On December 17, 2007, the libertarian magazine Reason held a Christmas bash—a “Very Special, Very Secular Christmas Party”—at its office in Washington, D.C. The guest of honor, the late Atlantic book critic Christopher Hitchens, tugged liberally on his drink and gave a speech about how the holiday season was oppressive (“like living in fucking North Korea”). Then near the height of his powers as an anti-theist pamphleteer, Hitchens led the crowd in a tuneless rendition of Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol,” before slipping away and leaving the guests to the open bar and the mistletoe.
Among those guests was a figure from my past. I had not seen Richard Spencer in more than 10 years. He was not yet known as our generation’s most prominent white supremacist. I remembered him as my eighth-grade-chemistry lab partner and high-school classmate. We spotted each other and walked closer, circling uncertainly for a few seconds, before he spoke my name and confirmed that a wormhole had indeed opened from late-1990s North Dallas.
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Spencer must have sensed my surprise (I would have sooner expected to see our gym teacher at a Washington magazine party). He told me he had blossomed intellectually since high school. Then he asked me what I thought of Hitchens’s fulminations against God. I had no interesting opinion on the subject. But Spencer did.
Was Hitchens’s critique of Christianity, he said, not as wan and naive as Christianity itself? Christianity had bound together the civilizations of Europe, and now Hitchens wanted to replace it with—well, what exactly? American neoliberal internationalism? Why should anyone care if Christianity was irrational and illiberal, when rationality and liberalism had never been its purpose? Hitchens had missed the point.
Spencer wasn’t exactly defending Christianity; he said that he, like Hitchens, was an atheist. But he longed for something as robust and binding as Christianity had once been in the West, before churches surrendered their power to folk-singing liberals and televangelists.
I think Spencer knew he had me at a loss, because he curled out a smile and let his point hang in the air. I was flummoxed by his argument, a more thoughtful Nietzschean critique than I was prepared to take on—and by the unnerving fact that the kid who’d once cribbed my chemistry notes now had something to say.
Spencer invited me to join a discussion group he was organizing, the Robert Taft Club. I was wary when he evaded my questions about the politics of his club. He seemed reluctant to reveal too much, too soon. I made a point to lose his business card (he was the literary editor of The American Conservative, it said) and forget about him, as I had 10 years before.
For most of the 25 years we have known each other, my attitude toward Spencer was indifference. He arrived at St. Mark’s School of Texas, our Dallas all-male prep school, in eighth grade. We shared a home-room adviser and both took Latin, which he pronounced, with a verbal tic that persists today, as if the middle consonant were a d, as in the name Aladdin.
Spencer passed his classes but didn’t excel. He played baseball and football, but you wouldn’t have gone to games to see him play. I remember little to admire and little to despise—other than, perhaps, the featureless mediocrity he represented to my ambitious teenage self. When I graduated, in 1997, having won admission to the Ivy League and achieved escape velocity from the Dallas suburbs, it was the mediocrity of Richard Spencer that I was insufferably proud to have left behind.
But after the Christmas party, my indifference slowly gave way to a surreal curiosity, on its way to loathing. I monitored his activities, distantly. Spencer’s writing kept appearing, advancing ever more extreme opinions in ever more obscure journals. In 2008, he began popularizing the term alt-right. On Facebook, he posted images of himself with John Derbyshire—a polymathic, often charming writer who was fired from National Review in 2012 for racism—and Richard Lynn, an English psychologist who has argued that East Asians are slightly smarter than whites, who are in turn much smarter than blacks. Spencer hosted Ron Paul, then not yet widely known to have published antiblack screeds in the 1980s and ’90s, at his discussion club.
In 2011, he moved from Washington to Whitefish, Montana, where his mother owns a vacation home and a commercial building. (She is the heiress to cotton farms in Louisiana, and his father is a respected Dallas ophthalmologist.) There he edited and published a new online magazine, Alternative Right, and soon took over the National Policy Institute. Founded in 2005 by William Regnery II, of the conservative Regnery publishing family, NPI is a white-identity think tank with little money and virtually no staff. During the next five years, Spencer merged its mission with his own. It remained essentially a one-man operation—the Whitefish house owned by Spencer’s mother is listed in official filings as NPI’s principal office, and its 2015 IRS filing shows that Spencer drew just $13,275 in salary and was the only paid employee. Still, under Spencer’s direction, NPI put on two conferences and published two books that year.
Alternative Right showed signs of erudition. It was not the product of the same Spencer I had known in high school, who’d managed to misquote Shakespeare (“A poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, then heard no more”) and misspell the name of a SportsCenter anchor (“Craige Killborne”) on his yearbook page. The magazine’s racism and sexism were expressed with good grammar and a coherent view of the world. That view, now well known as the platform of the alt-right, can be summarized as white European cultural and racial supremacy, with a deep contempt for democracy. An active comment section revealed the site’s id: Many of the commenters’ profile photos featured the double-rune insignia of the SS.
