Self-proclaimed “Christian Nationalists” in the America First movement are exploiting religious beliefs to garner broader support within the GOP.
Alexander Reid Ross holds a PhD from the Earth, Environment, Society program at Portland State University where he teaches in the Geography Department. He is a Graduate Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and Senior Research Fellow at the Network Contagion Research Institute.
Christian nationalism has returned to the core of the far-right after a tour through the wilderness of Alt Right syncretism involving the usual fascist amalgam of Odinism, Satanism, nature worship, British Israelism, Ariosophy, and so forth. In some ways, members of the white nationalist movement predicted this turn following the terror of Charlottesville, investing in efforts to infiltrate Christian conservative groups rather than focusing as much on exploiting the traditional tensions between radical subcultural milieus and liberal democracy.
Today, these white nationalists within the America First (AF) movement, led by Nick Fuentes and his supporters, are effectively infiltrating religious movements associated with the New Apostolic Reformation, the Orthodox church, and the Mormon church through proxies and supporters. Supporters have attended political events associated with the Church, started far-right church groups, and engaged with religious media in order to pull Christians further to the far right.
This is part of a broader tactic of “entryism” through which the Identitarian movement attempted to rebrand after Charlottesville as a Conservative movement that could insinuate itself within conventional spaces as an “America First” movement rather than a public-facing white nationalist coalition.
Moments like these require unrelenting truthtelling. We take pride in being reader-funded. If you like our work, support our journalism.
Identitarianism and America First
Influencers central to the AF movement got their start in relation to Identity Evropa and “Identitarianism” more broadly. Identitarianism is a strain of far-right ideology that emerged in Europe first, and was conveyed to the US through the Alt Right. First led by Nathan Damigo in 2016, Identity Evropa was associated with the Alt Right, and featured as one of the leading, most-visible groups at the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, during which a far-right activist drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer.
During 2017, Nick Fuentes hosted The Nationalist Review with James Allsup, who was also at Charlottesville, joined Identity Evropa in early 2018, and is now a host of the fascist podcast, Fash the Nation. The Nationalist Review ended in January 2018. Later leaks revealed that two of Identity Evropa’s Discord servers were dedicated to Fuentes/Allsup and the Nationalist Review. Nick Fuentes also joined the Charlottesville march, as did Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, who has also become associated with the AF movement.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Damigo left Identity Evropa and was replaced by Elliott Kline (“Eli Mosley”), who had been on the Alt Right, as part of a rebranding effort. Three months later, Kline passed the reins to Patrick Casey, a member of conspiracy theory hub, Red Ice. Casey called for a white ethnostate, but also attempted to lead Identity Evropa into the Conservative movement rather than hold big rallies. The big debut of this “suit-and-tie” strategy occurred during CPAC 2018, when Casey attended the Conservative conference explicitly to “take over the GOP as much as possible.” Fuentes also attended in 2018. The two were reportedly refused entry at CPAC 2019, however.
After their Discord servers were leaked, in March 2019, Identity Evropa rebranded as the American Identity Movement, continuing with banner drops and other propaganda exercises. Right-wing commentator, Michelle Malkin, defended the group on Telegram, stating, “American Identity Movement is thus calling for these refugees to be peacefully relocated to parts of the world more compatible with their cultural and religious backgrounds. It is imperative that the historic demographic composition of our nation be preserved as much as possible; if not, the America we know and love will be destroyed – forever.”
But Fuentes’s efforts to freight white nationalist ideas into the mainstream Conservative movement gained steam. He created a media enterprise called America First, exploiting the brand that Trump rode to power. While America First closed the gap between fascist and Conservative through populist politics, American Identity Movement faltered on ideological theory. Accepting the trend, Casey disbanded his group, and circled the wagons within the growing AF movement.
The Alt Right and its supporters soon followed. Also joining Fuentes was Vincent James Foxx, who had glorified the fascist street gang, Rise Above Movement, which fought with anti-fascists in Berkeley, Huntington Beach, and at the Charlottesville march. Foxx also deleted a tweet in which he promoted Unite the Right. Reflecting their Alt Right history, the group associated with AF adopted the “groyper” meme, a rendition of the Pepe the Frog cartoon that became associated with the fascist movement.
Another soon-to-be-groyper leader, Scott Greer, was forced to resign from The Daily Caller after it was revealed that he wrote for Richard Spencer’s Radix Journal. Steve Franssen, another prominent groyper, was a contributor to This Week on the Alt Right and described himself as an Identitarian prior to linking up with AF. Rounding out the group is Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, who was also at Charlottesville and entered the Capitol during the January 6th putsch. Fuentes had successfully turned much of the Alt Right into a Christian nationalist movement under his leadership, but his ambitious effort to control the “America First” brand required more effort.
