movement, condemnation of street Nazis like Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party intensified, their bumbling antics being blamed for setting back the greater good. /Pol/ and the zoomers under Fuentes began referring to these aggressively misguided and often uneducated white nationalists as “wigger nationalists,” or wignats—low-class neo-Nazis with no subtlety or sophistication. Just as Gen Z referred to everyone older as “boomer,” for Fuentes and the Groyper army, everyone they didn’t like was a wignat.

Later that year, on October 27, 2018, a man named Robert Bowers, who had been flash-radicalized on the far-right internet by memes about white genocide, carried out a lone-wolf attack that would further shake the remains of the alt-right. In his last post to the alt-tech platform Gab, Bowers wrote, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He then proceeded to attack the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven Jewish worshipers. The event was widely covered by the press and condemned by public figures.

/Pol/ reacted with the expected celebration of violence and vicious antisemitism, though many visible far-right leaders distanced themselves from the killings, or found ways to avoid talking about it as either a positive or a negative event. They did, however, universally bemoan how Bowers’s reckless action was about to make their lives on the internet a whole lot harder. Gab temporarily went offline, after being dropped by its service providers. Big Tech, the government, law enforcement, and media were paying closer attention to the scattered remains of the alt-right than ever before.

The Great Replacement

Brenton Tarrant was twenty-eight years old on March 15, 2019, when he strapped a GoPro camera to his head and broadcast live on Facebook as he murdered fifty-one Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Right before he began shooting, he said, “Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.”

This was a reference to a massively popular meme about Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie, who was defending his crown as most popular YouTuber of all time and had recently gained massive support from the far-right and more mainstream conservatives for his edgy humor and right-wing dog whistles. His fans launched a meme war to keep him on top, spreading the slogan “Subscribe to PewDiePie” on social media, billboards, and even through hacking escapades. The most notorious of these stunts came when someone hacked into fifty thousand home printers and got them to print out the phrase. After being named by Tarrant, PewDiePie issued a public disavowal, calling an end to the great subscriber war.

Tarrant had orchestrated the heinous crime to be a social media spectacle, posting the above message on 8chan and Twitter, along with a link to view his massacre live and an eighty-seven-page PDF titled “The Great Replacement.” He tweeted the manifesto, as well. It opened with a thrice-repeated phrase: “It’s the birthrates,” detailing his obsession with Europeans being outbred by immigrants. He followed up with links to Wikipedia pages, detailing how fast demographics were changing in different countries. For Tarrant, the only way to reverse course was to commit violence so that “terror” could make political change possible, urging (white) readers to “do your part by spreading my message, making memes and shitposting as you usually do.” He focused on immigrants as “invaders” and saw New Zealand as an extension of Europe.

Tarrant’s manifesto quickly turned into a self-interview, in which he posed questions and then answered them. He self-consciously laced the answers with memes and ironic misdirections, for instance jokingly blaming Candace Owens, a Black conservative pundit, for his radicalization. He also made several calls to action throughout the manifesto. “Inspirational terrorism” is the name for acts like this, where the attacker explicitly encourages more violence and copycat murders. Definitely a product of the internet age, he also wanted to bring about a culture war by inspiring more memes:

Humans are emotional, they are driven by emotions, guided by emotions and seek emotion expressions and experiences. Monotonous repetition of immigration facts and statistics will simply bore the masses, and drive the people away from the stale and uninspired speakers that propagate them. Be creative, be expressive, be emotional and above all be passionate. These are the things that speak to people, connect people, drive people. Paint, write, sing, dance, recite poetry. Hell, even meme. Create memes, post memes, and spread memes. Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto. Above all, just don’t be stale, placid and boring. No one is inspired by Jeb Bush.

After his arrest, Tarrant was not done memeing. On March 16, 2019, he flashed an OK hand sign, a reference to a 4chan meme, while shackled and facing the judge, signaling back to those watching online that he was most definitely “their guy.” For many, the hand gesture still simply meant “OK,” but for white supremacists it had become an in-joke, and for some MAGA folks it was a way to mimic Trump’s hand gestures. Tarrant signed the OK hand gesture as one of his last messages to his online community.

