The burgeoning youth Christian ultranationalist movement recently came together in upstate New York for some good old-fashioned fun, like painting wooden crosses with images of 4chan icon Pepe the Frog.
The three-day camping trip near Syracuse was the latest in an event series called “76 Fest,” that extremely online white nationalists, incels and paleoconservatives view as opportunities to go outside, get back to basics, and foster real-world connections.
Foraging for wild berries, praying in the rain, wearing fedoras, discussing testosterone levels, all to the soundtrack of Bon Iver: the organizers of these events put together whimsical videos that promise an antidote to what they see as rampant degeneracy in American society and erosion of traditional gender roles.
“I always say these events are Hitler Youth, without the Hitler,” remarked one far-right influencer; there have been similar “retreats” held in Georgia, Arizona, and Delaware in the past year.
But in the weeks leading up to the trip, cracks in the young ultranationalist movement were beginning to show.
The catalyst was a major fallout between 23-year-old white nationalist Nick Fuentes, who runs the America First Foundation, and some of his top lieutenants. Fuentes, with his 45,000-plus subscribers on Telegram and streaming platform Cozy.tv, has positioned himself as the kingpin of the ultranationalist youth movement, and is beloved by many of his devout supporters, who are known as “groypers.”
Last month, his right-hand man, Jaden McNeil, abruptly resigned from his position as “treasurer” of America First. McNeil, along with Simon Dickerman, another former Fuentes acolyte, then went on a five-hour podcast and made wild claims about what really goes on behind the scenes at America First.
After the podcast with streamers Kino Casino (first reported on by Nick Martin), videos appeared online that purported to show some “groypers” burning their trademark blue “America First” caps. One person on a subreddit dedicated to gossip about the America First movement lamented what they saw as Fuentes’ downfall. “Say what you want, but his start was very promising, his format used to be more mature,” they wrote. “I truly wonder what happened.” Others have zeroed in on Fuentes’ embrace of his “incel” status. Fuentes has called himself a “proud incel,” urged his supporters to abstain from sex, and made bizarre asssertions like “all sex is gay.” The forum Kiwi Farms became a hub for anonymous gossip about Fuentes and America First infighting, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. There were so many messages that the site admins had to create a dedicated area of the forum solely for that topic; SPLC said that throughout May, there were 47,000 messages about it.
Meanwhile, the organizers of 76Fest, who like to sprinkle butterfly emojis into their social media posts, were urging unity.
“The whole point of loyalty is to be there through BOTH thick and thin,” they wrote on an Instagram post last month advertising the upcoming retreat, featuring the song “Yosemite” by Lana Del Rey. “[Nick Fuentes] and [America First Foundation] have been friends to us since the very beginning and we will stay with them no matter what. We are moving forward with hosting America First speakers regardless of any slander.”
In the podcast, which has been listened to more than 164,000 times, McNeil characterized his former best friend Fuentes as a “cult leader” who isolates and radicalizes young men, and requires absolute loyalty from them.
McNeil said he met Fuentes at CPAC back in 2019. At that time, McNeil was rapidly climbing the ranks of conservative student organization Turning Point USA, and had helped build the Kansas State chapter. He said his efforts had been recognized by Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk and was on track to be rewarded with a trip to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida. But after he met Fuentes, he said he started watching his livestreams and kept in touch with him.
“I got redpilled,” said McNeil, using a term that describes a person’s radicalization into radical right-wing politics. In June 2020, McNeil shared a racist tweet about George Floyd’s death, which led to calls from the student body for his expulsion. Fuentes reached out and offered him a ticket out of campus politics. “He said, “Why don’t you come out to Chicago? I bought a building, you can live in the basement, stream there, not pay rent, it’s its own unit, and I’ll pay you on top of that’,” McNeil recalled. “Leave my family, leave the girlfriend, leave all the things I had going on back in Kansas or whatever and drive out to Chicago.”
On the podcast, McNeil said his years as a loyal footsoldier to Fuentes has left him with a “Hatewatch” profile on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, no money, no friends, and no prospects.
He claims the only payment he’s ever seen from Fuentes was $1,000 in 2020, when he worked for 17 days straight filming his “White Boy Summer” propaganda tour. He said that Fuentes collects personal information from all America First employees, and threatened to release his Social Security number. He also says that Fuentes makes “employees” sign NDAs.
