When The New York Times disclosed the existence of a new multipronged right-wing project, the Rockbridge Network, backed by multibillionaire Peter Thiel in April, the paper named only one person with an official position in the new organization: its founder, Chris Buskirk. Little is known about the new venture, and Buskirk himself remains relatively obscure, although he maintains considerable access to mainstream media outlets.
In reporting on the new organization, the Times didn’t mention that the website Buskirk edits and publishes, the far-right and nationalist outlet American Greatness, is home to an array of January 6 conspiracy theories, supplemented with defenses of military coups and a combination of thinly coded and occasionally overt racism. In general, American Greatness aims to stay just barely inside the mainstream discourse, typically avoiding the kind of open white nationalism that can relegate an outlet to being rejected by legacy right-wing media.
Given the near-total secrecy around Rockbridge, it’s difficult to know what its exact plans are, but the Times reported that the group is planning to spend “more than $30 million on conservative media, legal, policy and voter registration projects, among other initiatives.” It’s not hard to determine what kinds of candidates it’ll back — both Thiel and Buskirk are supporters of far-right Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters. As for its media ambitions, the group budgeted $8 million in 2021 towards the goal of creating a “new conservative ecosystem.” It’s not clear who got that money, but Thiel is rumored to have funded the efforts of a cadre of right-wing nationalist media figures. Whether that was through his foundation or Buskirk and Rockbridge is unclear. Regardless, Buskirk is an admirer of the late Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, and the best window into the types of projects the organization is likely to support — or is already supporting behind the scenes — is probably his site, American Greatness.
As the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, riot prepares to present to the American people, starting this week, facts and evidence about the events of that day and those leading up to it, the need to examine the role Buskirk’s website has played in spreading misinformation about the attempted coup is especially urgent – particularly since Buskirk’s money-man, Thiel, wrote in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Thiel also has close ties with figures who openly opine about their anti-democratic ideologies, and it's worth considering that one of Thiel’s main interests in Buskirk may be his site’s attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Buskirk himself serves two audiences. As publisher of American Greatness, he’s the ringmaster of a motley collection of firebrands and trolls looking to find how far they can push the concept of “nationalism” before it crosses into something more openly ugly. In his own writing and public speaking, he’s not a provocateur but a kind of human Botox that smooths out the rough edges of the far-right, presenting its palatable if slightly anesthetized face. “‘Build the wall’ … — that’s like a shorthand version of saying ‘let’s have a more sensible immigration policy,’” he implausibly suggested in an interview with Charlie Kirk in 2020.
Unlike many of the writers he publishes, he presents as a fairly mainstream figure. He is a contributing writer to the Times op-ed page, though he hasn’t published a piece there in over a year. He has written for The Washington Post and has appeared numerous times on PBS and NPR. In 2019, he spoke on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, criticizing mainstream outlets for writing profiles of the white nationalist Richard Spencer. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to give oxygen to that sort of thing,” Buskirk said. It’s a fair point, if a bit misleading, because his site has also provided a platform to Spencer. More generally, American Greatness has given oxygen to a host of far-right, anti-democratic ideas.
Buskirk in his own words
Buskirk sees himself as a champion of the working man as a household provider, albeit one calcified by Fordist-era nostalgia. And while he will regularly rail against “elites,” he has no problem with billionaires like Thiel as such. “The problem isn’t that rich people are getting richer. It’s that almost everyone else is, at best, running to stand still,” Buskirk wrote in December 2020.
Because Buskirk is committed to preserving capitalism while adopting an anti-elitist pose, his analysis is often superficial. He has railed against “globalism,” which he argues “wants two things above all others: consumers and cheap labor.” There is, of course, an economic mode of production and accompanying ideology that demands cheap labor and the constant flow of commodities; it is called capitalism.
