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ORLANDO, Fla. — For days, journalists, academics and activists scoured social media for clues to solve a vexing mystery: Where was Nick Fuentes going to hold his white supremacist conference?
Fuentes and his fellow organizers had advertised the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC) — which was bound to attract hundreds of young American fascists — for Feb. 25, 2022, in Orlando, but included no other details. They planned to reveal the name of the hotel only on the day of the conference, and just to attendees.
It was a cat and mouse game. If anyone discovered the location, the hosting hotel would likely cancel the shameful shindig immediately. It would be bad press, after all, for a company to profit off providing an organizing space for a group led by a Holocaust-denying insurrectionist.
But some people did have the address — powerful people, who showed up as celebrated guests that night. Among them were two sitting members of Congress, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a rising far-right star. They appeared along with an Arizona state senator and the lieutenant governor of Idaho, both of whom have designs on higher office.
And then there was another “mystery” guest who never actually took the stage. HuffPost has learned that Thomas Homan, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under former President Donald Trump, showed up to AFPAC. He claimed to HuffPost that the whole thing was just a mix-up, and that he left the hotel quickly, before the conference began.
The decidedly white nationalist conference happened a short, 8-mile drive away at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the preeminent annual gathering of America’s conservative movement, where former President Donald Trump spoke on Saturday evening. Almost every other plausible 2024 Republican nominee, alongside a wide array of powerful GOP members of Congress, also made speeches.
The two conferences were, in many ways, very different. AFPAC was exponentially smaller, held at a secret location so that its attendees couldn’t be identified or doxxed, and livestreamed only via an obscure tech platform. And CPAC was CPAC, the media circus where rising conservative stars peacocked in the national spotlight.
But when it came to messaging, the conferences’ differences sometimes felt cosmetic, a matter of tone or degree, not substance. Both were animated by the same grievances about race, gender, and the 2020 election.
And both conferences shared some of the same attendees and speakers.
There were more than a few moments over the course of the weekend observing CPAC and AFPAC that it felt possible to confuse which conference had been organized by a shitposting white nationalist, and which one had been sanctioned by the Grand Old Party.
A Secretive Gathering
There are a lot of hotels in Orlando — roughly 450. And Fuentes wasn’t giving any clues about which hotel might host his conference, not on his regular livestream, or in his many online posts. His lieutenants didn’t slip up either. While disturbingly young — he is just 23 — Fuentes is a cunning operator. He is the leader of the America First “groyper” movement, who marched in the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
“The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming,” Fuentes wrote after that rally, where one of his fellow racists drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman. “And they know that once the word gets out, they will not be able to stop us. The fire rises!”
Congress recently subpoenaed Fuentes over his involvement in a different event: the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, D.C., where he was reportedly spotted encouraging people to storm the Capitol.
It wasn’t until about 7 p.m. on Feb. 25, less than two hours before the American First Political Action Conference was set to kick off, that Fuentes’ supporters got sloppy. Jonathan Lee Riches, a notorious far-right troll, tweeted a selfie. It showed him in a hotel lobby posing with a smiling Michelle Malkin, the anti-immigrant activist.
Jared Holt, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who monitors right-wing extremists, noticed something in the background of the image. It was a blurry doormat emblazoned with a barely legible logo: Marriott.
There are many Marriotts in Orlando, so Holt looked at another photo Riches posted, this one of him posing with Gavin McInnes, the founder of the violent neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys. In the background was a tiled floor with a triangle pattern.
Holt scrolled through photo galleries on Marriott hotel websites until he found the exact same triangle pattern. “Bingo,” he messaged me.
I got in my car and plugged the destination into Google Maps.
When I arrived at the Marriott Orlando World Center Friday evening, two Orange County sheriff’s deputies in bulletproof vests stood near the end of a long hallway inside the conference center. I nodded as I walked past them, toward a group of young white men in suits waving security wands over other young white men in suits.