While Tarrant titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” it wasn’t a theory of his own design, and the replacement anxiety that fueled his hateful rampage was not unique. The theory that demographic change was orchestrated and that white Europeans were being replaced in their own countries by design had been around for over a century as an antisemitic trope. It was updated by French author Renaud Camus in his 2011 book of the same name to suggest that African and Muslim immigration was to blame for the decline of Europe. When Tarrant said, “It’s the birthrates,” he meant that demographic change would lead to cultural shift, just as American fascists had chanted “Jews will not replace us” at UTR back in 2017. This style of white nationalism was a global phenomenon. Before his rampage, Tarrant had donated $1,70033 to Martin Sellner, the founder of Generation Identity, a European counterpart to the United States’ alt-right.

Racist, antisemitic, and—particularly in Tarrant’s case—anti-Muslim narratives were traded back and forth between international white nationalist groups during the 2010s. In The Islamophobia Industry, writer and religious scholar Nathan Lean details how right-wing news, blogs, and talk radio cultivated decades of anti-Muslim sentiment during the so-called War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, and how these sentiments were deployed by reactionary broadcasters and politicians during the European migrant crises of the early 2000s. What began as an existential threat to Western civilization in the form of terrorism morphed into replacement anxiety, a “demographic jihad” to replace native European populations with Muslims migrants and refugees. Tarrant’s 2019 Christchurch attack was celebrated by the most bloodthirsty anonymous communities in the far right, like 8chan, as a brave attempt to stop the Islamic replacement of white people in nations that were supposedly theirs by birthright.

Support for a mass shooting was a third rail that even Fuentes wasn’t brave enough to touch. That kind of bad optics could get you kicked off social media. Still, Tarrant and Fuentes’s ideology wasn’t that different—they both ascribed to some version of the Great Replacement theory, believed in racial essentialism, and felt they were doing their part to defend Western civilization from decline and degeneracy.

Clown World

While the Great Replacement was brewing in the far right, and celebrations of violence were reaching obscene levels, the more moderate side of the red-pilled right was also pushing back against multiculturalism, albeit with less bite. “Diversity is our greatest strength” had become a mantra repeated by liberal politicians and celebrities, meant to be a uniting phrase, connecting citizens across divides of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. On a September 2018 episode of his nightly program, Tucker Carlson addressed the slogan directly, challenging its assumptions and questioning the legitimacy of its claims. “How precisely is diversity our strength? Since you’ve made this our new national motto,” Carlson said, “please be specific as you explain it. Can you think, for example, of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are? Do you get along better [with] your neighbors or your coworkers if you can’t understand each other or share no common values?”

Many on the right were focused on this mantra, and it became a parody in alt-right memes, portrayed as a spoon-fed narrative that brain-dead white liberals were accepting with no challenge. Diversity, the alt-right argued, was a circus, and those who accepted it blindly were clowns. A new Pepe variant that got popular a few months before Chirstchurch, Honkler, encapsulated this attack on cultural diversity. A frog wearing a rainbow wig, red nose, and polka-dot bow tie, Honkler was deployed as a mockery of diversity narratives, yet another culture hack the anons on /pol/ could sneak into mainstream conservative publications. Some suggested that Honkler, and the “Honk, honk” used to critique liberal diversity, could be “the next OK sign,” a way to take back rainbows from the LGBT community.

In an investigation for Right Wing Watch, journalist Jared Holt traced how Honkler evolved into “clown world,” a more resonant and widely used meme. The viral phrase “We’re living in clown world,” meaning that liberal democracy and diversity are responsible for social decline, became a popular refrain in reactionary circles throughout 2019. Sometimes the meme was expressed with the Pepe clown variant, sometimes with the Clown and Globe emojis. It was used as a critique of liberal orthodoxy around things like trans rights and immigration, reframing social progress as cultural and demographic suicide of the West. Using the guise of a seemingly innocent clown, right-wingers of all variants used Honkler and Clown World to memetically express a range of grievances.

