This story is adapted fromMeme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg.

“This incredible journey we’re on together has only just begun,” former president Donald Trump told a rally in Ohio on September 17. In response, the crowd saluted him with a gesture unfamiliar to most Americans: their right hands raised with an index pointed up. As he went on, they kept their fingers up, nodding along with him. When photos of the throngs of people with their fingers aimed high hit the web, the Twitterati reacted with predictable outrage and confusion; was this a QAnon symbol? Some white supremacist code sign, like the OK hand gesture? No, it wasn’t. It was a symbol for the America First movement. This midterm election season, “America First” candidates represent a powerful new block of far-right contenders, among them GOP Senate candidate J. D. Vance, who Trump was in Ohio to stump for, along with the likes of former QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Green, “Big Lie” proponent Paul Gossar, and Peter Thiel mentee Blake Masters.

The powerful branding of this energized America First movement owes as much to Donald Trump, who promised to “put America first” as early as 2015 in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, as it does to fringe internet influencers, chiefly Gen Z reactionary Nicholas J. Fuentes. But “America first” is a phrase more than a century old, making it one of the most enduring, prominent, and dangerous memes circulating in American politics today.

The first uses of “America first” date back to the 1880s in the years after the Civil War, according to historian Sarah Churchwell. The nation was looking for ways to reinvent itself, and the mottos “America first” and “American dream” were born. Churchwell argues that they have been entwined ever since.

“America first” continued to be mentioned in political newspapers articles at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, but its popularity surged each time the US reckoned with whether to enter the world wars. In 1908 and again in the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst—who admired Nazism, believing it to be superior to liberal democracy—used it in his newspapers to push the idea that America had no business fighting Hitler. As tensions mounted in Europe, a student at Yale University launched the America First Committee to promote American homeland security and an isolationist international agenda. Celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh was the most famous member of the group and its spokesperson, and in the nearly two years between 1940 and the US entry into the war in December 1941, Lindbergh toured the nation giving speeches and building up America First groups all over the place, eventually establishing an estimated 450 chapters with a cumulative 800,000 dues-paying members.

The movement would collapse following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but in its wake it left behind not only isolationist but racist, anti-Semitic, and overtly fascist views. “America First” became a rallying cry for the superiority of white Americans.

In the 21st century, America First has been reborn once again—as a meme that’s changed hands so many times few know its provenance. On the very first day of Trump’s presidency, he declared, “A new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” The phrase was used widely in the Trumpian right by figures like Alex Jones, Andrew Breitbart, and many others. But when it comes to Gen Z audiences, one influencer can be credited with turning America First into a meme war—Nicholas J. Fuentes.

Fuentes, who once described himself both as an “incel” and as “a devilishly handsome 17 year old mischief maker with grit, a full head of hair, and some balls,” started his career with a broadcast on his high school’s TV station. During his first semester at Boston University in 2016, he became famous on campus for rallying in favor of Trump’s anti-immigration policy and against “the multi-cultural movement in America.” A ruthless debater, he gained notoriety as he took on BU’s student body president and a host of popular alt-right influencers on YouTube. When he landed his own show on the Right Side Broadcasting Network, he called it America First.

Fed up with “the great globalist lies erected over the past 25 years,” Fuentes used his platform to attack politicians on all sides. He loathed establishment Republican leaders, whom he perceived as “cucks” in comparison to Donald Trump, “the George Washington of this century.” He was disappointed, too, by the alt-right leaders whose violence had wrecked Unite the Right (which he attended) and subsequently tanked the public perception of contemporary American white nationalism. The fallout from UTR had proven that apparently, even with Trump in office, mainstream America could still destroy you for overt racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.

All across the extremely online far right, people were asking: Should they hide their beliefs, or put them out there?

Fuentes thought Trump had the answer: America First. He used the meme and his show of the same name to organize predominantly young white men around ideas of “race realism” and gender essentialism. At the end of each broadcast, he would directly answer questions—often dog whistles or reactionary comments on national politics—from the livestream chat. He gave his followers the feeling that he wasn’t just talking at them but that he enjoyed their company and valued their anonymity, solidifying the bonds within his growing online community. As a self-described incel, he expressed deep dislike and distrust of women, both interpersonally and particularly as political figures.