These groypers — a nickname America First members bestowed upon themselves, a reference to their online mascot, a cartoon toad that’s a variation on Pepe the Frog, the infamous alt-right symbol — had traveled from across the country for this gathering. Most keep their groyper identities hidden in their daily lives for fear of losing their jobs and use online pseudonyms to spew racial invective. AFPAC was their chance to actually hang out in real life, to laugh loudly together at cruel inside jokes, and to bathe themselves in the glory of their dear young leader, Fuentes.
A 20-something-year-old man who seemed in charge of groyper security told me there was no way I was getting in. I walked away and tried to interview a couple of arriving attendees, but the man screamed “No!” alerting them not to talk. “Goodbye!” he yelled at me.
I walked back to the sheriff’s deputies, who had been joined by the head of Marriott security, and asked them if they knew what this event was all about. They seemed sincerely oblivious — it was just another conference for them.
As we talked, a group of about five groypers walked towards us, led by a man with long hair and sunglasses who started to film me with his phone. “Hey, the homosexual conference is that way,” he said to me, pointing to the other end of the center, as his gaggle of groypers giggled. The head of Marriott security intervened, telling them to go back into the conference room.
They obliged; there was no need to kick up a fuss, since the American First Political Action Conference was a go. Fuentes — who in a livestream just a few weeks prior said: “You know what I want? Total Aryan victory” — had successfully and secretly locked down a space in a big hotel, and sheriff’s deputies were guarding the doors.
Marriott International Inc. did not respond to multiple requests for comment as to why it hosted a white supremacist conference. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office didn’t say who requested the deputies to guard the event, but a spokesperson did say the department investigated a bomb threat made to the hotel during the conference. “A check of the area was conducted and a package was located,” the spokesperson said. “The package was deemed safe by our Hazardous Device Team.”
It is tempting to dismiss the groypers as just a bunch of online trolls, spurned nerds on a hateful revenge tour typing away from their parents’ basements. But their ranks are swelling, and they are making inroads with the Republican Party. At AFPAC in 2021, a sitting member of Congress, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), was the marquee speaker.
For weeks ahead of this year’s AFPAC, Fuentes teased even more GOP officials — Gosar again, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and former U.S. congressman Steve King — plus two “mystery speakers.”
At about 9:30 p.m., Fuentes stepped in front of the Marriott lectern, according to a livestream viewed by HuffPost, and got the night underway. He began by praising what he felt made his movement so successful: “Our secret sauce … young white men!” The crowd — and it sounded like a sizable one; Fuentes claimed over 1,000 attendees — broke into rapturous cheers and applause.
Fuentes then, as Russian bombs fell over Ukraine, led the crowd in a chant of “Putin! Putin!”
And finally, before introducing the first mystery speaker, Fuentes issued an apology. His first choice, he explained, had a family emergency. Thomas Homan, who oversaw the Trump administration’s brutal anti-immigration policies as head of ICE, had arrived at AFPAC, Fuentes claimed, but had to rush away. He sadly wouldn’t be speaking.
Homan confirmed to HuffPost in a phone call this week that he had indeed arrived to speak at AFPAC. His assistant had arranged the appearance, he said, and Homan said they may have confused Fuentes’ group for another one. “So many names of conservative groups sound the same,” Homan said.
While sitting at a table waiting for the conference to start, Homan said he looked over the agenda for the evening and decided he’d better Google Fuentes’ name. He saw some stories labeling Fuentes a white nationalist, but he was doubtful of them — Homan said he himself has unfairly been called a bigot and a racist for “enforcing immigration laws.” But then he found a recent story that did disturb him, about Fuentes praising Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This prompted Homan to leave the conference before it started. He says he never met Fuentes. “Shame on me for not doing my research,” Homan told HuffPost.
I asked Homan if it inspired any self-reflection that someone like Fuentes would want him at AFPAC. Homan said he didn’t know why Fuentes invited him, reassuring me that he himself is not a racist, he just likes secure borders.
A few minutes later Homan called me back to make sure I understood something. “I’m not saying this is a bad group,” he said of Fuentes and the groypers. “I’m saying I don’t know.”
