WASHINGTON, D.C. — A large crowd of demonstrators shouted anti-racist chants outside the Ronald Reagan Building, while inside the jubilant vanguard of America’s resurgent white supremacist groundswell held a conference on “The Future of the Alt-Right.”
Richard Spencer, the nationalist leader who founded the “white identitarian” National Policy Institute — and who coined the term “alt-right” — said in a press conference Saturday that Donald Trump’s election “is the first stage of something,” to cheers from a hall packed with supporters from around the country. The conference had been booked well before the presidential election; had Hillary Clinton won instead, the tone of the NPI conference would have been very different.
The lineup of speakers on stage behind Spencer appeared intended to reflect the alt-right’s self-image as an intellectual movement. He introduced the press to a row of white males who were all authors or intellectuals in some capacity. This included Jared Taylor, editor of white supremacist magazine American Renaissance; Peter Brimelow, a former financial reporter who founded VDARE, a radical right webzine; and Kevin B. MacDonald, a psychology professor with a long bibliography of anti-Semitic eugenics claims.
“Donald Trump was able to reach real people in ways that Republicans could not,” Spencer explained. But “the Trump movement was a kind of body without a head. Trump had a lot of good instincts…but in terms of policy, Trump’s movement was a bit half-baked.”
Thus, Spencer presented a vision of the alt-right as “an intellectual vanguard [that] can complete Trump.” The NPI styles itself as the think tank of the alt-right, taking the raw cultural rage that electrified Trump’s campaign and transforming it into a concrete policy agenda tailored for white nationalism.
America needs to take a break on all immigration, particularly non-European immigration for a 50-year period.
Progressives concerned with the political possibilities a of white supremacist resurgence need look no further than NPI for a glimpse of where it could lead. Over the next year, NPI plans to release six detailed policy proposals “which we hope will directly impact a Trump administration”.
Thundering applause was given for the policy prescription that “America needs to take a break on all immigration, particularly non-European immigration for a 50-year period.” Trump may have focused so far on less systematic issues like illegal immigration, but their intent is to pull him even further rightward to support more overt white ethno-nationalist policies.
The audience was even more enthusiastic for Spencer’s condemnation of NATO. Telling the conference that “the world is a safer place with Donald Trump,” he didn’t merely critique what he perceives as NATO’s “extremely dangerous” propensity to antagonize Russia: he went on to propose scrapping the treaty and replacing it — with a specifically (white) Euro-American military agreement.
This particular proposal corresponds to a notable trend in white supremacist politics in the 21st century: the gradual mutation of white nationalism into white internationalism. Spencer and the panel of speakers sharing his stage all emphasized repeatedly that while their focus is on white identity in America, they perceive a deep affinity with “European” — that is, ethnically white — global solidarity.
Clinton herself noted the trend in August during a speech condemning Trump’s courtship of the alt-right, situating Trump within a “rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world.” This shift in far-right global politics led the Guardian’s Jason Wilson to warn that “a networked, globalized political racism may forge a more generalized, adaptable, and ‘shareable’ set of political concepts.”
A member of the disgraced far right British National Party, Matthew Tait, was billed as a speaker for the conference, but for undisclosed reasons he wasn’t invited to talk to the press himself and instead meekly obeyed Spencer’s command to pass the microphone to journalists with questions. Plenty was made, however, of recent far right successes in Europe, particularly the Brexit referendum and the increasing likelihood of Front National leader Marine Le Pen winning the French presidency in 2017.
The NPI speakers indicated that the refugee crisis in Europe isn’t simply an opportunity to drag the political center to the right, but also a genuine existential threat to their perceived white identity. They disseminate openly their fear of the dilution and dispossession of the white race, and turn their minds to policy writing because, in the words of Jared Taylor, “anything that slows that process we welcome.” Safety was explicitly cited by the panel several times throughout the session as a core concern.
The alt-right movement’s narrative about a global white collective under threat is not one that many white Americans fully identify with, so they sustain that extreme foundational myth by taking advantage of more widely agreed-upon faults in America’s troubled political center.