Fuentes did not respond to a VICE News request for comment on all of McNeil’s allegations.
“This guy is a sick person who wants to destroy young men’s lives,” said McNeil.
“He’s threatening all these underage people, young men, that are willing to put their lives on the line, their identity on the line, for him.” The threats that McNeil described ranged from doxxing, to reporting them, or somehow destroying their reputation.
(To be clear, McNeil has denounced Fuentes and America First but has not repudiated the bigotry that defines the movement overall.)
McNeil also made some moral allegations about Fuentes that might not play well with Christian ultranationalists. Fuentes touts himself as a devout Catholic, which has helped him gain support among Christian nationalists and lawmakers. But McNeil says he can recall just one time when Fuentes attended Mass in the entire two years that he lived with him. (McNeil also pointed to Fuentes’ TV-watching habits as further evidence of his tenuous claim to strict Catholicism: He apparently enjoys HBO shows like Euphoria and Sex Lives of College Girls.)
Judging by photos and videos from 76Fest, about ten people showed up in total. It’s not clear whether that was expected or if the poor turnout had anything to do with the infighting. Organizers, who previously described their event series as “Conservative Coachella,” run a pretty tight ship when it comes to social media. Attendees are asked to refrain from recording speeches for the most part, for example. When VICE News contacted organizers via Instagram DM, they responded by blocking this reporter.
Their Instagram remains public-facing, however, and it’s easily accessible. They painted wooden crosses; one person had painted the URL for Fuentes’ streaming platform on it.
One of the speakers who showed up was T.R. Sartor, who has fashioned himself as a dandy-like Southern gentleman. He makes bespoke suits for groypers (he’s currently offering a special fabric called “White Boy Summer Gingham”) retailing at around $800. He also runs tutorials via Cozy.tv on making craft cocktails, how to buy vintage clothing, and how to care for leather. Appearing last month on his Cozy.tv channel in an America First cap and cocktail in hand, he pledged his loyalty to Fuentes. “I’m goin’ fuckin’ nowhere. Nick J. Fuentes gang for life. It is solid. I am not going anywhere,” he said. “Loyalty is going to be tested. We’ve had these moments before.”
“We are at this point where someone who was once thought to be very essential to the [America First] cast of characters has abandoned us,” Sartor added—an apparent reference to McNeil.
Another speaker at the retreat was Shekinah Hollingsworth, who goes by the “Based Biracial,” and livestreamed her drive up to New York. Hollingsworth, 26, who is running for a seat in the Maryland Legislature, identifies herself as a candidate who is affiliated with Fuentes’ movement. (In her livestream, she defended Fuentes and dismissed his detractors as “neocons who just don’t get it”.) She’s one of a handful of prominent nonwhite activists in the movement who help promote their talking points while simultaneously giving it cover, railing against “anti-white racism” and promoting white supremacist conspiracy theories.
“I will be homophobic, I will be racist, I will be a neo-Nazi,” she said in a video from March after she was criticized for making anti-gay remarks about her Republican primary opponent.
The retreat took place one week after an 18-year-old white supremacist walked into a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, just a two-hour drive away from Syracuse, and opened fire, leaving ten dead. The teen had allegedly written a racist screed that espoused white supremacist conspiracy theories, and claimed he was radicalized on 4chan.
The bowels of 4chan was one online site that propelled Fuentes’ “America First” ultranationalist movement. That movement is increasingly trying to establish itself as a cohesive, legitimate, real-world movement, and seeking mainstream political acceptance by whitwashing its image and distancing itself from white supremacist violence like what occurred in Buffalo. (Fuentes, for his part, made repeated baseless claims that the Buffalo shooting was a “false flag.”)
The youth ultranationalist movement is a direct descendant of the “alt-right”—a loose network of preppy white nationalists, racist shitposters, and neo-Nazis—that coalesced around former President Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2015.
The alt-right split following the August 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (which Fuentes attended) amid lawsuits, arrests, deplatforming—and a movement-wide dispute about “optics.” The suit-and-tie white nationalist contingent of the alt-right understood that marching alongside neo-Nazis waving swastikas was not conducive to their overall goals, such as gaining a foothold in GOP politics.