Strategy of Disruption
The America First brand is broadly embraced by Trump supporters and, thus, most of the Republican Party. Introduced by Woodrow Wilson, it became a watchword for US nationalism and opposition to involvement in World War I. Used to index “Americanism,” a favorite term of the Ku Klux Klan, “America First” summarized the immigration restrictions and economic tariffs of Warren G. Harding in the 1920s. In the early 1940s, America First was taken up by a consortium of left-wing and far-right US nationalists who campaigned against involvement in World War II.
The term was maintained by the far right, with fascist operative Willis Carto’s Populist Party running militia movement figure Bo Gritz on an “America First Coalition” ticket in 1992. Far-right political figure Pat Buchanan furthered the term to mark his 2000 Presidential campaign under the Reform Party ticket and ensuing efforts to create an America First Party – Trump criticized Buchanan’s campaign tactics at the time. Under the rough tenets of constrained immigration and economic nationalism, AF believes that the America First brand can combine a rough assortment of white nationalists, fascists, and Conservative populists on the same platform to defeat moderates in the Republican Party or destroy it altogether.
The conditions of unpopular foreign interventions and economic crisis following the financial recession created ripe conditions for Steve Bannon’s efforts to promote populist politics with the Alt Right through Breitbart in the 2010s synthesized with Trump’s “America First” campaign. Yet Trump’s hegemony in the GOP did not spell the end for his neoconservative opponents, and his compromises and contests with other factions did not always please his America First core supporters. Fuentes’s efforts to capture the America First brand involved a hard-right push from the white nationalist extremes among Trump supporters to gain control over the right-wing.
Fuentes’s AF followers are perhaps mostly known to engage keenly among College Republicans and associated groups, successfully taking over right-wing groups in the following universities: Kansas State, SDSU, UC-Irvine, UCLA, ASU, and University of Maine, among others. They came to particular prominence in 2019, most infamously by attending and then disrupting speaking engagements from Politicon to Turning Point USA and Young America’s Foundation events at universities. Calling these efforts to intervene against right-wing speakers like Ben Shapiro and Donald Trump, Jr., the “Groyper Wars,” the AF brand became subversion against religious tolerance. Once Republicans grew more wary of them, AFers began organizing their own conferences.
Efforts to disrupt and influence CPAC from the far right are also typical of those who have moved toward AF. Laura Loomer, who would become associated with AF, interceded in CPAC 2019, mixing it up with attendees until her press pass was revoked. Milo Yiannopoulos, who attended CPAC 2017 as a keynote speaker, joined the AF ranks in 2019 and supports their general strategy. He has since come out as an ex-gay Christian to the delight of “the Catholic ‘alt-right’” (eg, Lepanto Institute, Church Militant, and LifeSite News).
By CPAC 2020, Fuentes and friends were denied access to CPAC, and developed a new strategy of promoting a counter-CPAC conference called America First PAC, which they would hold nearby and simultaneously. Through this AFPAC, they were able to bring together former Alt Right figures and Republican Party elected officials like former representative Steve King (R-IA) and current representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ). Regardless of her AFPAC association, however, Malkin was still given press credentials at CPAC 2020.
In short, AF was constructed out of an “entryist” faction in the Identitarian movement, which was among the most prominent organizers of Charlottesville, meaning that white nationalists attempted to reform their “optics” (or public image) in order to turn the Conservative movement toward their goals and ultimately take it over from within. As the IREHR writes, “Fuentes’s attempt to deny any affinity with white nationalism is little more than the latest effort at white nationalist mainstreaming.”
America First and Religious Entryism
AFers characterized themselves as Christian nationalists, meaning that they believe that the US is fundamentally a Christian nation, but elements of their movement reveal even deeper commitments to reactionary ideology. Fuentes has also made statements indicating Holocaust denial and promotes racist ideas (eg, “human biodiversity” and “race realism”) prominent among white nationalists. He also has a particular view of universal Catholic doctrine common among fascists. However, efforts to engage politically with different congregations outside of Catholicism characterize AF’s larger effort to move Trump supporters and the rest of the Republican Party toward white nationalist positions.
