The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nick Fuentes is a symptom of the GOP’s problem, not the disease

Nick Fuentes answers a question during an interview with Agence France-Presse in Boston on May 9, 2017. (William Edwards/AFP)
6 min

If virulent antisemite Nick Fuentes hadn’t joined former president Donald Trump for dinner last week, what might the ensuing days of conversation have looked like? Fuentes arrived at Mar-a-Lago in the company of Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), who was welcomed by Trump and others at Mar-a-Lago with open arms — despite Ye’s own embrace of antisemitic tropes and rhetoric.

Had Fuentes not been there, would Trump’s sitting down for a meal with Ye have generated anything close to the same headlines? Was Trump’s error simply one of the scale of the antisemitism toward which he was apparently indifferent?

The Trump-Fuentes confab has provoked a very familiar conversation about whether Republican leaders would take Trump to task, a conversation that takes on only a slightly different hue because of Trump’s announced 2024 presidential candidacy. But the more important consideration is how Trump and others in his party continue to allow the boundaries of acceptable behavior from their potential supporters to expand outward.

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Let’s acknowledge that the Trump-Ye-Fuentes dinner raises a host of other questions that would seem to be ones that Republican officials might want to address. Does the guy leading in 2024 nominating polls just sit down to eat with anyone? Is anyone vetting Mar-a-Lago attendance at all, much less for access to Trump? How does this obvious failure color understanding of Trump’s months-long retention of classified documents, including in an unlocked room accessible to the public? These would seem to be problems for the GOP at least in the abstract, particularly should Trump again be the party’s presidential nominee.

In the moment, though, those are ancillary questions.

The focus on Fuentes having met with Trump is deserved. The monitoring group Right Wing Watch has clipped a number of segments from his show, including one from after the Trump dinner in which Fuentes reported having earned Trump’s approval. Here’s one of the less grotesque snippets.

It is particularly deserved, though, because he’s a known entity in American politics. It isn’t simply that he has an online following that treats his nonsense as legitimate and valid. It’s that he’s brushed up against Republican elected officials before, forcing similar conversations about acceptability and access. When Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) was slated to appear at a fundraiser benefiting Fuentes’s right-wing group, it triggered news articles and forced Gosar to play defense. When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spoke at a conference run by Fuentes’s group — along with Gosar — she claimed ignorance about Fuentes’s background.

In both cases, Fuentes’s infiltration of the party’s elected membership could be (and was) waved-off as novel or at the fringe. Neither of those things is true now, however: Fuentes is known and Trump is at the center of Republican politics.

Republican officials benefited from timing here. News of the meeting emerged over Thanksgiving weekend, meaning that it didn’t attract much attention and made it easier for the party to engage in its deeply familiar habit of pretending not to have seen what Trump was up to. From 2015 until about noon Jan. 6, 2021, this was the standard response to Trump’s behavior: Oh did he say/do that? I hadn’t heard. Party leaders and elected officials would simply wait for something else to emerge and avoid having to criticize Trump. The dinner was several days ago now, and few Republicans (beyond those likely to compete against Trump for the nomination) have offered criticism of Trump having dined with Fuentes. Even some of the criticism has been timidly indirect, as with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s vague, easy denunciation of antisemitism.

Trump, for his part, has been responding how he usually does: trying out different messages on social media and working to defuse things just enough for the whole thing to blow over. Ye “showed up with three of his friends, whom I knew nothing about,” he said Friday, a proclamation later amended to describe Ye’s guests differently: “two of which I didn’t know, the other a political person who I haven’t seen in years.” (The “political person” was Karen Giorno, who described the meal to The Washington Post.)

The Guardian reports that advisers to Trump pushed him to denounce Fuentes more clearly. Instead, Trump offered a wan “I didn’t know Nick Fuentes.” According to both Ye and Fuentes, Trump responded positively to Fuentes’s presence “because he flattered him and encouraged his most pugilistic instincts,” as one source told The Post. But there you go! Trump didn’t know him; let’s all move on.

The conversation at the dinner included a revealing element. Ye and Fuentes suggested that Trump should have pardoned those involved in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, something that Trump has said he would do should he win again in 2024. It was a musician who has been lambasted for antisemitism and an explicit antisemite encouraging the former president to express formal approval of the most toxic, violent manifestation of his political support. And Trump was no doubt receptive to the argument.

This, not the antisemitism as such, is the GOP’s problem with Trump. It’s that Trump has always been desperate to send signals to his base of support that he agrees with and loves them. That his political instinct has always centered on stoking loyalty from his most energetic supporters, a tactic that helped him narrowly win the presidency in 2016. Others in the party, often worried about party primaries, adopted a similar policy of declining to confront Trump’s base, which is why the response to controversies has consistently been silence.

The new challenge is that Trump’s base increasingly includes more toxic elements. Trump giddily encourages QAnon adherents on Truth Social after years of keeping them at something of a distance. He’s embraced the idea that the Capitol rioters have been unfairly targeted, despite the day’s violence. He’s attacked Jewish Americans as he’s ignored Ye’s rhetoric in favor of depicting Ye as a symbol of support from Black America.

In other words, the base to which he and his party is beholden is increasingly flecked with the sorts of elements that would once have been incomprehensible as targets of political outreach. By now, the fringe has been pulled so close to the establishment that only people like Fuentes still sit at the fringe in the first place. The disinterest in kicking anyone out of the party’s political tent is the central problem that makes a Trump-Fuentes dinner possible in the first place.

Incidentally, Trump himself answered our original question. On Truth Social, he shrugged at the idea that he should have turned Ye away. After all, the two of them “got along great.” Besides, at the dinner, Ye “expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.’ Why wouldn’t I agree to meet?”

It’s not like his party would have objected.