“Thank God for Donald J. Trump,” cried National Policy Institute director Richard Spencer into the microphone.
Spencer, 37, has a boyish, straitlaced look about him. With his well-tailored suit and a nicely kempt undercut, he’d meld perfectly into the swarms of youthful think tank employees trotting down Massachusetts Avenue. But NPI is no ordinary Washington think tank. Founded by an heir to a conservative publishing fortune, it drew white nationalists and sympathizers from around the country—and at least one from Canada—to its innocuously named “Identity Politics” conference a couple of days after Donald Trump dominated the field on Super Tuesday. For $45, I snagged the last ticket designated for millennials.
It is the rise of the bombastic Republican frontrunner that brought this amalgam of aggrieved crusaders together for an evening of cocktails, appetizers, and songs of praise to the candidate who’s inspired them to dip a toe into the stream of establishment politics.
To get in, I waded through a throng of protesters gathered around the entrance of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, yelling “Nazi,” “racist,” and “KKK” at attendees. A few protestors got close enough to snap pictures.
The ambience among the crowd upstairs was more staid. A quick glance around the room confirmed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of the NPI as a “suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old.” Aside from a few conspicuously shaved heads, conference attendees appeared to be a clan of “professional racist[s] in khakis,” as a SPLC writer described Spencer, rather than heavily tattooed, Swastika-donning brownshirts.
Most of the attendees were men. Most, but not all, were white.
Spencer kicked off a night of talks with a demographic analysis of the group—a welcome relief from an awkward conversation I had been trapped in a few minutes earlier with a few attendees, about whether it was good (or not) to describe one’s self as a racist. When Spencer asked who is under 30, at least 20 people raised their hands—myself included. He seemed delighted. The movement, he said, needs that “youthful” energy.
Spencer told the crowd to ignore the protesters outside the doors of the Reagan Building. Engagement, we were told, is what they want, so it’s best to ignore them.
Most, of course, had already done so. “Almost none of them interacted with us at all, and I recall them often trying to avert their eyes as they made for the entrance,” Scott Green, an activist who had also protested NPI’s conference in November, told me.
Spencer, however, didn’t appear to be bothered.
“I never thought I had such a fan club,” Spencer continued, referring to three protesters holding effigies of him and the two other conference speakers. The crowd was amused.
Then he hopped off the stage as blaring rock music and a slideshow of various right-wing memes welcomed self-described “shitlord” and video-blogger, Paul Ramsey. Among this crowd, he is better known by his pseudonym, Ramzpaul.
The gregarious blogger outlined his three-point plan for the amorphous, mostly web-based movement known as the alt-right, or alternative right, a reactionary form of conservatism that views itself in contradistinction to mainstream politics. “Identity,” the bedrock of the alt-right agenda, rests upon three pillars: sex realism (“men and women are suited for different roles”), race (inexplicably broken up into “race realism, nationalism, and Jews”), and natural order (a nebulous and quasi-mythical construct that appears to amount to the naïve, tautological, and politically irrelevant idea that society should resist acting against what is deemed “natural”).
Ramzpaul proceeded to identify several cultural scapegoats. The latest Star Wars is bad because it shows that women can be epic warriors and have better command of a fictional psycho-spiritual “force.” The military is bad because it’s putting dainty lil’ ladies right up against tough guy machismo. The media is bad because it dubs all adherents to race-conscious ideologies white “supreeeeeeeeeemists,” without considering the nuances of their high-minded intellectual exercise!
A man with a Confederate-flag tie nodded to the small press pool on the opposite side of the room and whispered into a woman’s ear, “The photographer with the black hair is Jewish.” He stared knowingly at the woman and took a seat.
I was slightly taken aback when Ramzpaul broke up his Powerpoint-heavy presentation to tell us it was time to make friends. We were encouraged to turn to our neighbor and give him a gift. Mein Kampf was mentioned as a possible option. I ended up with a printout bearing the image of a red pill, a metaphor used by right-wing movements, from men’s rights activists to the alt-right, to describe a moment of “awakening,” a la Neo in The Matrix.
So white, so right
The National Policy Institute was founded in 2005 by William Regnery II who, in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a “prime mover and shaker” within academic white nationalist circles. As an heir to the conservative Regnery Publishing, which brought us Trump’s campaign screed Time to Get Tough in 2011, Regnery has thrown his fortune behind a number of white nationalist causes. In 2001, he founded the Occidental Quarterly, whose pseudo-scientific agitprop makes it “sort of the Nature of academic racism,” according to Mother Jones. Indeed, NPI’s Identity Politics conference featured one of the Quarterly’s higher profile contributors—Kevin MacDonald, a disgraced former academic who maintains that Jews are responsible for an influx of non-white immigrants to the United States. (MacDonald also sits on the institute’s advisory committee.)
Richard Spencer came onto the scene after a stint at the American Conservative, where he was fired, and later, Taki’s Magazine, a paleoconservative online site created by AmCon cofounder Taki Theodoracopulos. Spencer left in 2010 to start his own webzine, Alternative Right, which helped bring the term “alt-right” to the Internet’s attention and provided a sort of intellectual center for the budding alt-right movement. Contributors ranged from Matt Forney, who now writes for the men’s rights activism site, Return of Kings, to Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian fascist, writer, and academic who provided much of the intellectual foundation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine.
About a year later, Spencer took over as president after the death of Louis R. Andrews (who once claimed he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 to destroy the Republican Party so it could be reborn as a party supporting the “interests of white people”). According to the organization’s most recent publicly available Internal Revenue Service Form 990 (NPI is registered as a 501(c)3, as most of its activities are “educational”), Spencer receives no compensation for his work at NPI. (Some have speculated he’s independently wealthy.) Most of the institute’s money goes to events and conferences, many of which have taken place in the D.C. area, despite the fact that Spencer spends most of his time in rural Montana.
