Americans have primarily been focused on the attempt to impeach President Donald Trump, but a breaking conflict within the ranks of conservative Trump supporters points to a troubling aspect of his presidency that ought to concern not just his critics but also the White House itself.
The rise of a group of noisy alt right critics of mainstream Republicans and conservatives who call themselves "groypers" has become a cause célèbre on the right.
Led by a You Tube personality called Nick Fuentes, who has a long record of racism, Holocaust denial, homophobia, and a penchant for calling opponents "shabbos goy race traitors" they share the president’s antipathy to illegal immigration.
But they go further even than Senior White House advisor Stephen Miller, denounced by Democrats and liberals because of his familiarity with white nationalist literature and aggressive hostility to immigrant communities – indeed, something that ought to trouble even those who don’t wish to take sides against Trump.
The groypers advocate not merely a mass deportation of illegals, a drastic reduction in legal immigration and refugee entries - as Miller does, but denounce anyone who doesn’t share their racist hostility towards all non-European Americans, framing them as advocates of "open borders." Their views are a toxic brew of classic far right incitement combining racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia.
What’s more, although they claim to be true believers in Trump, the sole object of their trolling and heckling at events on college campuses and elsewhere have been supporters of the president, including stalwart conservative Republicans like Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw (who has called them "the Alt Right 2.0.") and even Donald Trump Jr., as well as pundits like the Daily Wire's Ben Shapiro and Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk.
All ideological and political camps - on the right and the left - have their extremists who clamor for attention on the margins of the public square. But the willingness of mainstream leaders to stand up to such outliers is crucial for maintaining a firewall between legitimate political players and the sort of vile provocateurs who make up groups like the groypers. But the response that these extremists are getting from both the conservative movement in general and the White House in particular is mixed.
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While a denunciation of the groypers and all alt right trolls by Trump would be a powerful statement of his opposition to their racism and anti-Semitism, so far neither he nor anyone else at the highest levels of the administration has deigned to notice them, even after they targeted his son.
Trump never apologizes for mistakes because he believes any admission of fault will only legitimize and encourage his opponents. Trump’s refusal to clarify or apologize for his conflation of opposition to the removal of Confederate statues and support for the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville epitomizes this belief.
One of the unintended consequences of this behavior is that groypers like Fuentes (who was an active participant at the Charlottesville march) believe they advocate for his true feelings, even if this administration’s policies on issues like Israel are in complete opposition to the anti-Semitic incitement, Holocaust denial and open racism they engage in.
The groypers are the alt-right’s second coming. The loose far right movement has learned to eschew overt Nazism and pretend, instead, to be more Trumpian than Trump. While connecting the dots between Trump and racist or anti-Semitic violence has been primarily a partisan exercise, anything that can be construed as winking at such extremism makes it harder to marginalize or isolate it.
The reaction among pro-Trump punditry has also illustrated some worrisome cracks in the conservative movement.
Michelle Malkin, a nationally syndicated columnist and former Fox News analyst with a considerable following, has defended Fuentes and other groypers. As far as she is concerned, these repellent haters are allies in a crusade to halt all immigration in order to keep out non-Europeans (which is ironic since Malkin’s parents were immigrants from the Philippines) - and in her view, those racist haters should be encouraged rather than shunned. Malkin also is also apparently untroubled by the groypers’ anti-Semitism.
Kirk’s response has been to condemn racism in general terms. But he has also been careful to keep sidestepping to the right, to try to avoid giving the groypers room to outflank him on immigration. In doing so, he opens himself, and others on the right who were initial opponents of Trump, to criticism that supporting the administration has fatally compromised conservatism.
Liberals argue that the peace between Trump and what the groypers pejoratively call "Conservative, Inc" - mainstream conservatives - has been one-sided, with the "gatekeepers" of the American conservative tradition making all the concessions to a president whose positions on trade, immigration and projecting U.S. power aboard are antithetical to the GOP’s traditional positions.
Republicans have indeed moved further to the right on immigration since 2016. But that is also in part a reaction to the way Democrats have moved to the left, by calling for decriminalizing illegal immigration - something that essentially changed the debate about the issue.
Trump’s foreign policy is a confusing mix of "America First" retreat from the Middle East, along with aggressive actions against Iran and unprecedented support for Israel. That mix simultaneously cheers neo-conservatives and outrages paleo-conservatives like "Israel First or America First?" Pat Buchanan as well as the far-right groypers.
Yet on most issues, it has been Trump, the former New York City liberal, who has adopted the positions of traditional conservatives and evangelicals when it comes to judicial appointments, taxes and regulatory reform. Those stands are more important to most on the right than their disagreements with him, the same dynamic that plays out with Jewish conservatives and Trump's Israel policy. But the rise of the groypers has created a moment in which they can no longer ignore the less attractive consequences of this presidency.
As unique as Trump’s impact on American politics has been, this is not the first time the modern conservative movement has faced such a challenge. In the early 1960s, extremists from the John Birch Society – who peddled racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories that are in line with those of today’s alt right - were establishing a foothold in the growing conservative wing of the Republican Party that would soon take over the GOP.
It was at that moment that American conservatism’s intellectual leader, William F. Buckley, stepped in and made it clear that Birchers would not be welcome in the movement or in the Republican Party. Buckley ultimately succeeded; the Birchers were forced to retreat to the fever swamps of American politics for decades, albeit only to re-emerge recently in the form of the alt-right.
In no small measure, Buckley’s efforts (repeated again in the early 1990s when he banned Buchanan and Joseph Sobran from the pages of his magazine, National Review, because of their anti-Semitism) made the electoral victories of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich possible.
So it is not without significance that a group Buckley founded nearly 60 years ago to spread conservatism on college campuses - the Young American Foundation - has taken the first step toward isolating the groypers and those who condone them. YAF has taken Malkin, who was a prominent spokesperson for the group for 17 years, off of its speakers list because of her refusal to disavow Fuentes.
That’s encouraging. But if this contagion is to be stamped out, it will require more than that.
Republicans may be primarily focused on opposing impeachment and working for GOP wins in November 2020. But the longer the White House fails to channel the spirit of Bill Buckley, fails to explicitly condemn the new alt right and fails to make it clear that Trump rejects them, the danger for both conservatism, American society - as well as the American Jewish community - will only grow.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin