Politics & Government

‘Radically Mainstream’

Why the alt-right is celebrating Trump's win.
Steve Bannon in the lobby of Trump Tower, November 11, 2016, in New York City.
DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
Steve Bannon in the lobby of Trump Tower, November 11, 2016, in New York City.

Inside the Ronald Reagan Building a few blocks from the White House, and a block from President-elect Donald Trump's new Washington, D.C., hotel, a 26-year-old woman named Emily is praising National Socialism. “I mean, I think it's worked in certain countries,” she says. “It is really funny how brainwashed people are, to think an economic system means that you're going to kill people.”

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We're at a conference hosted for the past six years by Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, a small think tank that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a leading promoter of “academic racism.” In recent years, Spencer has also become one of the most identifiable leaders of the so-called Alt-Right movement — a loose consortium of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, men's rights activists and social media denizens who believe white people are under threat from immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness.

At nearly 300 attendees, this year's gathering — taking place less than two weeks after Trump's upset victory — is his largest to date. Spencer often speaks of his followers' youth, and he'd offered discount tickets for this event to millennials; when I asked him to introduce me to a few, he sent me to Emily, who would only share her first name, and to Lana Lokteff. (Most conference participants refused to disclose their last names, in keeping with an Alt-Right culture of anonymity, with some wearing dark sunglasses throughout the day. Many on the Alt-Right contend that they have been forced into hiding by political correctness.)

Emily says she came to the Alt-Right just this year through 4chan — which is credited with popularizing such racist memes as Pepe the Frog. She found its message board /pol/, or politically incorrect, revelatory. “These are scary ideas,” Emily says. While she sometimes wonders why she spends all her time “obsessing over” things like Internet forums, she sees her time spent online as urgent: “We're trying to get the laws of truth.”

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Lokteff hosts a radio program on Red Ice, a “pro-European” online radio and television platform, which recently featured Holocaust denier David Cole discussing the “truth” about Auschwitz and a discussion with another guest on “how the holohoax instigated her own red-pill process” — Alt-Right speak for becoming woke to white nationalism.

Both women are certain lies pervade our understanding of the world, and the Alt-Right has led them to the truth. “I hated myself my whole life because I was white, like ever since I was 11 years old, and the guilt just kept piling on,” says Emily. She recalls, with resentment, being told that white people are responsible for slavery, and being assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. “After this movement, I found it — the guilt — I don't have it anymore.”

She's at the conference because of her frustration that “self-hating whites” simply “don't care if white people go extinct.”

Over the years, Lokteff has come to question the Holocaust, the government's mass murder of Native Americans and the Armenian genocide. Revisionist history is a big part of her show, and she speaks warmly of one of her guests, Mark Weber of the Institute for Historical Review, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a pseudo-academic organization dedicated to Holocaust denial and the defense of Nazism. As a measure of the group's sentiments, the Anti-Defamation League reports that IHR's last conference, in April 2004, was cosponsored with the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Lokteff tells me she appreciates Weber for “tackling the gas chamber story,” a reference to the organization's longstanding efforts to build a case that the Auschwitz gas chambers were used only for delousing clothing, or as bomb shelters.

“For me,” says Lokteff, “looking into these things doesn't mean, 'Oh, I hate Jews.' It's like, 'This many Jews didn't die, alright?'”

Of course millions of Jews did, in fact, die, but there's no time for that. We've been called back into the Atrium Ballroom for a speech by Kevin MacDonald, a former psychology professor at Cal State-Long Beach who's become an intellectual hero of the Alt-Right. He's speaking on “America and Jewish Consciousness,” a speech replete with anti-Semitic tropes about the threat of Jewish wealth, power and influence. “Jews see whites as more of an enemy than Muslims, down the road,” he says. “Muslims are not a high-IQ group, they're not becoming elite in our society, and I don't think they see them as competitors.”

Sitting down for lunch, the day after the election, Spencer had insisted that Nazism was a “nonstarter,” and even spoke critically of all the “sieg heiling and swastikas” at a National Socialist Movement rally I had recently covered. “I don't think that's our base,” he said. “That's not the Alt-Right. I mean, if I wanted that to be who we are, I would have called this the 'Hitler Was Right' coalition or something. I mean, as controversial as the Alt-Right is, it is a starter,” by which he means a concept with movement-building potential.

So at the conference, I'm curious how Spencer is responding to MacDonald's speech. I edge closer to where he's seated, write a phrase of MacDonald's — “Jewish role in white dispossession” — on a piece of a paper and hand it to him. “Do you agree?” I ask. Spencer reads it, and hands the paper back: “Yes.”

Half an hour later, Spencer himself is onstage, celebrating Trump's victory as his own. “We willed Donald Trump into office, we made this dream our reality!” he says. Then he shares a quote from the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl — one, he says in a characteristic effort to provoke a reaction, “I'm sure our friends at the Anti-Defamation League know very well”: “If we will it, it is no dream.” For Spencer, if Jews can have a homeland in Israel, surely whites are entitled to their own homeland as well.

“We knew he could win,” Spencer says of Trump, even though the “mainstream media” was blind to the possibility. Or perhaps, he says, “we should refer to them in the original German: Lügenpresse,” the Nazi term for a “lying press,” a phrase that was popularized at Trump rallies during the final weeks of the campaign.

After leading off with the Lügenpresse provocation, which instantly electrifies the room, Spencer's delivery picks up on his audience's excitement; the speech isn't just about lambasting the Lügenpresse, it's a call for Trump to give the Alt-Right, his most fervent base, its just reward. “We demand to live in the world that we imagine!” Spencer proclaims, calling American society sick and disgusting. “We want something normal.” He says this is white Americans' “great struggle,” but that “we were meant to overcome it.”

“It's only normal,” he says, “when we are great again.”

“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” he shouts. At least a dozen people in the audience respond with the Nazi salute.

Spencer pauses, steps away from the dais, and smiles. “Alright,” he says. “We should all go get drunk.”

Ten days earlier, I'm waiting outside a restaurant in Washington, D.C.'s trendy Logan Circle. It's the day after the election, and Spencer has suggested we meet for lunch. The mood of passersby is desultory. Two men recognize and greet each other; when one asks how the other is doing, he shrugs sadly. The first man responds, “I know.”

But when Spencer arrives, he's elated. He was out late drinking and celebrating the win, and says he got only three hours of sleep. He started his evening at the Trump Hotel and then just roved around the city, where he says he was stopped and greeted by fans. “I don't want to get too indulgent,” he says, “but it is actually kind of wild where you'll meet people and they'll be like, 'Oh, I love you.'”

What we learned on Election Day, he says, is “intensity really does matter.” Democrats were demoralized and stayed home, he points out, while white Trump voters were energized. “It was just a remarkable thing that has happened.”

“We're making Trump cool and edgy,” Spencer says. “That is of such great importance, it can't be measured.”

Over lunch, Spencer says that building white nationalism — or “identitarianism,” as he prefers to call it — poses enormous challenges, because the movement's ideas are still considered taboo, even toxic, by many Americans. “You're jumping off into the unknown without any assurance of a parachute,” he says of working in the movement. “Or that you're kind of taking a leap off a cliff and hoping that your parachute works.” You do so knowing your job opportunities may be curtailed, your family ties strained. Funding, too, has been a struggle. “A multi-millionaire can fund a rather extreme left-wing group and suffer no social consequences for it. He's not going to get disinvited from his cocktail parties, he's not going to be denounced by his minister. But on the right — I think even you would admit it's like that.”

Trump's historic win, he says, could change all that.

“We've been legitimized by this election,” he says. While the campaign itself was a huge boost to the movement, Trump's election, he says, has brought the Alt-Right to “a new level.” “Legitimacy is … an unmeasurable, intangible thing that is everything.”

He says he sees Trump as a symbol, a vehicle for white aspirations, in much the same way so many projected their hopes and dreams onto Obama. “That made him cool, it made him a force, and I think we've made Trump a force in that way. And you can't measure how important that is.”

As he hungrily eats an omelet, hash browns and bacon, Spencer begins to dream out loud. The Alt-Right “can plausibly say we are influencing Breitbart,” he says — but now, in the wake of the Trump win, he can imagine, even predict, that Fox News will develop a show speaking directly to the movement. Maybe it will be called “Alt-Nation.”

He imagines producing a series of white papers that would trickle up into conversations inside the White House, starting with one he produced in October on why NATO should be dismantled. “That is influence, where people are thinking things that they had no idea who planted this in their head,” he says. He likens his approach to the film Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a thief who's able to invade people's unconscious thoughts. “It's planting ideas,” he says. “People will come to the conclusions themselves, but the true influencer is the one who kind of helps them, that kind of leads them there.”