Buskirk’s anti-“globalism” and facile pro-worker affect is a common strain among reactionary nationalists across the world, alliances Buskirk and company hope to deepen. Toward that end, he dined with far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in 2019, and he has referred to Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini as a “charismatic” candidate with “powerful ideas.” Salvini is virulently anti-migrant and often makes barely hidden allusions to fascist tropes or ideas. The neo-fascist group Forza Nuova supported Salvini as well.
When Buskirk approaches the right’s more extreme ideas, it’s often with a degree of plausible deniability, carefully calibrating his message to satisfy readers of his site without losing access to mainstream outlets like NPR or PBS. He recently retweeted an endorsement of “Christian nationalism,” which one scholar of the far-right has described as a way to “cool down the idea of fascism without losing the fascism.” Similarly, in 2018 he quoted a piece he’d published pushing a toned-down version of the racist “great replacement” theory.
His belief in the theory is to be expected, given his admiration of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the person most responsible for mainstreaming it. Carlson “is the most articulate spokesman for a set of principles and priorities that are important to middle America, but anathema to the bipartisan ruling class,” Buskirk wrote in 2019.
Buskirk hasn’t appeared on Carlson’s show often, but in one segment ostensibly about how conservatives can protect the environment in which Buskirk was a guest, Carlson pushed eco-fascistic talking points. “Crowded places are ugly places. I mean, you could make a really strong case for restricting immigration on environmental grounds. We've made that case on the show,” Carlson said. Buskirk did not contradict or challenge Carlson, which is not surprising given that Buskirk had previously exploited a family’s tragedy to argue for lowering immigration levels.
In 2018, the death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts became an anti-immigrant propaganda tool for the xenophobic right, because her killer had entered the country without authorization. “The way many people see it, if a foreign national, apparently in the country illegally, kills an American citizen, it underscores the urgency of Trump’s message of putting Americans first,” Buskirk wrote in the Times, passing off the xenophobia off on to “many people” rather than owning it himself. (Tibbetts’ family asked the right to stop using her death to demonize immigrants.) His writers don’t bother with the act, though. On June 1, Daniel Oliver asked whether immigrants, specifically Muslims, know how to “behave in a ‘civilized’ society?”
Like most in the Trump wing of the conservative movement, Buskirk supported Judge Roy Moore in the Alabama Republican Senate primary in 2017. After multiple women came forward to report that Moore sexually assaulted them, including one who was 14 at the time of the incident, Buskirk continued to back Moore. Buskirk dismissed Moore’s behavior as “actions while he was single” and suggested the candidate was “someone who appears to have lived a life of personal probity since then.” Moore was in his early 30s during the alleged incidents.
That wasn’t the first time Buskirk had downplayed abusive behavior toward women. After tapes of Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” were revealed in October 2016, Buskirk dismissed the recording as “comments about the women he [Trump] tried to have sex with,” writing that the occasion “offered the GOP’s prissy moralizers yet another opening to leap on top of a soap box.” Most importantly for Buskirk, “Trump’s lewd and crude comments 11 years ago do not diminish the dangers of a Clinton election in 30 days” (emphasis original).
As for Buskirk’s ambitions with the Rockbridge media project, his praise of Roger Ailes may provide clues. “It wasn’t until Ailes built Fox News into a powerhouse that broke the monopoly of Left-liberal legacy media on television news that he became public enemy number one,” Buskirk wrote. “It’s a role he seems to have relished.”
“Ailes was energetic, ambitious, unorthodox, creative, brilliant, charming, disarming, and a bunch of other things that made all kinds of different people yell, at critical moments, ‘Get Ailes!’” Buskirk gushed. “I didn’t know him, but I wish I had.”
American Greatness and the January 6 attempted coup
American Greatness, and specifically senior writer Julie Kelly, is one of the key sources of conspiracy theories and misinformation about the January 6 insurrection. Kelly is a regular guest on right-wing media outlets, including appearing at least 17 times on Fox News to discuss the riot and its aftermath. Her purported investigations have propelled much of the manufactured confusion about that day.
Kelly has referred to January 6 as an “inside job,” suggested it was a false flag, and pushed a conspiracy theory that the FBI planted pipe bombs at the offices of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee the day before the riot.
