The far-right activists who jeered Donald Trump Jr off a stage in California on Sunday are part of a bloc of white nationalists who embraced Trump’s father on his ascent to the White House but are now causing multiple headaches for the president’s friends, allies and family as his campaign for re-election gathers pace.
The extremists have launched an insurgent campaign to thrust their views in the faces of key Trump supporters – some of whom have reputations of their own for political views flirting with the fringes of the permissible. Seeking to command attention and force a response, they are using many of the same gadfly tactics Trump has deployed against Democrats and the left.
Their fury at being denied an opportunity to ask questions at an event promoting Trump Jr’s book Triggered, and their willingness to shout the house down, are just the latest sign of acrimony ripping at the right flank of the fabled Trump base.
In the last two weeks alone, followers of Nick Fuentes – a 21-year-old YouTube provocateur who offers supporters a diet of derogatory remarks about black, gay and Jewish people and has questioned the Holocaust – have repeatedly heckled the head of a key pro-Trump student organization, Turning Point USA; accused the Trump administration, however improbably, of being soft on immigration; and picked a fight with the erstwhile White House adviser and Trump loyalist Sebastian Gorka.
When Gorka – who has himself been accused of antisemitism, among other sins – said he found Fuentes’s views on the Holocaust “chilling”, Fuentes responded in a tweet that Gorka was “a fat mutton-headed buffoon and a prostitute for Israel”.
Gorka is one of a number of Trump surrogates and supporters who have found such provocations impossible to ignore. They have been particularly concerned to put as much daylight as possible between their own positions and those of the extremists who variously call themselves alt-right, paleoconservative or foot soldiers in a “groyper war”, a reference to a rightwing meme.
“Donald Trump has nothing to do with these so-called, self-proclaimed America First asshats,” the former editor of Breitbart News, Ben Shapiro, told a conservative forum at Stanford University last week in a speech originally intended to target Trump’s more familiar adversaries on the political left.
Shapiro quoted Fuentes without naming him and described his supporters as a “bunch of masturbating losers living in your mother’s basement” who only pretended to support Trump and were out for as much attention as they could muster.
“Trump is many things,” Shapiro insisted. “He is not a white supremacist, and he is not an antisemite.”
Shapiro’s problem in making this argument is that the racist far right was in fact openly enthusiastic about Trump when he ran for president in 2016, and Trump initially punted when invited to disavow their support.
Later, when the notorious “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville in 2017 resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, Trump’s reaction was to say there were “very fine people on both sides” – a widely condemned expression of moral equivalence Trump himself has recently sought to play down.
Shapiro faced his own band of Fuentes-admiring hecklers at Stanford, but kept talking as they were escorted out by security guards.
“I’m literally condemning Nazis,” he said, incredulously, “and you’re telling me to leave? Do you hear yourselves?”
Trump Jr and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, had notably less success in maintaining control in the university lecture hall where they appeared on Sunday. Guilfoyle told the protesters they were being “rude and disruptive and discourteous” and added: “I bet you engage in … online dating because you’re impressing no one here to get a date in person.”
She and Trump Jr abandoned the event moments later.
A triumphant Fuentes denied that he was only a pretend Trump supporter and said the person his followers were targeting was not Trump Jr but the Turning Point USA founder, Charlie Kirk, who appeared on stage as a featured speaker but did not say a word.
“Our problem is not with Donald Trump Jr who is a patriot – we are supporters of his father!” Fuentes wrote on Twitter. “Our problem is with Charlie Kirk’s TPUSA organization that SHUTS DOWN and SMEARS socially conservative Christians and supporters of President Trump’s agenda.”
Trump’s allies worry that this public feuding can only dampen his base’s enthusiasm and embolden his Democratic party challengers for the presidency. It seems likely, too, that the more extreme elements who backed Trump last time might think twice before doing so again. Two Fuentes supporters at Sunday’s book event said they were likely to sit out 2020 and not bother to vote at all.