Under Spencer’s guidance, NPI has helped lead the North American crusade for what Spencer calls “identitarianism”—an ideology that has its roots in the French far-right and posits that identity (in this case, racial) is the crux of any political, religious, or political movement.
“It’s about saying, ‘What is your identity?’ Basically, saying that [identity] must be the basis for any sort of political action . . . foreign policy, social policy,” Spencer told me. Race is the building block on which all else rests, largely because it’s the only aspect of our identity that can connect a community through multiple generations.
“Identitarianism is something that’s shocking and new for America. It’s something that we don’t take to naturally; it’s something that almost strikes us as foreign. But the fact is that we do have these identities. If you’re a white American, you’re connected to something much older than 1776. You’re connected to something much older than our people’s experience on the North American continent,” he continued. “You’re connected to it through blood. Through your mentality, the way you look at the world, the things you love, the things you’re proud of, the things you value. . . . You can find your identity by looking into yourself.”
It’s tempting to brush off Spencer and his ethno-racial identity-first argument as highfalutin but web-friendly racist blather. Spencer’s vision for the alt-right isn’t a revived Ku Klux Klan, and it’s, oddly, too inclusive for regulars on some neo-Nazi platforms, such as Stormfront and Daily Stormer. Although Spencer is delighted that some more mainstream conservatives—such as Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos—have undergone some degree of “alt-right-ification,” other allies have been less enthused. When Yiannopoulos published an explanatory piece on the movement, the Daily Stormer (“the world’s most visited alt-right site!”) followed up with a meme-laden takedown entitled, “Breitbart’s Alt-Right Analysis is the Product of a Degenerate Homosexual and an Ethnic Mongrel.” In a similar vein, the article’s author, Andrew Anglin, retracted his support for NPI’s November conference upon discovering one of the speakers was “an open homosexual.”
That’s not to say Spencer’s strain of white nationalism is any less insidious or divisive. Rather, it highlights NPI’s role in acting as a unifying “center” for a more far-flung alt-right movement.
“NPI is playing the role of being one of the big institutions and one of the essential institutions,” Spencer told me. “It’s going to be the one hosting the conferences where people meet each other. It’s going to be publishing some of the best work.”
“The alt-right is really big, and what we’re doing is right at the center of it,” he said.He appears too staid to be capable of feeling awe, but if he’s ever had a sense of wonder it’s a result of Trump’s immigration proposals and apparent unwillingness to kowtow to a Jewish lobby. Contrary to some anti-Semitic canards, MacDonald’s secret Jewish cabal can be defeated through political activism.
With as much glee as a crusty old racist can muster, MacDonald told the room, “There’s something about crowds of cheering white people that terrifies America’s elites, especially when the speaker is criticizing their long-standing immigration policies.”
Trump, the engrossed crowd was told, intends to smash an oligarchic system “stacked” against white America. The only way to break free from the system that blocks ordinary white Americans from fighting against the “disease” of multiculturalism and the unilateral rule of the American elite is to get behind a candidate with tremendous cultural capital who is also capable of funding his own campaign in full. (Despite these frequent claims, Trump does not fund his own campaign in toto. In fact, most of his campaign is funded by zero-interest loans, which he’ll likely pay off using funds raised on the campaign trail.) Trump’s refusal to grovel before the American Defamation League (a favorite MacDonald target) or the neoconservative establishment allows him the freedom to “[cut] to the core issues—issues like immigration—which are implicitly white issues.” If we listen and abide, MacDonald continues, we, too, can “Make America Great Again.”
The room went wild.
Spencer closed the evening with an ode to the “gold-plated fascism” of the Trump campaign. Under a Trump presidency, Putin would triumphantly walk the streets; neoconservatives would tremble in their boots as the Republican Party they worked so hard to build comes crashing down around them. Trump—the outrageous, egomaniacal celebrity that he is—may not be the ideal vessel for America’s identitarian shock treatment, but underneath all his “vulgarity and lies,” he’s providing what America needs.
He’s more than a presidential candidate. “Trump is a thing in itself,” Spencer said. “Trump represents that will to thrive to be great, to be something more than a man.”
This message is not for everyone. But if you believe MacDonald’s claim that white Americans aren’t going to public swimming pools because of the hoards of multiethnic rapists, and that waves of lawless people are coming over our Southern border, then Trump’s appeal isn’t first and foremost his promise to make America great again. Instead, the brash, orange-tinted billionaire “is showing white men how to be strong again,” as conference attendee Angelo John Gage, a former Marine and American Freedom Party activist, said in a video on his YouTube channel. On a deeper level, Trump is a bulwark against a calamitous decline—in which faceless, nameless, stateless immigrants will once and for all undermine the economic stability of white Americans.
What then? “If the government, especially at the federal level, is no longer as reliable an enforcer of white privilege,” Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in The Nation this winter, “then it’s grassroots initiatives by individuals and small groups that are helping to fill the gap—perpetrating the micro-aggressions that roil college campuses, the racial slurs yelled from pickup trucks, or, at a deadly extreme, the shooting up of a black church renowned for its efforts in the Civil Rights era.”
This time, they might be wearing suits and ties.
Trump the übermensch
After that startling exchange of gifts among the identity-conscious agitators, Kevin MacDonald took the stage. Applause filled the room as the 72-year-old stepped to the podium. The guy’s some fucking hero, I noted. This is a standing ovation.
MacDonald—true to his RateMyProfessor assessment—is dry. Yet he sounded more like a disgruntled uncle reflecting on the good ol’ days of white supremacy than an academic.