Much like the NPC Wojak variant meme a year earlier, Clown World was a new way to mock normies. The NPC (non-player character) was a normie, a mindless drone spoon-fed SJW propaganda and a proud inhabitant of Clown World. Cultural degeneracy, compliance with liberal institutional language, and the Great Replacement were just as much a threat to the red-pilled right. Despite their God Emperor being in power, things weren’t getting better. Trump, perhaps, was either set up to fail or in on the game from the start.

Many alt-righters, oddly enough, threw in support for Andrew Yang in March 2019. The Chinese American entrepreneur emerged as a wild-card outsider who gained a diverse online following when he entered the Democratic presidential primaries. /Pol/, TRS, and even Fuentes, sincerely or ironically, briefly joined the “Yang Gang,” excited by his willingness to address working-class white people and the economic hardships they faced. Trump, despite his racial dog whistles and travel bans, didn’t speak directly enough to white people for red-pillers, rarely using the word white at all. But when Yang was forced to thoroughly denounce the insurgent white nationalist support for his campaign, the ironic support from the far right ended. Trumpism still seemed their best and only option for electoral power. Accelerationist violence, like the Christchurch massacre, wouldn’t get them there, but trolling and memes still held magical potential.

The Groyper Wars

As all of this was happening—an upcoming election, the haze of memes steeped in clowns and white genocide, rapid realignments, and accelerationist violence—Fuentes was commenting on it nightly on his show, guiding the Groypers through the disintegration of the alt-right, commenting on pop culture, and orchestrating ops. That fall, Fuentes and the Groyper army distilled their approach to meme wars in a reaction to Joaquin Phoenix’s film version of the DC Comics character Joker. The character was an important meme to Fuentes already, embodying a lot of his own nihilistic approach to life, and so Fuentes and the Groypers had a heyday trolling liberals who were outraged about the film.

There was a lot of hype and controversy about Joker, which featured a nihilistic Joker who goes on a killing rampage because he feels society has betrayed him. Some worried about a copycat-style killing during the film’s release, suggesting that the franchise was toxic. Others dreaded a film focused solely on the Joker, believing it would lead to other kinds of violence. For decades, parents had blamed music, movies, and video games for teenage angst, and this movie in particular was hyped to be the devil’s work.

The Joker character from DC Comics’ Batman series had supplied fodder for memes since the mid 2000s, after the success of Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), the latter with Heath Ledger playing a maniacal Joker who had been pushed over the edge by the absurdity and unfairness of the world. After Ledger died tragically in 2008, his version of the Joker became a sort of hero to the online set—a tragically disturbed white guy willing to destroy the world to make a point. The character’s recognizability became a way to make a statement about people—photoshop Joker makeup on someone, and you indicate that they are at heart a trickster, a nihilist, and a villain.

Obama first got this treatment, becoming “jokerfied” on November 2, 2008, at Florida State University, where “Why So Socialist” signs were hung outside a Joe Biden appearance two days before the election. But it was on January 18, 2009, that the meme took a form that would stick when college student Firas Alkhateeb made a mockup of Joker Obama from a Time cover. That April, the image was plastered around downtown L.A., with the word “socialism” added underneath. Guardian film blogger Ben Walters referred to Joker Obama as “the American right’s first successful use of street art,” one of the first of their memes that would stick. The mainstream press critique of the meme made it even more popular among conservatives. On August 30, 2009, Alex Jones painted his face in Joker makeup and announced an Obama Joker contest, offering cash prizes for those willing to stand up to “censorship.”

Throughout the Great Meme War of 2016, Trump got the Joker treatment, as did Hillary and many other candidates. But in the case of Trump, it was done with ironic admiration. He was their joker, and he broke tradition in obscene and comic ways. This was when the Joker meme took on its most powerful form: the Ironic Joker, the Joker Fuentes would begin to embody.