In July 2021, Kelly tweeted that Washington, D.C., police officer Michael Fanone – who was testifying before Congress about the January 6 attack at the time – was a crisis actor. She said that prosecution of the insurrectionists is an attempt to “silence political dissent,” and said it is “encouraging” that Republican voters “do not think that Joe Biden was fairly elected in 2020.” Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander praised Kelly, along with Tucker Carlson, as “patriots that are doing great work out there.”
Buskirk is a consistent champion of Kelly, calling her “indispensable,” and although he typically stays away from outright election denial, he walks up to the line. One day after the 2020 election, Buskirk tweeted in support of a “protect the vote” rally in Maricopa County, Arizona, one of the states Trump’s allies targeted in their effort to change the election results. In a recent interview on America First with Sebastian Gorka, he said a ridiculous new Dinesh D’Souza film about the election was “very, very well-researched” and “the evidence it presents, I think, is conclusive.” His site took a similar line, running a piece with the headline “2000 Mules Documentary Provides Compelling Evidence That 2020 Election Was Stolen.” The Washington Post, on the other hand, captured the reality of the film: “‘2000 Mules’ offers the least convincing election-fraud theory yet.”
Beyond Kelly, American Greatness regularly runs pieces that downplay January 6 and has accused liberals of being the real coup-plotters. Immediately after the election, the site published a conspiracy theory-addled piece alleging voting irregularity with Dominion Voting Systems, which was completely unsubstantiated at the time and remains so today. (Dominion sued Trump-affiliated lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell for making similar claims.)
John Eastman, whom the New York Times recently described as “the architect of a strategy to overturn the 2020 election,” has written for American Greatness, including about his own role in attempting to keep Trump in power. In a piece headlined “Trying to Prevent Illegal Conduct From Deciding an Election Is Not Endorsing a ‘Coup,’” Eastman repeated the lie that there was significant illegal voting in 2020. He also argued that a legal memo he wrote, outlining various other ways the electoral vote could be certified in Trump’s favor, was simply advice on how to defend the legitimacy of the election. “The memo outlined ways to ensure election integrity in the face of significant and demonstrable violations of state election law,” Eastman wrote in his own defense.
Far from how he portrays himself in his American Greatness blog, Eastman appears to have been intimately and proactively involved in overturning the election results, including working behind the scenes to get a Pennsylvania legislator to “strip Mr. Biden of his win in that state by applying a mathematical equation to accepting the validity of mail ballots, which were most heavily used by Democrats during the pandemic.”
In reality, there was never any evidence of voter fraud that could change the outcome of the election. In March, a federal judge concluded that Trump and Eastman probably committed felonies in their pursuit of overturning the election, which he referred to as “a coup in search of a legal theory.” According to Judge David Carter’s findings, Eastman participated in two meetings in the immediate run-up to January 6 “explicitly tied to persuading Vice President Pence to disrupt the joint session of Congress.”
Others with direct ties to Trump’s effort to overturn the election have also written for the site. American Greatness has published Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who was recently subpoenaed by the House January 6 committee because, the committee said, she “promoted false claims of election fraud to members of Congress.” She was on a phone call when Trump tried to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “‘find’ enough votes to reverse his loss there,” according to the New York Times.
There’s also no shortage of hyperbole and exaggeration in American Greatness pieces regarding the aftermath of the insurrection and subsequent prosecutions. “American conservatives are, right now, on a course for being every bit as ostracized and alienated from broader society as Jews were in the years leading up to Nazi Germany,” wrote Eric Lendrum. He added that January 6 defendants were being abused by prison guards because of “their race and political beliefs.” Two defendants were, in Lendrum’s telling, “forced to undergo political indoctrination from judges and prosecutors” when they “were ordered by the courts to declare that Joe Biden was legitimately elected, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
And when American Greatness isn’t whipping up conspiratorial frenzies or allowing coup-plotters to rewrite their own narrative, it just does straight revisionism. “The immense and justified outrage of President Trump and his 75 million followers never led to violence or illegality and the gathering in Washington on January 6 demonstrated solidarity with the outgoing president,” wrote Conrad Black, in March 2021.
