Potemkin Populism

Populists said the 2022 midterms would prove they were the future of the conservative movement. Rebuffed by voters, politicos who pinned their careers on grandiose, grievance-driven central planning are left manning storefronts in a populist Potemkin village.

Praising nationalist populist candidates Blake Masters, J.D. Vance, Joe Kent, and Anthony Sabatini, Claremont Institute Vice President of Education Matt Peterson wrote in September 2021, “This is the new right. This coterie of leaders will rise. Bet on them now.”

Of the four, only Vance was elected last November. Masters lost an Arizona Senate race against a weak incumbent, Kent lost a Washington congressional race in a Republican-leaning district, and Sabatini – a 2021 Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow – was blown out by 14 points in a Florida congressional primary. 

With Donald Trump’s endorsement and $15 million from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Vance won less than a third of the Republican votes cast in Ohio’s Senate primary; his general election win was two points shy of Trump’s 2020 margin, and 6 to 19 points behind every other Republican running statewide. 

But to Peterson and his Claremont peers, Vance was a world-beater. 

In a May 2021 Claremont speech, Vance laid out an industrial policy vision requiring elected officials to “go after the companies that are destroying this country and reward the companies that are building it,” echoing a favorite theme of Peterson’s Claremont fellows who want big government “to reward friends and punish enemies.”

“Raise their taxes and do whatever else is necessary to fight these goons,” Vance wrote in reply to an April 2021 news story about corporate opposition to Republican elections laws. “We can have an American Republic or a global oligarchy, and it’s time for choosing.”

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“These companies need to be crushed,” Vance said when Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) was suspended from Twitter in January 2022. 

Peterson, meanwhile, stepped down from running Claremont’s fellowship programs to launch New Founding, “a venture firm dedicated to creating a commercial and cultural union that connects, curates, and advocates for the American people,” and American Firebrand, a super PAC. 

“American Firebrand is the voice of the people,” Peterson told Glenn Beck during a December 2021 Blaze TV interview. Beck called the super PAC “the Lincoln Project of the right.”

Firebrand PAC reported $508,401 in receipts during the 2022 cycle, spending $0 on candidates and funneling $382,500 to New Founding. A single donor – Claremont chairman Tom Klingenstein – gave the super PAC $500,000. 

By April 2023, there were rumbles that New Founding was struggling. By August 2023, the New Founding media operations run by Peterson had been sold to Blaze Media, where Peterson is now editor-in-chief. 

Peterson, Claremont fellows he trained, and a handful of young activists following their lead are propping up organizations that claim to speak for a vast swath of Republican voters while promising to supplant America’s out-of-touch conservative elite. What else is behind the nationalist populist facade? 

One telling example is Bull Moose Project, a Generation Z nonprofit that was launched in 2021 and merged with American Populist Union (APU) in 2022. Sabatini and several other Claremont fellows have spoken at multiple Bull Moose Project events.

“Tomorrow we formally begin the populist takeover of the Republican Party,” Bull Moose Project boasted before endorsing 26 candidates in the 2022 midterms, including all four of Peterson’s vaunted “coterie of leaders.” Their only winners were Vance, Greene, and three state legislators.

“The Political Revolution of 2016 changed conservatism in America,” asserted APU’s now-defunct website. “It’s become clear that this brand of populism is effective — conservatives must build upon it if they seek to win the future, and we all know it.”

APU’s brand of populism catered to an audience of “groypers,” the online followers of Holocaust-denying white supremacist Nick Fuentes who savaged Trump’s critics during his 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

“I am patriotic and celebrate America because of what it was and might be again one day far from now. Our faith, language, culture, traditions, race, works of art,” APU chief content officer David Carlson wrote in July 2021. “In short our blood and soil is what produced America the America that is no longer here, yet I celebrate nonetheless.”

[Ed. note, 8/7/2023 – Carlson deleted the linked Substack post after I published this story. Here’s an archived copy, and here’s a PDF.]

“We can try to create our own tradition, art, and culture, but that will be crushed beneath the weight of the ghey America,” continued Carlson, who is now operations director of Bull Moose Project. “The ghey America which spies on TV cable hosts, arrests innocent citizens, puts gay and black pride flags up at our embassies, the ghey America which celebrates black independence day, lies to us, and forces us into death.”

“I hate my country, that is what makes me a patriot. America is dead, long live America,” Carlson concluded. 

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APU’s maiden event was a July 2021 American Populist Summit headlined by John Doyle, who co-hosted a 2020 “Stop the Steal” rally with Fuentes and was advertised as a “special guest” at Fuentes’s 2022 America First PAC conference. Doyle remains a Bull Moose Project content creator, and Carlson recently appeared in one of his videos.

The APU summit, wrote a contributor to white supremacist blog Counter-Currents, “was very Fuentes-esque in both style and substance. If you approve of Nick Fuentes, you would probably approve of the APU’s summit for the same reasons. If you don’t like Nick Fuentes, you probably won’t like APU for the same reasons.”

In an August 2021 Medium post featuring graphics from Carlson, populist blogger Gabe Guidarini listed APU, Claremont, and Fuentes’s America First Foundation as “places of institutional support” for nationalist populism. Guidarini knocked doors for J.D. Vance’s Senate campaign, has worked for both APU and Bull Moose Project, and is now president of the University of Dayton College Republicans.

[Ed. note, 8/7/2023 – Guidarini deleted the linked Medium post after I published this story. Here’s an archived copy, and here’s a PDF.]