When Donald Trump began adopting alt-right themes during his presidential campaign, Spencer threw him his support. On August 25, 2016, in a scripted campaign speech, Hillary Clinton said that the Trump campaign didn’t represent “Republicanism as we have known it.” Controlling his campaign, she said, was “an emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.” With one major-party presidential nominee using his nomenclature, and the other accused of supporting his ideas, Spencer got famous, and he moved into an apartment in Northern Virginia. (He continues to live part-time in Whitefish.)
A number of mortified St. Mark’s alumni conspired to speak out against him. Eight from our class of 69, myself among them, wrote an anti-Spencer statement on a crowdsourced fund-raising website, supporting resettlement of refugees in Dallas—a cause we chose because we knew it would irritate him. By December, after videographers from The Atlantic filmed Spencer receiving Nazi salutes and saying “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!,” the school community had kicked in more than $60,000. (The school itself denounced the ideas espoused by Spencer—now its most prominent alumnus since Owen Wilson and his brother Luke—though it didn’t name him outright.)
Spencer mocked us on his blog, saying that the “Brooks Brothers Brigade” had turned on one of its own. He scoffed at our having chosen refugees—nonwhite and non-Christian—as the recipients of our largesse. We had reacted, he wrote, by deciding “to commit civilizational suicide even harder than before … If this episode doesn’t express the end stage of wasp decline, I don’t know what does.” His fans concurred. “I suppose from a Darwinian point of view we have to accept that most Whites are no longer fit for survival,” reads the post’s second-most-popular comment. “We need a Western Purge, a Noah’s Ark moment where the traitors came [sic] be thrown to the niggers to be raped and murdered.”
Video: Rebranding White Nationalism
When I asked Spencer to meet me in January, before Trump’s inauguration, he showed better manners than his fans. (He denies that he advocates violence.) The front door of his apartment in Alexandria, just outside Washington, is not clearly marked, and even though he had given me the address, I wouldn’t have found it had a bespectacled young man not intercepted me outside, while I was rummaging around trash cans looking for a house number. “Can I help you?” he asked. He had brown hair and a geeky affect.
I wasn’t sure how to reveal to a stranger that I had come to meet Richard Spencer. “I am supposed to meet someone,” I said, so vaguely that I must have sounded like I was en route to a drug deal or an orgy.
“Do you have edgy political beliefs?” he asked, looking at me askance. (Yet another bland code word: edgy, discussion club, policy institute, even alt-right itself.)
“No,” I said, “but I’m here to meet someone who does.” He motioned me upstairs, to a newly renovated yuppie apartment where a television news crew was striking its equipment. The reporter, an Asian woman, stood in the corner and did not introduce herself, uneasy, perhaps, at the thought of exchanging pleasantries with a Spencer associate now that the cameras were off and she wasn’t professionally required to do so.
Spencer walked over, carrying a freshly pressed espresso, and said hello. He dresses nattily and today wore a patterned shirt, a wool vest, and a sport coat. He looked like the scion of a Montana banking family, dressed up and ready to film a commercial in a log cabin, assuring local ranchers that their deposits would be safe with him. Only the Reich-evoking fascist-chic (“fashy”) haircut would have been out of place.
Once the crew was gone, he and the young man I’d met outside (a “minion,” he called himself) ate lunch with me at a nearby Thai restaurant. The meal was interrupted once, by a young black woman who asked whether he was Richard Spencer, the famous racist. “Yes?,” Spencer said, cowering half-playfully. She declared that he “doesn’t look as mean in person” before walking off. (Because so many of his critics liken him to a Nazi, Spencer often gets this sort of compliment, for the simple courtesy of not mauling Jews or screaming in German in public.) Spencer asked me to leave his minion’s identity out of the story—“I have a ‘normie’ [conventional] job,” the minion explained, “and I don’t want to get punished for this”—but otherwise kept the conversation on the record.
Spencer began by complimenting my reporting for this magazine on the Islamic State. “Your articles on isis have been popular on the alt-right,” he told me.
I winced: Anti-Muslim bigots liked that I had described isis as an Islamic movement, linked to traditions within Islam. “Is that because you hate Muslims?,” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Because isis is an identity movement. Because they have ideas, and because you wrote about their ideas. Also, they are a grassroots movement. They’ve built themselves up fast, from nothing.”
I told him I was a leader of the Brooks Brothers Brigade and had contributed to our class’s effort to disown him. “It was hurtful,” he admitted, to find himself officially reviled by our school’s community. “They should be proud to have a graduate who is changing the world.” He said that singling him out among alumni, for nothing more than political thoughtcrime, was unfair.
He proposed other alumni who deserved condemnation. “I met a St. Mark’s guy who had been a bundler [fund-raiser] for George W. Bush,” Spencer told me. Spencer said that he’d sensed condescension from the man, and had chewed his tongue raw to keep from upbraiding him. “You led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, and millions in Iraq! Who are you to talk?”
In his view, the Bush administration had manipulated the country into war. “Spreading democracy” and “freedom” are, Spencer said, false ideals, distracting Americans from what really matters—namely, a consciousness of their identity as whites with a shared Christian heritage.
