I’ve had two conversations with alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer. The first one I initiated a few years ago in the period when Spencer, experiencing his first flush of public recognition, was routinely described as dapper for wearing khakis and loafers. The second happened only a few months ago. He is no longer described as dapper, but then he is rarely mentioned at all these days.
The first conversation was in late 2016 a few months before the election of Donald Trump. We spoke by phone for a story I was writing for Tablet about Spencer’s one-time mentor, a cranky paleoconservative intellectual and Brooklyn-born Jew named Paul Gottfried.
At the time the alt-right was ascendant and I feared its growth would continue. I’d been interested in the movement since around 2012, when it was mostly unknown and no one viewed it as a viable political force, and I’d seen how far it had come in a short time.
I also thought American society was polarizing and fracturing creating spaces for new, more extreme political movements to grow out of the cracks. Then, a few months after speaking with Spencer and shortly after my story about the origins and nature of the alt-right was published, Trump surprised nearly everyone and won the presidency.
Shortly after Trump’s election, I went on a popular podcast hosted by some libertarian friends who had previously compared Spencer to Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps. They argued that, like Phelps, Spencer was a media phenomenon. The alt-right’s power and influence were being inflated, they claimed, by a credulous news establishment hungry for Nazis in headlines, in part to distract from that same establishment’s near total blindness regarding the Trump phenomenon. While agreeing with parts of that analysis, I countered that only a few years before no one had even heard of Spencer and now all of a sudden the president was tweeting alt-right memes and appealing to them as an influential opinion bloc. Of course there was a danger of panic and overreaction but at the time, the opposite impulse, failing to take the new movement seriously, seemed to me the more salient risk.
Here’s what I thought might happen. Spencer and his wing of the alt-right, which already had their own think tank and book publisher, would spread their ideas and influence through sympathetic elements in the new Trump administration. I never believed that a large, openly neo-Nazi movement had any chance of success in America but a more insidious and cleverly calibrated creep of fascist and racist ideas seemed to me a very real possibility.
Then, one year ago Thursday came Charlottesville and an unexpected turning point for the alt-right. The so called “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville started with a call for various right wing groups to rally in defense of Confederate monuments. It ended with a chant of “Jews will not replace us!” before descending into violence. A left-wing counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man affiliated with the alt-right drove his car into a crowd.
I’d feared a Spencerite faction of the alt-right exercising its power in the shadows through policy papers and D.C. cocktail hours. Instead, Spencer was chasing headlines and leading groups overrun with phonies, two-bit con men and social misfits on Tiki-torch marches through major American cities. After Charlottesville, the tendency it represented veered towards a cheap Nazi burlesque, with people breaking down crying on YouTube videos and outing each other’s real identities while engaging in a series of endless infights. The pièce de résistance came when the well-known leader of a white nationalist group, the Traditionalist Worker Party, was arrested and charged with beating up his wife and her stepfather. The stepfather, as Jerry Springer might have scripted, was also co-founder of the white nationalist group.
Now, some of the same people involved in the Unite the Right disaster are planning to rally this weekend in D.C., after Charlottesville denied their request for a permit. The overwhelming likelihood is the counterprotesters will outnumber far-right attendees by an order of magnitude.
Which brings me to my second conversation with Richard Spencer. I’d been invited to Washington, D.C. this April to give a talk at Georgetown University on the question “Is the Alt-Right Over?” About a minute before the event started an organizer approached me and whispered in my ear, “just so you know, Richard Spencer is in the audience.” I nodded and about 30 seconds later the talk’s moderator asked me the first question and we were off. It was toward the end, during the Q&A, when Spencer, after waiting his turn in line, approached the mic and asked a question.
It was no surprise to hear Spencer publicly acknowledge what a mess the alt-right had become. He’d recently canceled his college tour in the face of significant counterprotests and, in videos on his YouTube channel, had credited antifa’s tactical effectiveness for dissuading him from organizing future alt-right events. But what about white-identity politics he asked me? Even if the militant, organized alt-right seemed to have imploded, the resurgence of white identity politics was perhaps a larger and more durable force. The truth is I agree with that assessment but I didn’t say so at the time. Instead, I took some digs at him, Not by insulting him personally, just pointing out how pathetic his movement had become. Why speculate about the future, I asked, when we had the recent past and could examine all the sordid spectacle it afforded.
After the talk was over Spencer approached me to follow up with a small group in tow. He stuck out his hand. It stayed there. “You’ll talk to me but you won’t shake my hand,” he said, indignant. “Yes,” I said. He pushed on the question he’d already asked. What about white-identity politics as a larger force in American politics?
I don’t have a neat answer to that question, not that I would have given it to him if I did. It was a long day and I wanted to get back to the nice hotel the university people had paid for but the question hung around.
Just this morning a new report was released by the academic George Hawley, one of the country’s most knowledgeable sources on the ideological roots and political morphology of the alt-right. In the intro, Hawley writes, “The Alt-Right as a term seems to be declining in popularity, as the movement has suffered a series of setbacks over the last year. Yet the constituency for explicit white-identity politics remains.”
Whatever shape this politics takes, you’re unlikely to learn much about it from the spectacle this weekend in D.C.