Faith And Executions
Don’t worry, Fuentes assured his supporters after sharing the news about Homan; he had wrangled someone just as well known. “She is a standard-bearer of Trumpism in the U.S. Congress,” Fuentes said. “She is pro-life, she is proudly America first … We are honored, we are humbled and excited to welcome her to the stage right now ... I think this is going to be the beginning of something great — the representative from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene!”
Greene, who had just heard Fuentes cheer on Putin and admit to leading a movement for “young white men,” hugged Fuentes and took her place behind the lectern.
She began her speech by invoking her faith, leading the groypers to break into a chant of “Christ is king!” Then Greene — a transphobic QAnon conspiracist booted off Twitter for promoting COVID denialism who was stripped of her committee assignments last year for advocating violence against Democrats — told the assembled white nationalists that they, like her, were “canceled Americans.”
“You’ve been handed the responsibility to fight for our Constitution and stand for our freedoms, and stop the Democrats who are the communist party of the United States of America,” she said.
The evening’s other mystery guest speaker was Janice McGeachin, the Republican lieutenant governor of Idaho, whom Trump recently endorsed in her bid for the governorship. She told the assembled white nationalists to “keep up your good work fighting for our country.”
Then McGeachin told the groypers that they were “literally in the fight for our lives” in the Republican Party. “I thank you for joining our efforts,” she said, “and together we will fight to make Idaho great again.”
Gosar, last year’s top-billed speaker, appeared via a pre-recorded video this time, delivering a brief, forgettable statement. It was his home state colleague who stole the show.
Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers appeared at AFPAC remotely, via video conference, standing in front of the Arizona state flag. She addressed the crowd as “groypers,” to great cheers, and praised Fuentes, who she said had been “de-platformed everywhere” for saying things that anger “the media and the far left.”
“I truly respect Nick because he’s the most persecuted man in America,” Rogers said, adding that AFPAC was “standing up to tyranny.”
Then the state senator called for their mutual political enemies to be executed.
“I’ve said we need to build more gallows,” Rogers said. “If we try some of these high-level criminals, convict them and use a newly built set of gallows, it’ll make an example of these traitors who have betrayed our country.”
She wasn’t the only AFPAC speaker to call for murder.
“Tony Fauci literally unleashed a bio weapon on the world,” far-right podcaster Stew Peters told the crowd at one point, falsely blaming the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the coronavirus pandemic. “Why is this man running around free instead of hanging on the end of a noose somewhere?”
Peters was followed on stage by Vincent James Foxx, a former propagandist for the neo-fascist street-fighting club Rise Above Movement. “They want to replace you,” he said of non-white immigrants, invoking the “Great Replacement,” a conspiracy theory frequently cited in the manifestos of white supremacist mass murderers. “Western white culture is the majority culture, to which even non-whites assimilate into today — and they’re better off for it.”
State Sen. Rogers thought this was just great.
“Vincent James run for office,” she wrote on Telegram after Foxx’s speech.
On Wednesday, the Arizona state Senate voted 24-3 to censure Rogers over her gallows remarks. The rare bipartisan resolution has no practical effect beyond rebuking Rogers, and also makes no mention of white nationalism.
“I do not apologize, I will not back down and I am sorely disappointed in the leadership of this body for colluding with the Democrats to attempt to destroy my reputation,” Rogers wrote in response to the censure.
Thomas Zimmer, who teaches 20th century history at Georgetown University, watched clips from AFPAC with horror, and was particularly alarmed by Rogers.
“This is not some far-right internet troll, but a Republican state senator, and it’s impossible to adequately understand American politics without grappling in earnest with why her radicalism is widely seen as justified on the Right and within the GOP,” Zimmer wrote in a tweet.
“I fear that — after four years of Trumpism in power, after January 6, with rightwing fascistic militancy now all around us — we have become so accustomed to outrageous political acts that we might be becoming numb to how bizarre, how extreme, how dangerous these developments are,” he added.
AFPAC dragged on for hours, long after the nightly fireworks at Disney World exploded in the nearby sky — a spectacular sight that, for Orlando locals, has been rendered routine — and as, thousands of miles away, Ukrainians repelled a Russian attack in Kyiv.