When Bull Moose Project endorsee Joe Kent disavowed Fuentes in March 2022, Carlson browbeat Kent in an APU livestream:

“You called the language ‘hurtful’ earlier; what do you mean?” Carlson asked Kent. “Was that a slip of the tongue? How was it hurtful? Is that what caused you to disavow Nick?”

Badgering Kent on behalf of Fuentes fans in the livestream’s chat, Carlson said, “The chat is getting very upset about this phrase ‘Judeo-Christian,’ and it would be a disservice to them if I didn’t ask what you meant by that. Specifically the ‘Judeo’ part, they’re getting very upset about that.”

The following month, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) backed out of an APU speaking engagement after APU’s extensive ties to white nationalists drew negative press. But APU still had allies in Trump’s orbit.

“We need to realize, like the Left does, that all that matters is winning. And however you get there – if you have to be hypocrites, if you have to be ruthless, if you have to be Machiavellian, it doesn’t matter, because if you get what you want, you’re the ones that write history,” New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC) president and former Bull Moose Project senior advisor Gavin Wax said at a May 2022 APU event co-hosted by NYYRC.

APU’s merger with Bull Moose Project and rebrand to “American Virtue” came soon after, with Carlson as part of the package; in addition to serving as Bull Moose Project’s operations director, Carlson is the executive director of American Virtue.

[Ed. note, 8/16/2023: When shown excerpts from David Carlson’s Substack post about “our blood and soil” and “the ghey America,” Gavin Wax replied, “What did he say that was wrong you chud?”]

“We are constantly told by the DC-Think-Tank types that ‘Anti-White Racism’ and ‘White Lives Matter’ rhetoric is too pushy or too edgy,” American Virtue complained in October 2022.

“The forces on the Right currently trying to undo the Trump Revolution are treacherous scum, and should be viewed even lower than leftists,” American Virtue shrieked after the midterm elections.

It’s unsurprising that nationalists like Anthony Sabatini – an NYYRC advisory board member and Bull Moose Project endorsee who last August wrote, “When all the Neo-Con trash is eliminated from the GOP, then we can have a conversation about the Republican Party being an America First party” – support Bull Moose Project.

More alarming is the fact that The Heritage Foundation sponsored a Bull Moose Project event this April.

Aside from two Heritage staffers, speakers at the Bull Moose Leadership Summit included Sabatini; 2021 Claremont fellows Pedro Gonzalez (who was recently outed as an anti-Semite), Carlos Roa, and Saurabh Sharma; 2020 Claremont fellow Jon Schweppe; and Ryan Girdusky, a consultant for Peter Thiel’s J.D. Vance super PAC.

“Great to be at the @BullMooseProj conference in DC tonight – national populism is the future of the Right,” Sabatini tweeted from the event with a photo of himself and Bull Moose Project President Aiden Buzzetti. “All other competing philosophies will be eliminated.”

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In the wake of elections demonstrating how unpopular national populism is with American voters, why would The Heritage Foundation help Claremont fellows foster ideas conservatives have traditionally fought

Since the Heritage-sponsored summit, Bull Moose Project’s appeals for heavier regulation of the tech industry – frequently cosigned by Wax and NYYRC – have received media coverage from Fox News, New York Post, Bloomberg, Axios, and CNBC, helping Heritage president Kevin Roberts create the appearance of broad support for one of his policy priorities

Before and since merging with APU, Bull Moose Project has worked closely with American Moment, a project the Trump-aligned Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI) launched in 2021 to groom young populists for political careers. The Bull Moose Leadership Summit was held in CPI’s offices, with American Moment as a sponsor.

Bull Moose Leadership Summit speaker Saurabh Sharma is the president of American Moment; the nonprofit’s four-member advisory board is comprised of Bull Moose Leadership Summit speaker Ryan Girdusky, American Principles Project (APP) president and 2021 Claremont fellow Terry Schilling, 2020 Claremont fellow Rachel Bovard, and 2018 Claremont fellow Josh Hammer.

Sharma and Girdusky also headlined Bull Moose Project’s inaugural event in New York City in December 2021. One of Girdusky’s big applause lines, a call for government to “seize the assets of left-wing institutions like Harvard University and the Ford Foundation,” was a nearly word-for-word repetition of a Vance campaign talking point.

Sharma credits a post Vance wrote for The American Mind (a Claremont blog created by Matt Peterson) as the inspiration for American Moment’s founding. In that post, Vance decried Republican opposition to labor unions and industrial policy, sneering at Heritage as “the citadel of Conservatism, Inc.”

“The GOP is a common whore that commercial interests pick up, use, and then piss on without a thought,” Sharma tweeted in September 2021 as Vance’s Senate campaign struggled to get off the ground.

Like Claremont and APP, American Moment is a member of the advisory board for the Heritage 2025 Presidential Transition Project. Kevin Roberts has been featured in multiple episodes of American Moment’s podcast, and has praised American Moment as “dedicated patriots who will revitalize our republic.”

Until recently, Vance and his legislative director were both American Moment board members, an arrangement that made American Moment leaders’ promotion of Vance and bills Vance sponsors especially brazen.

A letter APP sent imploring Congress to pass Vance’s union boondoggle “Railway Safety Act” in March perfectly summarizes Potemkin populism: the letter’s eight signatories included the president and two board members of American Moment, two Bull Moose Project executives, and Bull Moose Leadership Summit speakers Pedro Gonzalez and Jon Schweppe. Five of the eight were Claremont fellows.