“The biggest reason [behind my activism] is that it’s hilarious to me,”43 he told a Lyons Township student newspaper in 2017. “I’m not going to pretend that I put on my ‘Make America Great Again’ hat and get the Trump flag out because of some political crusade. It’s just fun for me to go and engage with people.” Like the Joker, Fuentes’s amusement, and politics, came at the expense of others.

Ironic Joker memes are supposed to be both dark and pathetic, the text seething with rage and the threat of violence, executed with purposeful misspellings and poor grammar. The Joker was becoming synonymous with gamers, mocking them, mocking oneself. His awkwardness, strange sense of humor, and forced isolation made him into the antihero gamers saw in themselves. The Joker was flawed, depraved, and indifferent, poisoned by society’s shit.

After the failure of UTR, the Joker meme evolved into a new form: Gamers Rise Up, a parody of older memes from the HBD and Gamergate eras that still held the potential for chaotic play. Gamers Rise Up wasn’t just a right-wing meme—its origins lay in mocking entitled, toxic Gamergaters, incels, and internet racists. Still, young far-right guys, many of whom grew up spewing racial slurs in the chatrooms of online games, took the meme into their lexicon. In the subreddits where these memes flourished, alt-righters would drop in memes that blurred the line between irony and sincerity, often passing off racial statements or nods to alt-right influences under the guise of parody.

One of these memes, a chaotic YouTube video entitled “Gang Weeders Rise Up” from July 2018, showed how the memes connected to politics. “Gang Weed” was a Facebook page dedicated to gamer memes, and the Joker specifically, and was sometimes used as internet slang for gamers who smoked pot to suppress feelings of rage against society.

Anyhow, the video begins with Trump in Joker makeup saying, “The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.” It then jumps to Alex Jones, talking about the “incel rebellion” and deriding the government in full Joker face paint, and footage of Sam Hyde’s alt-right standup comedy routines. Elliot Rodger then appears, to explain that he’s the ultimate gentleman, “But you girls will never give me a chance.” The final scene of the video is a Joker meme, proclaiming “Gang Weeders Rise Up.” It was all jokes, but for Gen Z reactionaries like Fuentes, Gamers Rise Up and its variants became a coded way to talk about suppression of white grievance.

Gamers, trolls, incels, and zoomers took the fearmongering around the new movie as an opportunity to meme, even creating a petition to make Joaquin Phoenix say “We live in a society,” a line from Seinfeld that had somehow become a meme for zoomers. To them, the line ironically mocked growing up in a world full of contradiction and disappointment, and became synonymous with the Joker in meme culture, so much so that they campaigned to have it included in the upcoming film.

On October 4, 2019, Joker was finally released to rave reviews, though it didn’t include the “society” meme the fans were clamoring for. While many questioned the film’s politics, there were no mass acts of violence at any screenings around the nation. The Joker’s trick, it seemed, had worked. In Joker, the chans and zoomers saw an earnest representation of the nihilistic fury that fueled their social detachment. The film both critiqued and glamorized an anomic violence that echoed the chaos of the online culture war they’d grown up in. The film would go on to gross a little over a billion in the worldwide box office, landing multiple Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor win for Phoenix’s Joker. His titular portrayal resonated with far more people than just reactionary kids on the internet, and the film itself became a global phenomenon, full of memeworthy moments that could be adapted to many cultural contexts outside the United States.

The culture wars leading up to the film’s release, and the concerns about its potential to inspire violence, subsided after its success. This was not the first, nor would it be the last, portrayal of Joker, but it was the one adopted by the young red-pilled right. In the next few months Fuentes would go on to embody the Joker politics of this era as the general in a meme war of his own: the Groyper wars to take down Conservative Inc. and the remaining alt-right leaders, who he felt had betrayed them all in some way.

