I thought I was a hotshot young conservative when I went off to college. I had already completed a mayoral internship as a high school junior and was moving on to intern for the governor of Massachusetts. That was where I met Kassy Dillon—my political rival, mentor, and friend. Having graduated the previous year from the same high school, she was always one step ahead of me, challenging me to keep up, guiding me through the sometimes very small world of conservative politics. She was a right-wing firebrand, bringing me along as her partner to conferences and campaigns. Activism became our culture, and that was how we met Nick Fuentes.
He first entered the scene with a bang in the fall of 2016, when he appeared in a raucous debate against a leftist at Boston University. I didn’t go, but Kassy called me the next day to tell me she had seen the next rising star in the Republican Party. Around that time, we were planning a Christmas party for the Western Mass Republicans, and she invited him to come.
Nick and I didn’t talk much then. He came off as incredibly bright and confident in his support of Trump and his Bannon-esque followers. I didn’t know how alt-right those beliefs were—”alt right” wasn’t a term many people were familiar with anyway. Nick called himself a conservative and so did we. Because political commentators used these blanket terms, I didn’t realize the extreme variations between worldviews and political theories that that word could contain.
My own conservatism is not tied to any ethnic or cultural background. Being biethnic—Italian and Middle Eastern—I never felt I quite fit into any group. I learned Chinese in college and enjoyed experiencing my step-mother’s Hispanic culture. I believed in individualism, and was taught at a young age not to judge people for what they look like or where they came from but the content of their character. My political ideology lies within what’s called “classical liberalism,” but it took years of studying while shuffling around various conservative groups to even know how to describe myself. Meanwhile, I was enabled by seasoned political activists to fight for their cause.
The problem with the system is that no one really cares what you believe. They only care that you identify with what you do—conservative, Republican—and that you’ll be effective in getting other people to identify the same way.
As a freshman, I ignored the left because of their growing support of socialism, which meant I would also close my mind to their fight for racial equality. Copying the arguments of commentators like Ben Shapiro—who often claims bringing up historical discrimination is a ruse to get people to support socialism—I easily found my place on the right, parroting what everyone else was saying.
I think this is the case for a lot of young conservatives. They may mostly consider themselves right-wing because they support free-market capitalism, but they wind up with the mentality that they can’t trust anything the left says because it’s bound to be fake news—or information that we don’t want to hear.
Quickly I found myself retreating into the depths of the conservative world, along with other young conservatives who felt estranged from our mostly liberal campuses. In that world, there are all different kinds of conservatives looking for young people to support their causes. The more right-wing causes you supported, the more career opportunities that would be available to you.
As I took up “conservative” views I didn’t actually know that much about, like global warming skepticism and defending the legacy of Christopher Columbus, a sense of animosity grew between me and my liberal peers. Nick and I had that in common, and we commiserated over our shared struggle. I didn’t realize that Nick saw his struggle as a fight to preserve his white identity. We just never talked about it.
As our stature grew, Kassy and I began a show on the Right Side Broadcasting Network, an emerging alternative media platform that was unabashedly pro-Trump. Just a few months later Nick started his own show on the network.
By the time we met Nick, Kassy and I both supported Trump over Hillary Clinton, but neither of us backed him from the start. We both spent months campaigning for Carly Fiorina, drawn to her message of “conservative feminism.” When she dropped out I moved on to Marco Rubio, then to Ted Cruz, then finally to Trump—by that time, the only Republican remaining. I hadn’t really listened to what he was saying, but I was a party loyalist, and as an estranged conservative on campus, I naturally felt drawn to his anti-political correctness message. On our show, Raised Right, we poked fun at Bernie Bros and extreme leftists on campus and proudly interviewed Trump supporters about all the reasons they supported him.
Fuentes took a different approach, bringing the underground politics and conspiracies of the alt-right to the mainstream. I didn’t really watch his show, mostly because I was so busy with my own that we didn’t talk much. I did hear, however, that he argued anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic positions, and in April, he called for people who worked at CNN to be hanged. While we rarely interacted with Nick on the network, after that we began to see what he was all about and stopped talking to him.