“Now, [the media is] going and saying, ‘Vladimir Putin is Adolf Hitler,’ as if that isn’t a good thing,” Fuentes said in the closing speech shortly before 2 a.m., before adding, “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.”
The room went wild.
Fuentes praised the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, too, pointing out that a few people in the crowd had been arrested for their actions that day. “I’ll reiterate just for you,” he said, “Jan. 6 was awesome.”
He paid lip service to some right-wing conspiracy theories about the attack being orchestrated by the FBI as a ruse to arrest conservatives, saying such theories “may very well be true.”
“But,” he added, “I was proud to be an American on Jan. 6, 2021. And I’d like to believe it was real. I’d like to believe Americans have the heart and the guts and the balls to do what they did on Jan. 6. I’d like to believe what they did was real.”
Fuentes wore a VIP badge to Trump’s speech in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, shortly before hundreds of people stormed the Capitol — something he encouraged. “Keep moving towards the Capitol; it appears we are taking the Capitol back!” he told them through a megaphone. “Break down the barriers and disregard the police. The Capitol belongs to us!”
In a press release, the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 said it wanted to question Fuentes over his role in the “Stop The Steal” movement, which pushed the lie that the election was stolen, and to ask him about tens of thousands of dollars he received in Bitcoin from a French computer programmer ahead of the Capitol attack. Fuentes has said he’ll plead the Fifth to the committee, unless they put him on TV.
“If they televise my appearance, I absolutely will do it,” he said on a livestream. “If I get to go to Congress, and I get to sit there, and I get to talk about groypers, and I get to go off ... I absolutely will do it.”
Bleeding Into CPAC
Hours before she spoke to the groypers, soaking up cheers from a crowd of young men who savor saying racist slurs on livestreams and who would very much like it if America were a whites-only country one day, I had spotted Greene flitting around CPAC, relishing her celebrity status, posing for photos, and being interviewed at one of the many media booths.
Greene was scheduled to appear on CPAC’s main stage on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. as part of a panel on cancel culture that was set to be broadcast live on Fox Nation.
Before dawn that morning, I emailed the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes CPAC. Greene had just been the featured speaker at a conference of Nazi sympathizers; would she still be an official part of CPAC’s line-up in the morning?
I wanted to know if Greene lending the imprimatur of her office to a group of groypers was enough for CPAC to, well, cancel her. I hadn’t gotten a response by 10 a.m., so I called an ACU spokeswoman named Allison. She sounded somewhere between panicked and annoyed, either with me or with her bosses, I couldn’t tell. No comment, she said. She had passed my message along to the heads of ACU, she told me, adding: “It’s out of my hands.”
A short time later, for the second time in less than 12 hours, I watched Greene walk onto a stage to loud cheers.
I’ve written this story — about Republicans openly organizing with, promoting, endorsing, parroting, and aligning themselves with white supremacists — many times over the last five years. When Greene walked off the CPAC stage, I knew what would happen next. She would be hounded by reporters asking her for comment.
She wouldn’t apologize, and then she would lie, claiming ignorance about the groypers’ beliefs. She’d say the media was just trying to cancel her again by playing a game of guilt-by-association. She’d say she just wanted to talk to a group of young, civically engaged conservatives.
That’s exactly how it played out. “I talked about God and liberty,” Greene tweeted about her AFPAC appearance. “I’m also not going to turn down the opportunity to speak to 1,200 young America First patriots because of a few off-color remarks by another speaker, even if I find those remarks unsavory.”
Then the reporters would press her Republican colleagues: Do you denounce Greene? Will she face any punishment? Her colleagues would mostly demur, claiming not to be familiar with what happened. Eventually Ronna McDaniel, head of the Republican National Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Ky.) would issue statements that did not directly denounce her.
They would use the same boilerplate phrasing they always do. There is “no room,” “no space” and “no home” for white supremacists in the GOP, their statements would say, a claim rendered absurd by the sheer number of times they’ve had to respond to requests for comment about the latest white supremacist in the GOP.