With allies like former Tea Party star Michelle Malkin, too edgy for conservatives but too pragmatic and polished for wignat street fighting, Fuentes set out to build a new right-wing coalition heading into the election year of 2020. But this was not going to be a big tent; who was excluded was just as important as who was included. The first target of what would become the Groyper wars was Charlie Kirk, as the most visible and therefore most reachable face of the young conservative movement.

Kirk was about to embark on a national campus tour titled “Culture Wars,” where he was supposed to build a broad student coalition in support of Trump. A veteran of the college circuit, Kirk was poised to lead the young Republican wing of the party. He and his TPUSA had taken heat for their proximity to the alt-right at political and campus events in 2017 and 2018, and Kirk publicly denounced white supremacy after Unite the Right.

For Fuentes, Kirk and TPUSA embodied everything that was wrong with conservatives who upheld the liberal consensus by promoting Israel, gay rights, and softer immigration policies. Kirk had been in Fuentes’s sights over the years as he soured on campus conservatives. Getting to the top tier of Trumpworld was nearly impossible for someone as marginal as Fuentes, but opportunity struck in October 2019, when Kirk took TPUSA’s “Culture War” college tour on the road. Kirk brought Trumpworld to campuses across the nation with special guests like Senator Rand Paul, Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, Lara Trump, and congressman Dan Crenshaw. Like when Richard Spencer, Shapiro, or Yiannopoulos would book campus tours, Kirk’s events too often attracted protest from left-wing student groups. But this time, the attacks would come from their right.

Beginning on October 7 at the University of Nevada, Kirk set a tone where debate was encouraged, even allowing those who disagreed with him to move to the front of the line during Q&A. Ever since Charlottesville, Kirk had been particularly careful to avoid association with the alt-right, and went so far as to fire any TPUSA representatives who were in close proximity to confirmed Groypers, especially Fuentes. Kirk started his speech in Reno with a countersignal to the alt-right, proclaiming, “The evil, wicked ideology of white supremacy has no place in our organization.” He continued, “We repudiate it, we reject it, wholeheartedly and completely as should any decent American.”

Over the next few weeks, Groypers swarmed TPUSA events, waiting for the opportunity to ask Fuentes and his guests questions and grandstand for the livestream. Even though TPUSA was aware of the Groypers’ plan, they didn’t have a strategy for defending against them. The popular “debate me” style of conservatives online made any effort to shut down Q&A seem anti-free-speech. Kirk was caught in a trap of his own design, and the Groypers knew it.

It all began on October 21, 2019, when Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Kirk were taking questions, and a young man dressed in a suit approached the mic. He said he was asking his question from “an America First perspective,” and he wanted to know why the United States provided so much aid to Israel even after the attack on the USS Liberty. Kirk shot back, “Do not peddle conspiracy theories at our event,” hoping to shut him down. He then went on to answer that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where people of “all three monotheistic religions” are in the government and where gay people are not thrown off the top of buildings if found out, and that it’s the only partner in the fight against radical Islamic terrorists. The crowd clapped, and Kirk seemed to have “won” the debate.

Then, on October 22, Fuentes sent this message to subscribers on his channel on Telegram, a chat app where many white nationalists moved following the wave of deplatforming after UTR:

Go to TPUSA events. Pack the line. Ask intelligent, well-rehearsed questions. Ensure the audience begins questioning TPUSA’s milquetoast conservatism. It’s clear that a growing body of young people want something more authentic than what Charlie Kirk has to offer.

Suitable question topics:

– Charlie Kirk’s support for mass immigration

– TPUSA’s promotion of identity politics for every group but white people

– TPUSA’s focus on economics above all else

– Demographics and voting patterns

– White people becoming a minority in a few decades

Just as his America First podcast was gaining name recognition, Fuentes partnered with Patrick Casey, who had founded the American Identity Movement (AIM), a rebrand of Identity Evropa. Casey, a longtime member of Identity Evropa, had changed the name after their chat logs and real identities were leaked at an anti-fascist website, and to distance themselves from the UTR disaster. He called upon AIM to join the Groypers to confront Kirk at Politicon, a bipartisan conference dedicated to debate across the aisle, set for October 26–27, 2019. Kirk was set to make an appearance, and Fuentes planned to attend and ask a question. After several hours inside, suddenly Fuentes was physically stopped and asked to leave the conference. The Q&A portion of the Kirk event was canceled too.

