In September 2018, Eric, a pseudonymous 19-year-old college student from Canada, bought a copy of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. At the time, Eric wouldn’t have considered himself “political” in any sense. He was, if anything, a lost teenager with a poor relationship with his parents. But he wanted to get his life back on track — and especially, to get his grades up and get into a good college. He’d been introduced to Peterson via YouTube and his lectures around finding “purpose in your life” and “moving on from life troubles.” They made quite an impression as Eric would have gone as far as to call Peterson a father figure.
Today, though, Eric’s view of Peterson has completely changed. He now sees him as a “charlatan,” someone who “is conservative in name only” and “the kind of guy that normies think is smart.” But most of all, for Eric, Peterson isn’t radical enough. He refers to Peterson as a “secularist,” and someone whose affiliations with Christianity are “selfish and inward.” He believes that Peterson, though calling himself an advocate for traditional social values, “won’t stand up for nationalism in Christian homelands” and is “more concerned about getting donations and maintaining his public image” than about “fighting for a cause.”
Eric declines to confirm whether he identifies with any online movement, but he follows a number of “Groyper” Twitter accounts and has reposted accounts with Groyper avatars on Telegram.
To the uninitiated, Groyper is an evolution of the Pepe the Frog meme, only more racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic. As Will Sommer, the technology and internet reporter for The Daily Beast notes, “Whereas Pepe the Frog has become relatively popular, even among moderate Trump supporters, Groyper appears to appeal to more ardently racist and xenophobic users like Eli Mosley, the former CEO of white supremacist group Identity Evropa.”
Moreover, Groypers, including the far-right podcaster Nick Fuentes, who many consider to be the movement’s figurehead, see their enemies as popular conservatives such as Ben Shapiro, Michael Knowles and Charlie Kirk, who they believe put the virtues of free markets and capitalism ahead of harsh immigration policies and denouncing Israel. As a tactic to rile these conservatives up, they often document themselves exposing this “hypocrisy” at live events featuring Shapiro et al — as well as those hosted by conservative student organizations like Turning Point USA and Young Americans for Freedom. (Again, their rationale: They’re “inauthentic” conservatives who profit from “advocating for the West without wanting to fight for it.”)
Though Peterson hasn’t been publicly heckled by Groypers yet, Fuentes has called him out on multiple occasions, claiming that “he should get over himself.” Meanwhile, former Peterson allies, including Milo Yiannopoulos, who has reportedly tried to become closer to the Groypers, claim Peterson is “betraying young men” by not denouncing feminism and that he cares more about his public reputation than the conservative movement that elevated Peterson to mainstream status in the first place.
It’s a schism that has a lot in common with Islamic extremism. “With Islamist movements, especially when there was an influx of Western Muslims going to Syria, you could see the divide between social conservatives who believed that their primary focus should be on self-improvement to become better Muslims, and those who felt that to be a conservative Muslim, you should go and fight to establish a Islamic ‘homeland,’” explains Alexander Harris, a British technology consultant who previously worked for a counterterrorism think tank that tracked online behavior among Islamic extremists.
Harris believes that while the fringe elements of the reactionary right don’t map perfectly onto ISIS fighters, there’s a similar principle. “There’s always going to be an element, that’s accelerated by the internet, that wants more, who want to go further or who want to cause chaos. It’s very likely that the people who think Jordan Peterson isn’t going far enough think that he’s just mainstream and boring now.”
Either way, Fuentes and the Groyper movement’s popularity is growing. His channel has tens of thousands of subscribers, and he receives a similar amount of views on his nightly YouTube talk show. Speaking to NBC News earlier this year, John Donovan, a researcher in disinformation and extremism for the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, said, “Fuentes has capitalized on the factionalization of pro-Trump conservativism. On one hand, he can say he supports ‘America First,’ and these platforms give him a space for that political identity to flourish. At the same time, as the president and some of his media surrogates have tried to push a comparatively more moderate message, he can [reach] some of the online trolls who feel left behind.”
How many have been “left behind” isn’t clear, but whatever the number, it’s upsetting to Peterson’s true believers, many of whom still see the psychologist as the epitome of an intellectual titan. At the same time, there are similar concerns among conservatives that as Fuentes’ reputation grows, so will his influence on the Republican base and the party’s direction going into the 2020 election.
Eric, meanwhile, insists his fellow Gen Zers are “way more conservative” than most people believe, and that while Peterson may have some valuable advice in the short term, “he doesn’t offer any long-term answers to things like population growth or [maintaining] ethnic or religious heritage.” That’s not to say that he thinks Fuentes does either. But at the very least, he explains, “They’re a lot more fun online. Plus, it’s always funny to see guys like Charlie Kirk shit his pants.”