Then he starts to fantasize about what he could do as Trump's secretary of state. “I'm not delusional,” Spencer says, acknowledging that it will never actually happen. But he can't resist laying out his vision for a Trump foreign policy. He says he would like to see Trump make a “mission to Moscow” akin to Richard Nixon's trip to China, resetting the U.S.-Russian relationship as one of “friendship,” starting with a commitment not to take sides on Ukraine. (Later, at the conference, Spencer would claim that the protests in Kiev's Maidan Square preceding Russia's invasion of Ukraine were financed by George Soros.) He likewise imagines Trump traveling to Syria to meet with President Bashar al-Assad — who has brutalized and slaughtered his own citizens in the course of the country's five-year civil war — to say, “You're a civilized person, you are a source of stability in this chaotic world and we're not going to have an opinion on any civil war that you're engaged with.” Spencer's call to remake U.S. foreign policy along these lines has already been taken up by the president-elect, who spoke with Putin the Monday after the election and who was subsequently described by Assad as a “natural ally” in the fight against terrorism.

On the home front, Spencer expresses enthusiasm for Ivanka Trump's proposal for paid family leave. “A lot of intelligent women who have great DNA, who are wasting it, in a way, by becoming career gals, and they're waking up and they're 45 and they're living with cats,” he says. Paid leave would allow them to discover that “they really like kids and like being at home, and like babies.” When I say I hear in his words echoes of natalism — a political ideology that promotes childbearing — he agrees, saying he'd call it “natalist socialism.”

Although he has mocked Washington's think-tank establishment in the past, today he stresses the need to press his ideas inside the Beltway. “I think we've leveraged ourselves in an incredible way,” he says, “but at some point we need to cross the Rubicon and have a footprint.”

He talks cryptically about his contacts in the world of conservative think tanks and media. “They know who we are, we know them, like there is contact, there has been first contact.” He has high hopes for Washington's younger thought leaders, because “when you talk about people over the age of 50, it's sometimes hard to get them to create new neural pathways.”

“If you're young and you're edgy,” Spencer says, “you're Alt-Right” — or, he hopes, you will be soon.

On a Friday afternoon, the day before the conference, I meet Spencer at the Willard hotel in downtown D.C. His room is appointed with gold and green brocade wallpaper, cherry wood furniture and brass light fixtures, and Spencer — the only full-time employee of the National Policy Institute — is multi-tasking. He's printing out conference programs, taking calls from journalists and conference-goers, and trying to book a private room at a restaurant for a dinner that night, in the wake of a canceled booking he blames on protests by anti-fascist groups. Then he quickly changes into a suit jacket to sit down with a documentary film crew. It's Spencer's unexpected 15 minutes of fame.

Later in the afternoon, William Regnery, the septuagenarian founder of NPI, knocks on Spencer's hotel room door. He asks for ice and pours himself a drink. While the cameras track Spencer, Regnery holds forth with me, weighing in on his political views by telling me he's not a racist or a white supremacist, but rather a “tribalist.”

Regnery is part of a conservative dynasty perhaps best known for its eponymous publishing house, home to such authors as Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich and Donald J. Trump. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes him as a publicity-shy, behind-the-scenes activist who, unlike other family members, “ran headlong into the fever swamps of white nationalism, where his familial and financial clout allowed him to set himself up as a major force shaping the entire movement.” He has established, the SPLC notes, a whole network of racist and anti-Semitic organizations, news sites and publishing houses including NPI, which he founded in 2005 to promote “the American majority's unique historical, cultural, and biological inheritance.”

Regnery seems to be taking delight in how Trump has awakened white people. He's pleased with Trump's appointment of Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, as his chief strategist and advisor, because Bannon has shown an “openness” to “alternative perspectives.”

He speaks enthusiastically about Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, though many are opposing the Sessions nomination in light of his history of racist comments and racially motivated prosecutions in his role as a U.S. Attorney. Regnery refers to the senator familiarly as “Jeff” — though later insists Sessions doesn't know him personally — and calls him a “great guy.”

At one point, Spencer shares his aspiration for a Sessions Department of Justice: a reversal of course on fair housing. “If an Attorney General Sessions stopped enforcing fair housing laws,” he says, “that would be wonderful.”

Sam Dickson, a former Klan lawyer, stops by to help Spencer with the dinner plans; he later tells me that he too approves of the Sessions pick, praising the senator's “good record on immigration.” His hope is that Sessions will investigate wrongdoing by “the large numbers of blacks” who “lied to the police, the media — the 'Hands up, don't shoot' stuff.”

Just as Regnery begins to hold forth on immigration, disputing the idea that America is a nation of immigrants, Nathan Damigo arrives. An up-and-comer in the Alt-Right, Damigo is the founder of a campus group called Identity Evropa. He argues that the Syrian refugee crisis is less of a calamity for the Syrians than for the white people of Europe and the United States.