The Groyper wars reached a fever pitch on October 29, 2019, at Ohio State, when Kirk and Rob Smith, a Black gay conservative, were confronted by a long line of Groypers, including Casey. “How does homosexual sex help55 us win the culture war?” asked one, while another asked, “Can you prove that our white European ideals will be maintained if the country is no longer made up of white European descendants?” On it went for eleven of fourteen questions that evening, one of them even encouraging the audience to look up “dancing Israelis,” a reference to a meme claiming that Israel had orchestrated 9/11, by couching it in a question about “awesome fun dancing parties” in Jerusalem.

On a Halloween podcast,56 Spencer criticized the Groypers for not having learned from the alt-right’s inability to institutionalize, and then insinuated that Fuentes was quintessentially alt-right. This made Fuentes furious, as he did not want to be considered a revolutionary, or changing the culture. More than prepared for this critique, he lashed out at any of Spencer’s followers willing to debate: “I’m not a left-wing person. I’m Catholic, I’m reactionary, I’m hard right.” Insulting their brand of identity-forward politics, he said, “The alt-right is basically a collection of racist liberals—left wing people who don’t care for racial minorities.” Finally, he summed up his views on Spencer with this retort: “I can’t think of a single person whose life has gotten better after coming into contact with Richard Spencer.”

Fuentes continued, despite Spencer’s antagonisms, and on November 5 at UT Austin, Groypers confronted Dan Crenshaw. Initially, they tried to limit Q&A to students with a campus ID, but that quickly devolved into shouting as the Groypers pushed Crenshaw on his support of Israel. Crenshaw decided to address the crowd: “What you’re seeing here is a fringe58 on the right that we do not associate ourselves with.”

Someone in the audience yelled, “Here comes that N-word that you pointed out in the introductory video!” Crenshaw had played a video where a woman called him a “Nazi.”

“What was the N-word?” Crenshaw replied. “Nick Fuentes? Your little leader? Nick Fuentes? Is that the N-word? That’s their leader. That’s these guys’ leader. Nick Fuentes is a Holocaust denier. That is not something we associate with in the conservative movement.” One man stood up and shouted, “I’ll be on my way out, but in your introductory video you mentioned calling people Nazis as a way to silence them!” The crowd erupted in applause.

Groypers went after Crenshaw again at another event at Arizona State University, and again it turned into a shouting match. By now all of Conservative Inc. knew about Fuentes’s Groyper army and were preparing to counter as best they could. It was nearly impossible to avoid the Groypers, though, since a big part of their shtick was to call out leftist students who dared to confront them at live events. What were they going to do about those punching right?

On November 859 Ben Shapiro gave a long speech60 at Stanford blasting Fuentes, though not by name, and the alt-right for the Groyper wars. Fuentes reacted on his YouTube livestream,61 exuberant that Shapiro had read, word for word, an antisemitic meme about the Cookie Monster and the Holocaust that Fuentes had read on stream. Fuentes then attacked one of Shapiro’s writers, Matt Walsh, calling him a “shabbos goy race traitor”62 due to his condemnation of the El Paso shooter earlier that summer. It was evident that Fuentes was now living rent-free inside their heads, and the major event was yet to come.

Donald Trump Jr. was set to give a book talk on November 10, organized by Kirk and TPUSA, at UCLA. It was a Sunday. The Groypers came with a game plan, laid out by Fuentes in his Telegram chat. “COOL IT WITH ISRAEL,” he demanded. “The Optimal Strategy is to ask Kirk questions that expose his ‘never Trump’ past,” thus exposing him in front of Don Jr. as a “fraud.” Fuentes even recommended that attendees wear MAGA hats and not be too disruptive, save for booing Kirk.