American Greatness’ bigotry
American Greatness generally eschews open racism in favor of barely coded dog whistles, but not always. One of the site’s most overtly racist pieces was a poem called Cuck Elegy. The anonymous poem was published after “Never Trump” conservative David French confronted Buskirk about harassment he’d received from Kelly regarding comments French’s wife had made about Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Separately from Kelly, French had been subjected to racist harassment from alt-right trolls regarding his Black adopted daughter, suggesting that the child was the product of French’s wife sleeping with Black men. Kelly was not implicated in that harassment, but she had alluded to it in a tweet to French. Shortly after French confronted Buskirk about Kelly’s harassment, American Greatness published Cuck Elegy and included a photo of French with the post. The piece has since been removed from the site, but a tweet from the official American Greatness account promoting it is still up.
Far more common on the site are familiar complaints against wokeness and claims that anti-racism efforts are the real racism. The headline of one piece referred to Juneteenth as “George Floyd’s Critical Race Holiday.” The subheading elaborated that the decision to make the day a federal holiday is an “enormous win for the racism industrial complex.” The piece called the holiday an act of “reifying unjustified contemporary black grievance” and suggested it “could at least be combined with Martin Luther King Day.” Another argued that anti-racism is simply “thinly veiled anti-white hate.”
Apocalyptic visions of armed Black people are common on the site as well. “The African American militants who were allowed by the Democratic big-city mayors to ransack urban America all summer and were rewarded for their murder, vandalism, and looting with the defamation and defunding of the nation’s urban police forces, are agitating and threatening with redoubled vigor,” wrote Conrad Black, in March 2021. He added, “Many of the great anti-Trump newsrooms are being overrun by belligerent white-hating minorities.”
Another recurring theme is writers lamenting a perceived deficiency in Black culture. “Unfortunately, American blacks were made to think that because of landmark legislation [of the civil rights era], their major socio-economic problems could be solved through direct political action—a disastrous misconception,” wrote Paul Gottfried. “There could be no substitute for communal cooperation, hard work, and the maintenance of the family bonds that existed in the black society that I observed as a child.” He added that the Voting Rights Act has resulted in “a radicalized black electorate that has empowered the racially divisive, antiwhite Congressional Black Caucus.” Another piece enumerated the “pathologies of inner-city black culture,” including: “fatherlessness, crime, nihilistic alienation, and the exaltation of thuggery.”
Variations on white pride abound as well. A post written by Jeremy Carl argued that Democrats have “attacked, on a relentless and increasingly hysterical basis, white Americans, who as the overwhelming majority population, were the primary developers of America’s cultural, intellectual, and political heritage.” Carl went on to echo sentiment from the white supremacist movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which called for the creation of a white ethnostate in the American West and Pacific Northwest. “We must begin to relocate physically to welcoming local geographies and rebuild our capacity for independent action by creating parallel institutions to the existing corrupted ones,” he argued. Another piece, dripping with resentment, argued that the “media and elite-driven” message is “white America will always be guilty and white America can never put the past behind it.”
The site is often virulently anti-trans as well. A recent post about a fascist attack on a drag show in Dallas used the bigoted term “transvestite” to refer to a drag queen. Buskirk himself called the drag performers “evil people” who were “coming after kids,” arguing “there is almost nothing that can be done that is over the line to stop this.” Sean Ross Callaghan used the deliberately offensive term “transexuals” in a post in 2021. Another discussed “the evil of children’s transgenderism,” and yet another focused on “the insanity of transgenderism.”
These are the arguments that Buskirk is happy to feed with oxygen. He has the backing of Thiel and other multimillionaires and at least some access to mainstream platforms. Right now, American Greatness barely punches at its weight, much less above, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the effect the Rockbridge Network could have on the country.