Eventually House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Cali.) would promise to give Greene a good talking-to. The press would move on to other stories.
It’s a frustrating and exhausting news cycle that, in the Trump era, presumes far-right luminaries like Greene are somehow fringe members in the Republican Party, that their racist and conspiratorial views are an anomaly, and that older, allegedly respectable conservative leaders — McConnell, McCarthy, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) — have the power to put her in her place.
But that’s all make-believe. As Ben Lorber, a research analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost chroniclers of the groypers, noted recently: “The rising hard-right flank — represented in Congress by [Greene], Gosar and others — is setting the conservative agenda, and they view these leaders (correctly) as the out-of-touch establishment.”
Republican candidates across the country, including Senate hopeful and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, have all sought Greene’s endorsement. A stroll around CPAC showed how the GOP is, in many ways, her’s and the groypers’ party now.
Shortly after Greene’s speech, an 89-year-old man sat down at a table inside CPAC’s expo hall and started to sign copies of his book, “Sheriff Joe Arpaio: An American Legend.”
Arpaio — the former Maricopa County sheriff who terrorized Arizona’s Latino population for a quarter century, unlawfully detaining undocumented people in a jail he once proudly likened to a “concentration camp” — had also spoken to the groypers mere hours earlier, at 1 a.m., regaling the young fascists with tales of putting his prisoners in chain gangs, or emasculating them by forcing them to wear pink jumpsuits. (He even brought one of the jumpsuits with him to AFPAC, showing it off to the crowd from behind the Marriott lectern.)
An estimated 160 people died in Arpiao’s jails, many by suicide. This long, cruel career made him a national conservative star and, in 2020, Trump pardoned him on charges stemming from a ruling requiring him to stop racial profiling.
“Finished a great book signing at CPAC and a keynote speech in front of over 1000 young people at AFPAC,” he tweeted Saturday.
Near Arpaio’s book signing were booths for organizations hoping to recruit college-aged conservatives: Young Americans for Liberty; Students for Life of America; Turning Point USA.
TPUSA, the premiere MAGA organization on college campuses across the country, has done its best to distance itself from the groypers, but often fails. In 2019, TPUSA dismissed its brand ambassador after she was photographed at a dinner with Fuentes.
And just this past January, TPUSA’s social media account on Gab went rogue and wrote: “I’m glad everyone on Gab is based enough to see through TPUSA’s bull shit. Guess I’d rather be kicked from the organization than go on with their homosexual zionist crap….Follow @realnickjfuentes.”
Young groypers stalked the halls of CPAC this year, distinguishable only by their blue America First baseball hats. “White boy summer!” I heard one yell, using a slogan the group adopted last year.
Another groyper posed for a photo with CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp.
Fuentes is not allowed at CPAC, likely because he’s too antagonistic of a figure, and would generate too much bad press. But that doesn’t mean CPAC bans white nationalists.
Reporters spotted AFPAC attendee Jared Taylor, founder of the white nationalist organization American Renaissance, in the halls of CPAC Saturday, sporting a conference lanyard around his neck.
CPAC didn’t respond to a request for comment on why Taylor (who once wrote, “Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears”) was allowed in the conference.
Scott Presler, an anti-Muslim activist who played a big role in organizing 2020’s “Stop The Steal” rallies, talked to his fans in the hallway. Mark and Patricia McCloskey — the wealthy St. Louis couple who gained right-wing fame for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters — were in the hallway too, passing out photos commemorating their viral moment to promote Mark’s senate campaign.
Everywhere, MAGA merchandise and videos and books declared the movement’s opposition to “critical race theory” and “cancel culture.” CPAC’s motto for the weekend was “AWAKE NOT WOKE” and the entire gathering felt like a festival of unrepentance, a celebration of the refusal to apologize for being anti-vaccine, for being racist, for being transphobic, and for Jan. 6.