The set for the event that day was simple: some TPUSA branding in the background and three stools. Kirk sat between Trump Jr., who was in a dark suit and white shirt, with no tie, and Guilfoyle, in a black leather dress. About twenty minutes into the talk, some in the audience broke out into a garbled chant of “USA” mixed with “Q and A.” It was confusing. As Guilfoyle spoke about record low unemployment for people of color and human trafficking, the crowd chanted, “Build the wall.”

Then Trump Jr. announced that there would be no Q&A, enraging the 450-person crowd. “It’s because people hijack it with nonsense looking to go for some sort of sound bite,” he said. “You have people spreading nonsense, spreading hate, trying to take over the room.” While Don Jr. was trying to win back the crowd, Guilfoyle stood up and antagonized them further. “No, it’s because you’re not making your parents proud by being rude and disruptive and discourteous. We are happy to answer a question. Respect the people around you so that they can hear.” Then she called them incels in her own special way: “Let me tell you something, I bet you engage and go on online dating because you’re impressing no one here to get a date in person. How many people have you catfished?” Trump Jr. tried to hand the mic off to Kirk, who shook his head and said “No” as the crowd cheered and wailed.

Meanwhile, over on Fuentes’s stream, he was rocking back and forth, arms snapping to an unheard song, dancing like the Joker and savoring every second of trolling Conservative Inc. He had finally arrived.

Trump Jr. only found out later64 that the jeers were from the Groypers.

Some on the online right responded to the Groyper wars with admiration. Fuentes managed to control optics without it careening into physical violence. The ultimate sign of respect came from Jim, who watched closely, tweeting support for Fuentes. He made a video detailing Fuentes’s exploits and pointed out how flawed Conservative Inc.’s response to the Groyper insurgency was. Yiannopoulos took notice too, and interviewed Fuentes about the Groyper wars. Fuentes now had the approval of both Jim and Yiannopoulos, two of Gamergate’s most high-profile generals and consistent critics of mainstream conservatism.

For Fuentes, 2019 was ultimately a clumsy experiment, with a few high-profile moments of sending his followers into the weeds while he coordinated like a supervillain from his command center. A persona non grata within conservative politics himself, he showed up to large events just to IRL meme on his enemies. He crashed the annual TPUSA conference68 and happened to run into his dream nemesis Ben Shapiro crossing the street in Miami. Fuentes and his entourage followed Shapiro for two blocks, but the optics were bad: Shapiro wasn’t alone, but pushing a stroller and walking with his children and wife. The conservative establishment condemned Fuentes yet again, resurfacing jokes he’d made about physically assaulting Shapiro in the past.

The Groyper wars only lasted a few months, and many would suggest that they were just the antics of a dumb radical fringe. But they mattered, not least because they cemented Fuentes’s position in the red-pilled right. On his stream, as Fuentes delighted in taking down Don Jr., he blasted music from the film Joker, swaying to it as the character had, in an impersonation of a madman. It was clear that a new leader had been crowned king. In an interview with the Hill during the Groyper wars, Fuentes took a victory lap. “We have figured out the game. The algorithm,” he said of the attention he’d generated with the Q&A stunt. “We’ve hacked the conversation where if you say sensational things like we do, you get attention. I don’t want it to be like that. I wish I could ascend with ideas.”

Fuentes may have hated the conservative establishment, but he still needed their attention. Just like his alt-right forebears, like Spencer, his only strategy was antagonizing conservatives until they acknowledged the Groypers and America First. The nihilism of Fuentes and Joker politics would go on to fuel right-wing Gen Z in the coming year on their mission to “Destroy the GOP.” Trump, and Trump alone, was all that was to be salvaged from the disappointing mess of the Republican Party.

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