Fuentes openly debates other movement members from different congregations, like Pentecostalists and Seventh Day Adventists, about the nuances of revealed doctrine. To people who have expressed support for America First, Fuentes advises remaining discreet about their sympathies, while dropping hints about their beliefs and observing how their cohorts respond. In this way, America First works through entryism not just in college groups, and Turning Point USA most specifically, but also in churches and other right-wing organizations.
One big controversy occurred in December 2019, when organizers associated with congressional candidate Bobby Schilling’s immigration forum invited Fuentes to speak at a immigration forum at the Pleasant View Baptist Church in a Bettendorf, Iowa. Schilling fired the staffer—his campaign political coordinator—who was later found to have posted AF-associated ideas on social media. The church and Schilling both condemned Fuentes after the event.
The fired staffer, Michael Sisco, went on to manage the campaign of another AF follower, Lauren Witzke (with whom he was romantically involved), in Delaware. Witzke at the time was a Trump 2020 campaigner who organized events with QAnon supporter Dylan Wheeler, including one with a self-described “Deplorable” named Alexander Davis that turned into a “Christian revivalist worship service.” Sisco now is associated with Saints Edward Media, which promotes “Traditionalism” and Orthodoxy, while running a groyper podcast.
Witzke is Orthodox, and helped spearhead a campaign to have a gay blogger excommunicated from the Church. She was also on the podcast Orthodoxy First, hosted by AF supporter Luke Kendrat, who appears to organize far-right meetups at his own church. Witzke was also a featured guest on TruNews, hosted by evangelical pastor and rabid anti-Semite, Rick Wiles of the Flowing Streams Church. So not only do they work within Christian communities, they also launch campaigns within those communities to move them to the right and ostracize people who endorse pro-LGBQTI+ policies or pro-immigration policies.
As well as Orthodoxy, a cluster of groypers and their allies identify with the “#DezNats,” a group of reactionary Mormons who try to organize within the LDS church to undermine the LGBTQ community. These interlopers make orchestrated efforts to influence the General Conference, which is a major event for Mormons. In this case, groypers attempt to enter a broader reactionary movement that’s trying to oppose reforms in the Mormon church.
Organizing Among Anti-Maskers and Putschists
Efforts to pull the New Apostolic Reform movement (NAR) toward racially diverse congregations in megachurches from Florida to California make them an important target for Fuentes’s group. As well, the “post-millennial” vision of God’s world descending to the US through Trump’s divine rule, popular among many religious “charismatics,” overlaps with QAnon and opens it up to extremist tendencies. At the same time, Fuentes often ridicules QAnon, asserting an even bleaker, more jaundiced form of far-right Christian nationalism.
One of the main crossovers between AF and the NAR has been the anti-masker movement, which opened the floodgates for AF and the radicalizing religious right. Michelle Malkin and others have made common cause with Pentecostal opposition to Governors’ stay at home orders, for instance in Louisiana. Groypers tend to oppose masks as a mandate from the “One World Government,” and they also promote anti-vaxx propaganda. The clearest opening between the NAR movement and the groypers, however, came to fruition around “Stop the Steal” and the efforts to overturn the 2020 elections.
On November 7, popular Christian nationalist Doug Mastriano gave a speech to thousands of Trump supporters with the AF flag fluttering behind him. That same day famed NAR leader, Dutch Sheets, followed Louie Gohmert (R-TX), a Baptist deacon who evangelizes around the country, on an election-related Facebook Live broadcast hosted by NAR-associated radio personality Eric Metaxas.
Gohmert was considering joining the “Anglo-Saxon” America First Caucus, which approximated white nationalist, groyper positions and is no longer being created. Metaxas is an important figure on the Christian Right, having appeared at the Values Voter Summit 2020, so his apparent leanings toward AF are significant. AFPAC headliner, Steve King, has also joined the National Prayer Breakfast, showing the proximity between evangelicals and AF supporters.
The tendency of AF supporters to link up with evangelicals builds on a trend in the far right that preceded the formation of Fuentes’s movement. Michelle Malkin, who would call herself the “mommy” of the groypers, appeared on Metaxas’s podcast on April 20, 2017 before the AF (aka “groyper”) movement kicked off. Malkin appeared on Metaxas’s show again on September 12, 2019, showing that relations between AF and the NAR remain fairly consistent. Malkin was also a featured speaker at the mainstream right-wing event, Liberty Forum of Silicon Valley.
