The left, Charlie Kirk is fond of saying, hates the idea that there are other ideas. This is the kind of phrase that is extremely fashionable on the mainstream pro-Trump right. Comedian and political commentator Steven Crowder hosts debates under the slogan ‘change my mind’. Ben Shapiro, who is less pro-Trump, drones ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’. We are reasonable and open-minded, such men have signaled, while our opponents are dogmatic and intolerant.
Sometimes, though, your greatest weapon can be your greatest weakness. More nationalistic and reactionary right-wingers have grasped their chance to insert themselves into mainstream discourse: beating commentators like Kirk, Crowder and Shapiro at their own game. When these liberal conservatives appear on campuses or at other events to brandish their embattled intellectual credentials, these young men edge forward in the Q&A sessions ask sharp, civil and, in general, hilariously bad faith questions.
What these ‘groypers’ – the name comes from the cartoon frog that sits in many of their online memes, like a fatter, smugger Pepe – have worked out is that ‘destroying’ student leftists is relatively simple. ‘I’m offended by you calling me a man when I’m a woman.’ ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings!’ ‘What if we had universal healthcare?’ ‘Communism never works!’
I am exaggerating slightly, of course. Shapiro, at least, is a professional and always has acres of facts and figures to pick from. Even so, debating people who reject all of your premises is easier, in general, than debating people who accept at least some of them. This is especially the case if they are more radical than you, because it is so easy to sound weak, defensive and spineless.
Kirk, especially, has not helped himself. The young founder of Turning Point USA showed admirable pluck and resourcefulness in transforming his organization from a two-bit student group run out of an Illinois garage to an international media sensation. Unfortunately, he has the ideological depth of your grandmother’s Facebook memes. Kirk has spent the last few years cheerleading for Donald Trump, a president who, whatever you think of his record, is devoted first and foremost to his insatiable ego. ‘Did you know?’ the average Kirk Twitter post will read, ‘Under President Trump the USA is richer than it has been since 2017!’
The groypers, who have been long been a relatively organic internet subculture, are represented most prominently by a quick-witted far-right YouTuber named Nicholas Fuentes. Fuentes distinguished himself on the ‘alt-right’ partly through his wit and eloquence and partly through his hasty disavowal of the label when it carried too much toxic and low status baggage. Fuentes, like Patrick Casey from the American Identity Movement, realized the fascist imagery and ‘white pride’ rhetoric was not attractive to anyone beyond the realms of Stormfront. They focused on promoting themselves as ‘America First’ nationalists and valued ‘good optics’, which entailed humor more than outrage, Old Glory and not Nazi flags, Christianity and not paganism and clever trolling operations and not public rallies.
Fuentes, Casey and their groypers have been smart enough to see that for all of their ‘Make America Great Again’ sloganeering, Turning Point USA is not especially conservative, never mind reactionary. The success of their campaign has come from asking awkward questions more than just spewing abuse. TPUSA and their associates are often manifestly incapable of responding to them. For example why, someone asked Rep. Dan Crenshaw, if conservatives value free speech and freedom of association, should states pass anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions legislation? Crenshaw was reduced to spluttering about how anti-Semitic BDS is without touching on the freedom aspect.
It is, I’m afraid, a fact that Charlie Kirk and his colleagues are painfully easy to outflank on even the most basic conservative positions. Kirk is the kind of fetishist of capitalism who claims that, ‘What’s amazing about free market capitalism is that it forces you to be a good person.’ Really? When can we expect opioid salesmen, media moguls and hardcore pornographers to become good people? Kirk, too, is the kind of liberal who claims that a nation is just a ‘placeholder for ideas’ as if a culture can be entirely abstracted from peoples and their environments. Kirk handed the groypers an early Christmas present by excluding Fuentes from one of his public events. Of course, he had the right to determine who went in, but as someone who constantly droned about leftist intolerance and closed-mindedness, it looked limp and hypocritical to exclude a five foot six YouTuber.
Of course, Fuentes, and his followers, are not just high-spirited paleoconservatives. His disassociation from the likes of Richard Spencer had more to do with strategic than moral differences. Anyone who distances themselves from Nazis because of optics opens to the door to obvious questions, like someone who declares they had nothing to do with Charles Manson because of his unkempt physical appearance. The humorless wheedling about how Hitler only invaded Poland to reclaim Danzig (he didn’t) and sneering jokes about how the Red Cross said 200,000-300,000 Jews died in Nazi death camps (it didn’t) have done nothing to dispel the sense that aesthetic and tactical revulsion from militant exclusionary politics does not preclude ideological affinity. If someone liked to hang around with Stalinists, said Stalin made some pretty good points, cracked lots of jokes about the gulags and liked screaming about kulaks then you would conclude that he was something of a communist.
The ‘groyper war’ is gathering steam because the likes of Kirk have made themselves such easy targets. Ponderous former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka lumbered out in their defense and found himself hosting a caller who suggested that Fuentes ‘gargle razor blades’, before he was banned from YouTube for hosting, of all things, the music of Imagine Dragons.
Having promoted themselves as the debate guys, despite their manifest incompetence, such people have become sitting ducks. You hope the young men, and it is mostly men, who are surprised and entertained by their vulnerability do not find themselves mired in a bog of seething racialism. I would recommend that any kids who have been attracted to either side get offline and do some reading before they stumble backwards into someone else’s worldview.