After Charlottesville, Fuentes continued to build up his groyper fan base, which he touted as the legitimate, authentic voice of young conservatives. In what’s now affectionately referred to within the movement as “The Groyper Wars” of 2019, Fuentes and his army made it their mission to harass the mainstream right-wing student organization Turning Point USA, trolling them over policies banning racist hate speech. He tried to portray Turning Point USA as a bunch of establishment “RINOs” (Republican in name only) who were overly beholden to cancel culture.
Alex Clark, a 29-year-old Turning Point USA contributor who was a prominent figure in the organization during the “groyper wars,” remembers that time all too well. She was (and continues to be) a regular target of misogynistic harassment and threats from groypers.
“I disgust them, because I wear makeup and dress trendy, and wear crop tops,” Clark told VICE News. While she respected McNeil’s decision to come forward and condemn Fuentes, she couldn’t forgive him for his involvement in a movement that targeted her with harassment over the years.
Fuentes held his first America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC) in February 2020, intentionally on the same weekend as the main-line CPAC, the largest annual gathering of Republicans. Fuentes, who had rebranded as a devout Christian nationalist, also became a prominent face in the pro-Trump Stop the Steal movement, which enabled him to forge alliances with high-profile figures in the far-right (he’s since been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the violent riot at the Capitol, which he did not attend).
“They compare Putin to Hitler, like that’s a bad thing”
GOP Rep. Paul Gosar from Arizona—also a prominent “Stop the Steal” activist– was the keynote speaker at AFPAC in 2021. After the conference, Fuentes shared a photo of him and Gosar meeting over coffee. (The flirtation between Gosar and Fuentes didn’t stop there. Gosar regularly shared Fuentes’ posts on his social media. Earlier this year, Gosar even publicly rushed to Fuentes’ defense after he was hit with the Jan. 6 subpoena, accusing them of persecuting “young conservative Christians like Nick Fuentes.”)
Fuentes’ apparent success, his huge following, the fact he was raking in tens of thousands dollars, plus the GOP’s desperation to build a base among young people, sent a clear message to other young far-right shitposters. They, too, could put on a suit and try to make a name for themselves as an ultranationalist influencer.
Last year, far-right student activists formed “The American Populist Union” (APU), which has clear overlaps with Fuentes and America First. According to an article published earlier this year by Political Research Associates, APU held its inaugural conference in a hotel ballroom in Tampa, Florida in July 2021. People in the crowd chanted “Nick! Nick! Nick!” when Fuentes’ name was mentioned, and the blue “America First” caps were seen among the audience.
Members of APU claimed to have Gosar in their corner. They’ve posed for pictures with him and shared them on social media. Earlier this year, Gosar promoted an APU event that listed him as a scheduled speaker. After some backlash, with critics pointing out the ties between groypers and APU, Gosar insisted he had never agreed to speak at their event and had no idea what it was.
While APU rank-and-file have no issues associating with Fuentes (nor did they have issues making virulently antisemitic and racist statements on their private Discord servers, according to Political Research Association), the organization’s leaders have been careful to keep their distance. There seemed to be a creeping consensus within the wider movement that Fuentes, who regularly uses his Cozy.tv platform and social media to go on hate-filled tirades, is a bit of a liability for the movement’s overall aspirations for legitimacy. (Notably, APU leaders have spoken at 76Fest events in the past, but they skipped the Syracuse camping trip to hold their own “summit” in Manhattan.)
Then came AFPAC earlier this year. Described as the “headline political conference of the movement” by one American First defector, this year’s event was supposed to be a major moment for the youth ultranationalist crowd. It was sponsored by Andrew Torba, CEO of Gab. The likes of Proud Boy founder Gavin McInnes, far-right troll Milo Yiannapolous and McNeil were all touted as “special guests.” (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE in the mid-1990s. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys in 2016.)
But they also had Gosar, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Trump ICE Director Thomas Homan, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, and Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin either attending or speaking virtually.
Greene was billed as a speaker. She took the stage and hugged Fuentes just after he’d crowed about leading a movement for “young white men.” She led the crowd in chants of “Christ is King.” Homan, who was also billed as a speaker, searched Fuentes’ name on Google once he got there and came across an article talking about how he was praising Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, Huffington Post reported. He left the event abruptly.