The Worst Is Yet To Come
To varying degrees, the Republican Party has always kept the far-right around. But sometimes the animal breaks out of the cage. Jan. 6, 2021 was the day the GOP’s aggrandizement of wild conspiracies and its elevation of radical groups and fringe figures — many of whom found homes at CPAC — boiled over and changed history.
This year, CPAC treated the events of that day as an embarrassing family secret. Only one event on the agenda specifically addressing the insurrection: a conspiracy-laden speech by Julie Kelly, author of the book “January 6: How Democrats Used the Capitol Protest to Launch a War on Terror Against the Political Right.”
But attendees were not nearly so sensitive. The first two people I interviewed at the conference both admitted to being at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C. that turned into the attack. Neither had gone into the Capitol, and neither believed that those who did were actually Trump supporters, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
Anna Villalobos is the proud owner of a company called MAGA Hammocks. She swayed back and forth in one of her “TRUMP 2024” hammocks inside the CPAC expo hall, remembering Jan. 6 as a “peaceful” event. Infiltrators, she claimed falsely, had been “paid” by the Democrats to stir up violence.
I asked her what her evidence was for this claim.
“Because we don’t act like that,” she said. “Conservatives, we don’t do that. I’ve been in a lot of rallies for Trump with thousands and thousands and thousands of people and never ever, ever, ever saw any behavior like that …That’s my evidence.”
This abiding MAGA belief was shared by Katie, clad in red, white and blue cowboy boots, who didn’t want to provide her last name or her job. She told me she traveled to D.C. on Jan. 6 from her home in Boulder, Colorado. “I’m sure what you have been told or understand to have happened is a complete fiction,” she said, rattling off a series of conspiracies about “antifa” and FBI agents infiltrating the protest to goad Trump supporters towards violence.
She carried on trying to convince me the election was stolen, citing a video of Georgia poll workers purportedly stuffing ballot boxes with fake votes. (They were not.)
At CPAC, it was an article of faith that the election was stolen, the Capitol attack was a false flag, and that the Capitol attackers still in pre-trial detention were now political prisoners.
One of my final interviews at CPAC was with Angel Harrelson, 44, who I spotted wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “DUE PROCESS DENIED: FREE MY January6er.”
When I approached her, she was on the phone with her husband, Kenneth Harrelson, who is currently in jail in Washington, D.C.
Kenneth Harrelson and nine fellow members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, were arrested last year for storming the Capitol. In January, they were hit with seditious conspiracy charges — the most serious charges yet in relation to Jan. 6. He faces decades in prison.
“They keep calling it a militia group, it’s an organization,” Angel told me. “I don’t know why they do that because, I mean, it’s not, I don’t think it is, anyway. It might be. I don’t know.”
She feels her husband is being treated unfairly, that he should’ve been able to get out on bond, and she worries about the conditions in the jail where the government is detaining him.
“They’re being fed rotten food,” she said. “They are living inside these pods that still has black mold in it. Marjorie Taylor Greene actually went in there with a few people, so did the U.S. marshal. They went in there, they told them they need to fix this and it’s still not fixed. ... It’s a horrible situation, not just for my husband but for all of them.”
Angel and Kenneth Harrelson live here in central Florida — the cradle of the insurrection, where a high number of Capitol rioters have been arrested — and have not seen each other since his arrest March 2021.
“I haven’t seen him in a year,” she said, claiming the jail in D.C. doesn’t allow virtual visits. (HuffPost couldn’t independently verify if this is true.) “He hasn’t seen his kids or talked to his kids in a year.”
I asked her how the folks at CPAC were responding to her T-shirt and to her story.
“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs and a lot of prayers,” she said.
There are bound to be more Angels among the MAGA faithful — conservatives so committed to a gospel of insurrection that they or their loved ones will embrace political violence, with assurances from cynical, power-hungry preachers like Trump and Fuentes that their sacrifice was worth it
There was a moment maybe, in the months immediately following Jan. 6, that the Capitol attack seemed like it could’ve been the climax of MAGA violence. But what I witnessed in Orlando last weekend made Jan. 6 feel like a mere preview of the tumult to come.