Like Trump himself, they focus much of that fire on the media.
Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra from the campaign is regarded by the alt-right as a metaphor that can apply to the press as much as to insider Washington lobbyists.
Whenever Spencer faced a question that was critical of the movement’s motives or associations, he would turn it around by implicating the reporter in complicity with an establishment stitch-up to oppress white Americans. He insisted that his views aren’t racist and that any accusation of racism from the media was “name calling” that only proved “you’ve lost the argument.”
A German reporter asking how close NPI is to Trump and Bannon themselves was drowned out by laughter and heckling from the audience. Spencer joked, “well I was telling Donald Trump just this morning over breakfast ‘this room needs more gold!’” before denying outright that he is in direct contact with anyone from the Trump administration. “We don’t need a direct connection to influence policy,” he explained, praising Steve Bannon’s general attitude but adding: “I do not think Steve Bannon is alt-right. He’s a fighter. And I think the Steve Bannon hiring was a wonderful thing.”
During his tenure as CEO of Breitbart, Bannon personally boasted that the outlet is “the platform of the alt-right”.
I think the Steve Bannon hiring was a wonderful thing.
The panel made several barbs at the media throughout the presentation, each met with a cheer — and with varying degrees of booing when a reporter named the publication they were representing. The loudest jeering from the audience was aimed at questions fielded by Mother Jones, the Guardian, and National Public Radio.
A supporter seated among the press made a hand gesture of shooting an NPR journalist whose question he didn’t like when it referred explicitly to the widespread perception of the alt-right as a racist movement.
Taylor argued that the alt-right is not racist because “that word cannot be retrieved or sanitized” as a result of common overuse. He addressed the question of white supremacy specifically rather than racism more generally, and denied that as well: “white supremacy is presumably the desire of whites to rule over other people, and I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who has that desire.”
Continuing to insist that the alt-right is not a racist movement despite its open assertions of white identity politics soothes not only their core supporters, but also appears carefully calibrated to speak to pre-existing values of America’s political center — particularly civility in political discourse.
Taylor’s proclamation that “I reject any kind of pejorative” in any political debate succeeds in softening his argument just enough for establishment media to more easily refer to the alt-right’s darlings in Trump’s incoming administration as “hard line” rather than fundamentalist, “controversial” rather than racist.
This is the cultural dynamic that operates at the heart of what some pundits are concerned is the ‘normalization’ of Trump — and the alt-right appears to have learned how to handle it with genuine precision.
Wearied by years of accusations of elitism for resisting a conservative Republican base, many media professionals are anxious to demonstrate that they are no longer out of touch — under the particular pressure of an industry experiencing increasing precarity. This chastened sense of accountability has been capitalized on by the alt-right to a point where an abnormal president-elect is treated as normal by reporters and Democrats in the hopes of appeasing enraged conservatives.
Appeals by liberal commentators like the NYT’s Nick Kristof to “give Trump a chance”, or Dave Itzkoff’s tutting at the Hamilton audience that booed Mike Pence (“he’s trying to engage”), have come under criticism from campaigners concerned that it unwittingly provides cover for Trump’s increasingly authoritarian (and constitutionally dubious) announcements — or for the sharp spike in racially motivated hate incidents following the election.
Spencer was dismissive when asked to comment on the more than 700 hate crimes reported since November 9th. “I don’t even know what people are referring to,” he shrugged. “What, did someone say something nasty on Twitter?” Pressed with details of swastikas painted in elementary schools and Muslims racially abused in the street, Spencer responded: “I imagine a lot of those might be hoaxes, and a lot of them might be examples of free expression”.
The alt-right has honed an almost surgical application of political pressure. They don’t need everyone to agree with them; they only need the right people to not disagree too much. Spencer’s movement has a much subtler understanding of their own discursive impact than progressives have so far been willing to give them credit for. Their modus operandi appears to only antagonize targets which they calculate they have a good chance of successfully bending to their will.
“We’re against any direct threat of violence,” Spencer said toward the close of the press conference. “But in terms of self-expression, we’re not going to condemn something like that wholesale.”