Donald Trump Jr. had just started talking about his new book at UCLA on Sunday when someone in the audience began imitating actor Joaquin Phoenix’s unsettlingly loud laughter from Joker.
As the cackles filled the auditorium, Trump Jr. looked into the crowd, unsure whether what he was saying was really that funny.
Things only got worse from there.
Audience members began demanding a chance to question Trump Jr. and the event’s host, young conservative star and Turning Point USA chief Charlie Kirk. Over chants of “Q&A!”, Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, took the mic to call her boyfriend’s detractors losers.
“I bet you engage in online dating, because you’re impressing no one here to get a date in person,” Guilfoyle said.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t win over Trump Jr.’s critics. The trio of embattled conservative stars eventually left the stage amid shouts of “Q&A” and “America First.”
And their fringe-right hecklers, who call themselves “Groypers” in a nod to an obese alt-right cartoon toad that’s like Pepe the Frog but more racist, notched another win in their new battle against mainstream conservatives.
“What a HUGE victory today,” 22-year-old white nationalist Nick Fuentes wrote on encrypted messaging app Telegram after the event. “Cannot be understated what an incredible win we saw at UCLA.”
Whether he knew it or not, Trump Jr. had walked straight into a right-wing civil war that pits Fuentes and his allies against more mainstream conservative stars, including Kirk, podcaster Ben Shapiro, and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX).
Fuentes, who marched in the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and has made remarks denying the Holocaust, has encouraged his far-right fans to confront conservative figures at Q&A sessions across the country since October. Fuentes and other anti-Semitic personalities coach their supporters on what questions to ask and even how to behave at the events, encouraging them to use Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric but aim it at questioning legal immigration, the role of LGBT people in the Trump movement, or United States support for Israel.
Ahead of the UCLA event, Fuentes told his fans to avoid questions about Israel, instead focusing on embarrassing Kirk and hurting his relationship with the Trump family.
“The name of the game tomorrow is to expose Kirk in front of Don Jr.,” Fuentes wrote.
The campus Q&A has long been an asset for figures like frequent White House guest Kirk and right-wing comedian Steven Crowder, who stars in a meme featuring him sitting next to a sign urging his political foes “change my mind.” Compilations of Shapiro shutting down campus liberals are big draws on YouTube, often captioned with the phrase “Ben Shapiro Thug Life” to underscore his rhetorical skills.
But this fall, Fuentes and his white-nationalist associates have turned the viral potential of the Q&A sessions against mainstream conservatives. Instead of deftly batting away campus leftists, Kirk and his allies are left to struggle to respond to questioners couching racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic messaging in Trumpism.
Turning Point has dealt with racists in the past, but usually they’re coming from inside the group. In 2017, The New Yorker reported on racist messages sent by a top Turning Point official. In May, the group banned one of its campus leaders after he appeared in a video yelling “white power” and using racial slurs.
A Turning Point spokesman said in a statement that the Q&A portion of Trump Jr.’s speech had been canceled days before the event.
“This was a Turning Point USA event and it was our organization’s decision to cancel the Q&A portion days before after we were made aware of a pre-planned effort to disrupt the event,” the statement reads. “The event was not cut short or ended early, as in lieu of the Q&A we simply extended the amount of time given to our VIPs for their remarks.”
Trump Jr. wasn’t their first target. On Friday, a Turning Point event featuring Crenshaw at Arizona State University was besieged by “Groypers,” egged on by Charlottesville marcher and alt-right internet video personality Timothy “Baked Alaska” Gionet.
One Crenshaw antagonist kicked off the Q&A by asking Crenshaw, a Navy veteran, about the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty that left 34 crew members dead. Inquiries in the United States and Israel found that the attack was an accident, but it has become a popular talking point for Fuentes and his supporters.
“What do you call yourselves?” Crenshaw responded. “The ‘Groppers’? It’s a very strange name. These guys are the Alt Right 2.0.”
As Crenshaw faced increasingly hostile questioning, friendly audience members tried to create a separate question line to get around Crenshaw’s critics. As the event ended, Gionet and his allies attempted to reach Crenshaw at the stage but were blocked by Turning Point members.
Fuentes’ feud with Turning Point appears to date back to at least March, when he tried to give a speech at Iowa State University on a purported invite from a Turning Point chapter there. Then, in September, Turning Point fired one of its “ambassadors,” MAGA personality Ashley St. Clair, after she appeared in a picture smiling with Fuentes and other far-right internet personalities. In late October, Fuentes tried to take a picture with Kirk—apparently in an attempt to embarrass him—before being stopped by security guards.
Fuentes’ attacks have put some pressure on Turning Point. Since the “Groyper war” began, two the leaders of two Turning Point chapters have dissolved their groups, citing sympathy for Fuentes or claiming that Turning Point is stifling their free speech.
Last week, Shapiro devoted much of a speech sponsored by another campus group, Young America’s Foundation, to denouncing Fuentes and his cohort. Shapiro highlighted a video in which Fuentes denied the Holocaust using an elaborate metaphor about the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster, as well as a post immediately after the Charlottesville march where Fuentes attacked a “rootless transnational elite.”
Shapiro also brought up Fuentes’ attack on Matt Walsh, a columnist at Shapiro’s Daily Wire, whom Fuentes called a “shabbos goy race traitor” for attacking white supremacists in the wake of the El Paso shooting.
“But maybe he was just being ironic, bro,” Shapiro said, mocking Fuentes’ defenders.
The fight has drawn in a host of conservative personalities on either side. Conspiracy-theory hub Infowars has been generally supportive of Fuentes, describing his targets as “grifters” from “Conservatism, Inc.” Columnist Ann Coulter has retweeted messages supporting the attacks on Kirk, while writer Michelle Malkin praised the questioners in a radio appearance and downplayed the racist and anti-Semitic nature of their group.
“It’s breaking out on college campuses now,” Malkin said. “There are many young, and very intelligent and sharp nationalists that are challenging Charlie Kirk and some other members of the open-borders lobby in the Republican Party.”
Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka has blasted Fuentes and his fans, calling Fuentes a “Holocaust Denying scumbag” on Twitter.
“Let’s show these reprehensible, disgusting anti-Semites who America really is,” Gorka told Kirk on his radio show.