A few months later, a conservative anti-Trump Twitter account called the Reagan Battalion leaked a hidden camera video of Nick saying that if a white person slept with a black person that makes them a degenerate. While it was intended to shut down his operation, the backlash was so enormous that it quadrupled his following, and solidified his place within the alt-right. He currently makes more than $100 a month from Hatreon, a far-right alternative to Patreon.
Through the entire ordeal, the only emotion I felt towards Nick was sympathy. He was a 19-year-old kid who made a mistake in his thinking and said some stupid things that got torn apart in seemingly every mainstream media outlet. Still, I was pretty disturbed with his general attitudes toward women and people of color, which led me to challenge him to a debate. I learned then that he came to his philosophy earlier in college during an existential crisis while he questioned the meaning of life. Inspired by Nietzsche, he became a kind of Catholic egoist, saying that his family was not just his loved ones, but white people.
Many within the alt-right appear to be uneducated bigots and racists, but below their bizarre edgy meme exterior lies a few well-read individuals like Nick, who gather together the masses of prejudiced people and feed them propaganda that gives them an intellectual basis for their prejudice, so they can feel like their ugliest impulses are actually correct and moral.
Perhaps the most obviously bizarre thing about his particular case is Nick is a quarter Mexican, although he looks white. I think a lot of his white fans are willing to overlook that because he supports their cause, or maybe it’s a reason for his popularity in an odd way—if a person with a Spanish last name says these things, they can’t be racist, or not racist racist.
Often when I debate Nick or other alt-right commentators online, they point to their values: a mixture of pride in European heritage—popularized by Richard Spencer—and often, cultural Christianity, meaning they don’t actually go to church and practice the faith, but agree that it promotes generally good values.
Nick, however, claims to be a genuine believer. I’ve argued with him about this. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Christianity is colorblind, and I can’t see how they can reconcile their faith with their white nationalism. (Nick has argued back with statistics he claims show that black people are less intelligent than white people.)
If you’ve heard Nick’s name before it’s probably because in August, he attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and after he received harassment and threats he announced he was leaving Boston University and going to a school in the South. (He told the Boston Globe that he went to Charlottesville to protest “immigration, multiculturalism, and post-modernism” and that “the rally was about not replacing white people.”) He doesn’t have a show on RSBN any longer since the Reagan Battalion video emerged, but has migrated it to his own YouTube channel.
I haven’t totally cut ties with Nick. From time to time I’ll chat with him if I’m covering a story on the alt-right or to see if he’s changed his mind. While I think he has been horribly misled and recklessly enabled by news organizations to publicly make statements that will affect him for the rest of his life, I’d never demonize him as a person. That would only isolate him further, and if there is any hope people like him will return to sanity, we must extend civility and hope they see the error of their ways.
It is sometimes frighteningly easy for young people to achieve a level of fame or notoriety in politics merely for being as aggressive and assertive as possible, to stake out positions that are more and more extreme. The best advice I could give any young person interested in a career in public service is not to take the bait, and to devote their time in college to studying, even if it means passing up career opportunities. As soon as you become professionally invested in one side or the other, you’ve already closed your mind. There’s no incentive for you to break from your tribe.
Now a junior in college, awake to the psychological pitfalls of groupthink—right or left—I can see other students around me making the same mistake. I’ve met several mainstream conservatives both young and old who feel like they need to take a pro-white position because the left continues, in their view, to demonize whites.
Commentators on both sides are no longer even pretending be unbiased, playing into whatever tribal fury they can to increase their base, even if that means making arguments in bad faith or saying horrible things. While these lowbrow tactics sometimes make me want to leave politics altogether, I don’t think that’s the answer either. We must move toward whatever uncertain future together, and hope that by reaching out to all sides we can one day come to an understanding.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Will Nardi is a junior at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and the founder of RouserNews.com.