The tactical operations of Fuentes’ army were designed to red-pill normies into white nationalism and harass the #NeverTrump GOP. The battle cry of “America first” gave them cover to operate in the mainstream, where Fuentes could make headlines and his army of traditionalist Catholic incels could seek out new recruits.

Fuentes’ fans began calling themselves the Groypers—a combination of the Yiddish word for gentiles, “goy,” and the word “grope,” a name they appropriated from 4chan culture. The Groypers tuned into Fuentes’ livestream, sent him money, and stood at the ready to be deployed in various meme war operations that were planned online and launched IRL. Most of these ops involved punching up: embarrassing well-known conservatives who had a big platform, and whom Fuentes and the Groypers didn’t think were far enough to the right. By taking them down in a debate, a trolling campaign, or vicious ad hominem attacks, Fuentes and the Groypers elicited reactions from Republicans, got Groypers to the attention of the well-known conservative’s audience, and mainstreamed the far-right narratives that painted the GOP as a party of losers and shills. Conservative talk show host Sebastian Gorka, young Republican organizer Charlie Kirk, right wing superstar Ben Shapiro, and even Trump’s son, Don Jr., were targets of Fuentes and the Groypers, both online and in person at campus events.

Fuentes’ coordination of these raids and his antagonism of conservative figures got him banned from hugely influential Conservative Political Action Coalition events, so he started his own competing conference dubbed the “America First Political Action Committee.”

All of this led to some high highs for Fuentes, hosting Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and other elected Republican figures at his America First Action Committee conference and building relationships with elder white nationalist Jared Taylor and conspiracy king Alex Jones.

Fuentes and the Groypers joined Jones and other Trump operatives on the national “Stop the Steal” tour leading up to the inauguration. Naturally, then, he was at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, along with many Groypers and other online fringe characters. At one point, Fuentes stood next to Alex Jones as the crowds surged around both of them to rush inside the building. He did not himself enter the capitol, nor did he advise his Groypers to do so—throughout 2020 and the lead-up to January 6, Fuentes had preached a level of caution to his followers, not because he didn’t believe in the violence, but because, as he put it repeatedly, violence gets you in trouble and then what good are you? Fuentes had learned from the aftermath of Charlottesville that when a meme war erupts into violence, it might win the battle but it’s bad for the war and the warriors fighting it.

Not going inside the Capitol building didn’t protect Fuentes from losing his megaphones. His associations with January 6 led to his near total deplatforming online. He had been slowly kicked off or demonetized from sites like YouTube and Facebook, but he’d been able to stay on Twitter until that day. Nowadays, Fuentes finds himself trying to earn back the spotlight through online debates on the same red-pill topics that defined the manosphere in 2012 and Gamergate in 2014. In the fallout from the insurrection he lost all access to mainstream social media networks. His show now streams on an alt website that hosts other alt-right figures who have been banned from YouTube. His memes and ideas, officially banned from TikTok, show up as references, red pills, and videoclips in the videos of new influencers.

But the America First meme lives on, widely adopted by Republican incumbents and candidates across the country. Fuentes may have helped reinvigorate the America First meme for a new generation, and he may have launched meme wars that allowed America First candidates to find their audience and gain visibility, but the meme didn’t need Fuentes, or Trump before him, to survive.  

Deplatforming didn’t stop Nick Fuentes’ meme war. It didn’t stop Alex Jones. They’re broadcasters, not organizers in a traditional sense, and they largely aren’t making up new things, but rather aggregating and rebroadcasting beliefs, many as old or older than America itself. One can find, as we did, multiple versions of their personal paths to radicalization scattered about their respective years of broadcasting. Their grievances are contagions, and no one character profile can describe the audience members who consume their broadcasst for education, entertainment, or some combination of both. No technical fixes that companies reactively apply to their social media can stop these old ideas, and America First’s journey from isolationist slogan to culture war shows how memes work through people like viruses with little concern for the health of the host.

Excerpted from Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2022 by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, Brian Friedberg.