Last week a sitting U.S. congressman delivered a keynote speech at a white nationalist conference in Florida.
“Wow, what a group,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said as he took his place behind a podium emblazoned with the letters “AFPAC” — an acronym for America First Political Action Conference, the second annual gathering of the white nationalist “groyper” movement.
After speaking about “cancel culture,” Big Tech’s supposed censorship of right-wingers, and the need for a big border wall to keep “America First,” Gosar said goodbye to the AFPAC crowd, who’d traveled from across the country to attend the secret gathering inside the Hilton Orlando.
“May God bless you,” Gosar said. “And may God bless the United States of America.”
The crowd — a motley crew of unabashed racists and anti-Semites — broke into a chant of “Gosar! Gosar!” to which the congressman responded with a wave, a smile and what looked like an earnest, heartfelt “Thank you.”
AFPAC’s organizer, white nationalist figurehead Nick Fuentes, took the stage next, telling the crowd that “white people are done being bullied” and that America needs to protect its “white demographic core.”
The next day, Fuentes and Gosar sat down for coffee, according to a photo Fuentes posted to Twitter.
“Great meeting today with Congressman Gosar,” tweeted Fuentes, a 22-year-old Holocaust denier who once compared Jews killed in Nazi gas chambers to cookies baking in an oven. “America is truly uncancelled.”
Gosar’s AFPAC appearance generated a flurry of media coverage, and rightly so: It is newsworthy, and deeply alarming, that an elected U.S. congressman feels comfortable publicly palling around with dyed-in-the-wool white nationalists. Gosar did not immediately return a request for comment on his AFPAC appearance.
In the week since AFPAC, the Republican Party has yet to rebuke Gosar. HuffPost this week reached out to the offices of seven prominent Republican politicians — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — to see whether they would condemn Gosar for attending an explicitly white nationalist conference. None responded.
HuffPost also contacted the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican National Committee, asking whether they would condemn the congressman.
Only the RNC responded, sending a boilerplate statement that did not specifically reprimand Gosar at all. “There is no place for anti-Semitism or racism in the Republican Party,” RNC spokesman Tommy Piggot said. “We condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”
Gosar, who came into office in 2011, emerged as one of former President Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters in Washington in recent years, and is among a cadre of far-right lawmakers who dedicated the last few months to trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Gosar himself helped organize and promote the Jan. 6 rally that turned into an insurrection at the Capitol.
The GOP’s silence about his recent attendance at a white nationalist conference is one of the clearest indicators yet of an American conservative movement thoroughly unreformed and unrepentant since Trump’s electoral defeat, and shows one of America’s two major political parties beholden as ever to a white majoritarian, anti-democratic agenda.
It’s perhaps why a crew of cruel college-aged “America First” fascists find the GOP to be such a fertile recruiting ground.
‘The Fire Rises!’
It’s hard to overstate how extreme and loathsome Fuentes and his cohort truly are.
Fuentes attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he stood alongside neo-Nazis, one of whom drove his car into a group of anti-fascists, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Afterwards, Fuentes wrote on Facebook that the rally had been “incredible.”
“The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming,” he wrote. “And they know that once the word gets out, they will not be able to stop us. The fire rises!”
In the years since the Charlottesville rally, Fuentes has hosted a series of podcasts, most notably “America First,” which he’s livestreamed on various video platforms, including YouTube.
The livestreams frequently feature Fuentes in a suit and tie, sitting in front of some crudely green-screened cityscape, spewing racist invective.
“Enough with the Jim Crow stuff,” Fuentes said in one episode, defending the terror that was racial segregation in the pre-Civil Rights era South. “Who cares? ‘Oh, I had to drink out of a different water fountain.’ Big fucking deal. Oh no, they had to go to a different school. And even if it was bad, who cares? It was better for them, it’s better for us.”
The podcast earned Fuentes a devoted following and a source of income, and it made him a major name in the far right.
By 2019 he had teamed up with Patrick Casey, former leader of the hate group Identity Evropa, to lead a new coalition calling itself the “Groyper Army,” a name taken from their online talisman: a cartoon toad closely related to the alt-right’s Pepe the Frog. (Followers of Fuentes and the “America First” movement call themselves “groypers.”)
Fuentes and Casey sought to use a political strategy called “entryism,” which according to The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights is the practice of “gaining a place in more mainstream organizations by moderating one’s appearance and expressed values in order to further movement goals.”
Groypers, most of whom are in their early 20s, presented themselves in public as simply clean-cut young Republicans, wearing Make America Great Again hats and waving blue “America First” flags. When Fuentes turned up at various MAGA rallies with a megaphone last year, he didn’t preach for the necessity of a white ethnostate or homeland — though that’s exactly what he wants — but instead talked of preserving “heritage,” using terms he knows are more palatable to the average Republican.