On November 14, Fuentes and his groypers attended a “Million MAGA March,” loudly proclaiming a struggle of “the satanic globalist elite versus us, the people of Christ.” Reflecting on his success a few days later, Fuentes declared, “Last year I said the Groyper Wars were the beginning of the beginning…and now, we’ve finally arrived into the Trump faction. We are really legitimate within the American Right…it was really the moment when America First arrived.” The next day, on November 18, Fuentes took part in a major Stop the Steal protest in Atlanta, Georgia, occupying the state house with his supporters and a host of far-right leaders like Ali Alexander, Alex Jones, and Vernon Jones. However, he felt that the leading Stop the Steal organizers were beginning to push him to the side.
Leading up to the December 12 “Jericho March” of evangelicals and Catholics in DC, Metaxas told Charlie Kirk that Trump supporters should prepare to “fight to the last drop of blood” to defend Trump’s presidency. Representative Paul Gosar, who attended Fuentes’s AFPAC conference along with Malkin and King and was part of the planned AF Caucus, spoke at the Jericho March according to a December 7 press release. (Gosar later attempted to publicly distance himself from AFPAC.) Other featured speakers listed on the press release included Vernon Jones, Alex Jones, and Ali Alexander, all of whom occupied the Georgia State Capitol with Nick Fuentes, himself, during the Stop the Steal rally on November 18.
While this cohort of religious nationalists who have made common cause with Fuentes spoke at the Jericho March, Fuentes and a group of groypers (according to the ADL, this included “White supremacist Red Elephants founder Vincent James …[,] Steven Franssen, Patrick Casey, Jake Lloyd, Scott Greer and Jayden McNeil”) hosted a rally a few blocks away. The fact that the groypers hosted a rally close to the Jericho March indicated common cause but also some separate positions. AF still wants to keep an independent brand, even while influencing others on the right.
Groypers were also at the January 6 putsch, with Fuentes outside delivering a speech and Gionet streaming from inside the building. Other Christian nationalists also attended, including Doug Mastriano, the state Senator from Pennsylvania actively embraced by AFers. Indeed, it appears that AF is no longer a mere slogan but a rallying cry to a far-right national revolution. Fuentes and AF are uncomfortably situated as alternately the vanguard of the Trump movement and its embarrassing cousin, at the threshold of movement leaders and extremist outsiders. AF is poised within a complex system in a phase of entropy where anything seems possible, including their disintegration or successful power grab.
Patrick Casey abandoned the Fuentes-led faction of AF after the failed coup in January fearing an FBI crackdown, leaks, etc. However, recently, Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG) spoke at a Republicans for National Renewal conference in support of Laura Loomer as an “America Firster.” Republicans for National Renewal research director Albert Turkington authored the America First Caucus platform and identifies in his Twitter bio as an “Apostolic Christian.”
MTG has the full support of Catholic Traditionalist Steve Bannon, illustrating an overlapping milieu between the current AF hardcore in the Republican Party and the more-independent groyper AF network associated with Gosar, Malkin, and Fuentes. As well, disgraced Congressman Matt Gaetz has a running relationship with AF, controversially diverting tax dollars through a third party to hire AF supporter Darren Beattie as a speechwriter. Fired from the Trump team after his appearance at a white nationalist conference was revealed, Beattie is a friend of Steve Bannon’s podcast, along with MTG and other “America First” torchbearers.
Now with Revolver News, Beattie is leading the charge to rewrite the history of January 6. Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, Ben Lorber writes, “In our volatile era, operatives like Beattie serve as connective tissue between White nationalist movements and the populist Right, transforming institutional conservatism by moving white nationalism mainstream.”
Hence, AF followers have been a part of efforts to infiltrate Christian faiths through individual churches, podcasts, and political events, thus driving them toward the far right by distancing themselves from the white nationalist label and taking up the slogan of “America First” and the cause of Christian nationalism. As the GOP forces out Liz Cheney and consolidates around anti-abortion efforts, Donald Trump seems poised to maintain his demagogical leadership position. Despite the scandals surrounding Matt Gaetz, one of the leading epigone’s of the AF movement within Congress, there is little indication of AF’s marginalization either in Congress or in churches.
In truth, the distinction between Trump’s “America First” campaign, assembled largely by Steve Bannon, and the US white nationalist movement appears to have been completely erased. It is difficult to see any daylight between Laura Loomer and MTG, Bannon and MTG, or the America First PAC and MTG’s attempted America First Caucus. If Trump runs again in 2024, the resurgent wave of militant fascism seen in 2015-2016 will likely recur, only with more Christian characteristics, and unless checked by others on the US right, groypers will play a leading role in that resurgence.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.