Identity Evropa — one of a handful of small groups that Spencer sees as allies — describes itself as “a generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that we are part of the great peoples, history, and civilization that flowed from the European continent” and who “oppose those who would defame our history and rich cultural heritage.” Here in Spencer's hotel room, Damigo characterizes immigrants as colonizers: “They're not looking to integrate, they're looking to become a fifth column” and “shift the power dynamics of a nation towards themselves.”

Spencer agrees, and says that the Syrian refugee crisis amounts to a “big racial war.” Then again, to Spencer, many things are. “This life is a struggle,” he says, looking up from his MacBook. “Life is a war.”

What has been “legitimized,” in the Alt-Right view, is the movement's central creation myth: that white people are being “dispossessed” in contemporary America. Regnery tells me during a break in the conference, over coffee in the Reagan building's food court, that he feels “a real sense of dispossession” because the country is no longer “90 percent white.”

Regnery insists again that he is not a white supremacist — an assertion he backs up with racist claims about genetic differences in intelligence. “If you are a white supremacist, all other races are inferior,” he says. Then, as if to display his dispassionate adherence to science, he adds that Ashkenazi Jews — of which I am one, he makes sure to point out — have “an average IQ of 115,” while “we whites have an average IQ of 100.”

Their excitement is not just about Sessions or any other Trump appointee — it's also about Trump himself. Regnery says Trump has made it more acceptable to talk about “white dispossession,” bringing it into the national conversation. He hadn't previously realized, Regnery says, that there was such a large audience for Alt-Right ideas, but believes there is one in the estimated “52 million whites” who voted for Trump.

“Where there's a will, there's a way,” says Regnery. “Our job is to give them the will.”

Three days later, after Spencer's closing speech and the Nazi salutes it elicited made headlines, the president-elect was asked about the Alt-Right during his meeting with journalists from The New York Times . After being pressed several times about the movement, and Spencer's conference in particular, Trump finally said, “Of course I condemn. I disavow and condemn.”

Spencer texts me at 7:30 the next morning, wanting to chat. I read to him that portion of the transcript of the Times meeting and ask for his response. First he says the media got it wrong; those weren't Nazi salutes but “stiff-armed” or “Roman” salutes — “a fascist salute.” Then he says his “Hail Trump” call was meant “in the spirit of fun,” but “the media has seized on this one line.” The “Lügenpresse,” Spencer points out, is “not exclusive to the Third Reich.”

When I ask how seriously he takes Trump's disavowal, Spencer says Trump is not necessarily disavowing the Alt-Right itself, but “this monster that the media has created about the Alt-Right. This idea that the Alt-Right is neo-Nazism, he's disavowing that.”

Spencer recognizes his own looming PR problem, but says taking flack from the mainstream is apparently just “the burden you take on as the vanguard.” He tries to paint each damaging revelation as evidence of how the Alt-Right is “new and fresh.” About the A1  Washington Post story that hit newsstands that morning, headlined in print “Richard Spencer's Vision: Apartheid in America,” Spencer says, “That is their quote. That is not mine. … That is just idiotic, no. Apartheid failed.”

On the other hand, he contends, Apartheid was “a very misunderstood political movement,” one that came to be seen as “a monster from history.” And he says, again, that he does support the idea of a “racially based state — that is my ultimate vision.”

PR problems, he says, have both disadvantages and advantages. One of the advantages, he implies, is that although the public is shocked at first, once the taboo is broken, the shocking thing — a Nazi salute, for example — can come to seem merely “cheeky.”

Trump's election is symptomatic, to Spencer, that “it is dawning upon millions of white Americans that their future is being cut off from them.” That's why he'll encourage his forces to make sure Trump fulfills his campaign promises to not only build a wall, but impose a “dramatic” and “lasting” impact on immigration. Even deporting all “illegal immigrants,” he says, wouldn't “fundamentally make a difference in terms of the demographic trajectory of the United States.”

“We want to be radically mainstream — that is, we really want to enter the world, we want our ideas to be at the table, and people to listen to them,” says Spencer.

Now, he notes, “that is happening to a very large degree.”

Correction: This article originally reported that Spencer said deporting all “illegal immigrants” “would fundamentally make a difference in terms of the demographic trajectory of the United States.” The text has been corrected to reflect that Spencer said deportations “wouldn't” be enough to do that.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

About the reporter

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.