The groypers became fierce proponents of Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and were fixtures at “Stop the Steal” demonstrations across the country.
“What can you and I do to a state legislator — besides kill him?” Fuentes said. “We should not do that. I’m not advising that, but I mean, what else can you do, right?”
Two days later, Fuentes was helping lead the violent insurrection at the Capitol — though he claims he never entered the building itself. He hasn’t been charged or arrested for his role that day.
“Keep moving towards the Capitol — it appears we are taking the Capitol back!” he told a crowd of cheering supporters through a megaphone.
“Break down the barriers and disregard the police. The Capitol belongs to us,” he added.
Even as the dust settled from the insurrection, as the death and destruction it had caused came into clearer focus, and even though some of his groyper followers had been arrested for their role in the riot, Fuentes defended the violence that had taken place.
And when he took the stage at AFPAC last week, speaking just after congressman Gosar, Fuentes described the joy the insurrection had brought him.
“I saw hundreds of thousands of patriots surrounding the U.S. Capitol building, I saw the police retreating, and we heard that the politicians voting on the fraudulent election had scurried to their underground tunnels away from the Capitol,” he said. “I said to myself: ‘This is awesome!’”
The New Steve King
Gosar was a main organizer of the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” demonstration that turned into the deadly insurrection, promoting it for weeks while calling President Joe Biden an “illegitimate usurper” and arguing that Trump was the victim of a “coup.”
He has a long history of political extremism, spending his 10 years in office often hobnobbing with extremist groups in America and even abroad.
Gosar is closely tied to the far-right militia the Oath Keepers. A leader of the group recently claimed Gosar once told the militiamen that America was already in a civil war. “We just haven’t started shooting yet,” Gosar allegedly said.
He once traveled to Nevada to support other far-right militiamen in an armed standoff with federal authorities; he’s posed for a photo with a member of the Proud Boys, a violent neo-fascist street gang; and another time flew all the way to London to speak at a rally in support of a jailed anti-Muslim activist.
He’s faced little consequences for these associations, routinely winning re-election and enjoying the support of his Republican colleagues in Washington.
But for the bulk of his time in Congress, the GOP never really punished King for his extremism, and because of Iowa’s outsized role in the presidential primary, Republican candidates for president routinely courted him for his endorsement.
It was only after King nearly lost re-election to a Democrat in his deeply conservative district in 2018 that his fellow Republicans started to turn on him, suddenly feeling the occasional need to condemn his bigotry.
Then, in Jan. 2019, King made remarks condoning white supremacy in an interview with The New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King told the newspaper. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
The response from Republicans was unusually swift. McCarthy stripped King of his committee assignments, rendering him a lame-duck congressman.
Then a powerful coalition of GOP figures poured money into the campaign of his Republican primary opponent. In June 2020, King lost his primary election, bringing a shock end to his 20 years in office.
The lesson of King’s story, though, is not that the GOP took a stand against white supremacy; it’s that the GOP acted against him only when his extremism became a political liability.
HuffPost contacted the offices of seven Republican lawmakers this week who had previously condemned King for his comments about white nationalism, asking if they’d condemn Gosar for speaking at a white nationalist conference.
McCarthy and McConnell’s offices did not respond. Nor did the offices of Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), or Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Ted Cruz (Texas), or Tim Scott (S.C.).
Scott, one of the few Black Republicans in Washington, wrote a Washington Post op-ed about King in 2019. “Why are Republicans accused of racism?” the headline asked. “Because we’re silent on things like this.”
That silence has consequences, allowing white nationalists like the groypers more room to grow and organize inside the party.
“As the GOP struggles to chart its post-Trump future, the groypers are determined to move their brand of explicit white nationalism deeper into the conservative mainstream,” Ben Lorber, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told HuffPost.
“Securing Gosar’s public support is a disturbing step in that direction,” he said, “and could open the door for more elected officials to court the movement and its politics.”
The day after Gosar spoke at AFPAC, he was a featured panelist at another conference: the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, also in Orlando.
CPAC has long been the premier annual gathering of the American right, where presidents and senators and members of Congress mingle with activists and journalists. By the time Gosar took the CPAC stage, his appearance at the groyper conference had become a news story.
Like any good groyper, Gosar sought to dial down his extremism, and to obscure it. “I want to tell you, I denounce . . . white racism,” he told the CPAC crowd. “That’s not appropriate.”
Later asked by a Washington Post reporter why he went to AFPAC, Gosar responded: “We thought about it, and we thought: There is a group of young people that are becoming part of the election process, and becoming a bigger force, so why not take that energy and listen to what they’ve got to say?”
Asked by the same reporter if he regretted speaking to that group of cheering racists and Holocaust deniers, Gosar replied, “you don’t accomplish anything by isolating” and not speaking to some people.
“It’s always about the debate,” he said. “That’s how you grow.”