“They compare Putin to Hitler, like that’s a bad thing,” Fuentes quipped in his keynote speech.
Dickerman (also known as “Simon Sasquatch”) was among Fuentes’ loyal footsoldiers and integral to building up America First. He bemoaned Fuentes’ carelessness around optics during his appearance on the Kino Casino podcast alongside McNeil. He likened Fuentes’ praise of Hitler and Putin to a moment in 2016 when suit-and-tie white nationalist Richard Spencer revealed his true beliefs by leading a room full of men in Nazi salutes, saying, “Hail Trump, Hail Victory” after Trump won the election.
“What are you trying to do here? If the goal is to build a political movement, who is the political voter base? The vast majority of right-wing voters are older people,” said Dickerman. “If you’re trying to appeal to the Republican voter base, I don’t think it’s a good idea to praise Putin as a savior of America. Whether you like him or not, that’s just not something you do politically.”
(Fuentes has not backtracked on his firm support for Russia; his livestreams feature a Russian flag emblazoned with the letter “Z”, which has come to symbolize support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.)
Fuentes’ remarks and conduct during this year’s AFPAC indeed came back to bite him. While Gosar continues to promote the America First group, he has distanced himself from Fuentes. In April, he disavowed Fuentes—not because of what Fuentes believes in but because he says the quiet part out loud. “I’ve given up on dealing with Nick,” said Gosar. “Nick’s got a problem with his mouth.” Greene, amid backlash to her appearance at AFPAC, claimed she had no idea who Fuentes was prior to the event. “I went to his event last night to address his very large following because it’s a very young following and it’s a generation I’m extremely concerned about,” Greene told CBS.
Clark believes that Fuentes’ demise was inevitable.
“He’s been spiraling ever since Paul Gosar disavowed him. His rhetoric got too out of control. Nick can't help himself. He's dropping the N-word,” said Clark. “If you’re trying to be a serious political activist, if you want congressmen and women to support you, optics-wise it’s a stupid move. Not to mention it's disgusting and racist.”
Fuentes’ possible downfall comes at a moment when the youth Christian ultranationalist movement is more visible than ever.
They’ve spent the last year trying to gain political credibility in Christian nationalist circles by attaching themselves to the anti-abortion movement. Ever since a leaked draft majority opinion of the Supreme Court signaled that justices are poised to overturn abortion rights in the U.S., the movement is set to claim a personal victory.
This past January, Fuentes and his supporters showed up to the March for Life in D.C., lugging a giant cross and chanting “Christ is King.” APU, for its part, lists “Faith,” “Fatherland,” and “Family” as its top three issues. APU co-founder Vince Dao posted a video celebrating the news of the possible demise of Roe.
“If you’re trying to appeal to the Republican voter base, I don’t think it’s a good idea to praise Putin as a savior of America”
Ending abortion, Dao said, “would be a necessary first step in returning American culture to a more traditional and conservative one.”
“For instance, we are already witnessing a feminist movement on social media warning that such a policy will put an end to hook-up culture,” Dao said. “Removing the safety net around casual sex would return personal responsibility to one’s actions.”
Last month, members of APU and Fuentes supporters joined an anti-abortion counterprotest at the Arizona Capitol.
In Manhattan, a man in a blue America First hat was seen on video guarding a Catholic church in Manhattan and praying, during a protest in support of abortion last week. He was also seen heckling protesters. “I am the people. The people have decided, the court has decided. You lose. You have no choice. Not your body, your choice,” he said. “Your body is mine and you’re having my baby.”
“God is on our side,” said T.R. Sartor on his livestream. “These abortion protests go on. Who is the guy holding a phalanx against a Luciferian bitch? Guarding a church against a Luciferian bitch? It’s a good-looking white man in an America First hat. That is America First right there.”
It doesn’t appear, so far, that the deadly white supremacist attack in Buffalo has had a chilling effect on the reach or visibility of young Christian ultranationalists, who parrot many of the same talking points that were found in the alleged gunman’s diatribe. But the infighting and ego clashes among the movement’s top brass could be detrimental to its overall goals and ability to present a united front.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Gavin McInnes, Jaden McNeil, and Milo Yiannapolous were touted as speakers at AFPAC. They were, in fact, touted as "special guests."