Spencer fantasized about the reversal of fortune that might come if the fund-raiser’s enemies should gain more power. “If the alt-right triumphs, we’re going to probably throw you in jail. We’ll hold you guys accountable.”
Other targets among the alumni community included Kurt Eichenwald, class of 1979, a Newsweek journalist who had written critically about Trump and the alt-right during the 2016 campaign. Eichenwald suffers from epilepsy, and in December, a Twitter user calling himself @jew_goldstein tweeted a strobe-light gif to him that triggered a series of seizures, leading to temporary partial paralysis on his left side. Spencer blanked on Eichenwald’s name, and both he and the minion laughed as they tried to recall it.
“What is that guy’s name? The one whom we almost killed?”
“No, no,” the minion corrected him, with the precision of in-house counsel. “We did not send that.”
Spencer revised his statement. “We collectively almost killed him. Some alt-right shitlord”—alt-right-speak for “online activist”—“sent him a meme.” Two months later, @jew_goldstein was revealed as John Rivello, 29, of Maryland, and charged with cyberstalking and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. According to the federal criminal complaint, Rivello wrote, in private messages, “I hope this sends him into a seizure” and “Let’s see if he dies.” Spencer retweeted an appeal to crowdfund Rivello’s defense “against lying #fakenews Kurt Kikenwald.” (Eichenwald is Episcopalian.)
Spencer worried about political correctness at our alma mater today. “What if there’s some kid at St. Mark’s who is an alt-right shitlord, who has an anonymous Twitter account, posting videos, following me, retweeting me?” he asked. “What’s going to happen to him if he gets discovered?” He looked troubled.
“If you had been overtly racist, the way you are now, back when we were students,” I told him, “I’m sure you’d have been expelled or sent to the school psychologist.”
He said I might be right.
In December, the hipster-Marxist magazine Jacobin published an online essay, “The Elite Roots of Richard Spencer’s Racism,” that sought to understand his white supremacy. “He represents a common and longstanding (if overlooked) phenomenon: the well-educated and financially comfortable bigot,” the author, Michael Phillips, wrote. “His blend of racism and elitism represents only an extreme version of a worldview that has long prevailed among the affluent in Spencer’s hometown.”
Phillips knows Dallas, but he has Spencer exactly wrong. Still, for purposes of comparison, it’s helpful to describe a worldview that flourished when Spencer and I were growing up there. Sometimes called “good-ol’-boy conservatism,” it reached its apotheosis in the candidacy of Clayton Williams for governor in 1990. Williams, now 85, campaigned with a cowboy hat seemingly stitched to his skull. An oil-and-gas mogul, he stood for backslapping redneck values—limited government, satisfaction with the social status quo of 1957 or so, and Texas pride. Williams’s campaign tanked in part because he joked openly, in front of reporters, that rainy weather is like rape—sometimes you just have to “relax and enjoy it.” (How tender were our sensibilities then, that an election could turn on such a quip.) Many good ol’ boys were racist. But they knew that it was distasteful to talk about race too much, and they knew that the correct answer, when asked about it in public, was to deny that it mattered or that it should matter. Williams lost the election to Ann Richards but won the straw poll in my sixth-grade class at St. Mark’s.
At lunch, Spencer and I tried to think back to the distant land of 1990s Dallas, for memories of our shared education on race. Our class was mostly white, with a few Asians and Hispanics and a lone black student. I was one of a very small number of students of mixed race (half-Asian, half-white, in my case). Our school had hired multicultural facilitators to lead workshops on prejudice, we recalled, so at some official level we had been taught the racial dogma of ’90s liberalism. I wondered whether Spencer had reacted rebelliously, becoming racist out of irritation at the clichés of the era. But he remembered these sessions less clearly than I did and seemed, if anything, less annoyed by their memory than I was. (I had found the facilitators condescending.)
Spencer was, however, also less sensitive to the actual racism common at St. Mark’s and other elite institutions in Dallas back then. He could not recall in any detail the occasional prejudice, racial lampooning, or social segregation that students of color remember vividly. In 11th grade, a history teacher performed an outrageous Mickey Rooney–esque pantomime of the Japanese, to teach us about Pearl Harbor. After a black alumnus, the brother of our black classmate, was randomly murdered while home from Morehouse College, the campus did not convulse with mourning, as it surely would have for a white student. Instead, the reaction was muted, as if the community was unsure what grief about a black student should look like. “I just don’t remember that much from that period of my life,” Spencer told me while we ate.
Of the two of us, Spencer had been closer to John Lewis, our only black classmate. According to Lewis, he and Spencer had been friends. Now Lewis, a businessman in California, is estranged from St. Mark’s because of the school’s slowness to ostracize Spencer from the alumni community.
“My upbringing did not really inform who I am,” Spencer said with a shrug. Then he reconsidered. “I think in a lot of ways I reacted against Dallas. It’s a class- and money-conscious place—whoever has the biggest car or the biggest house or the biggest fake boobs,” he told me. “There’s no actual community or high culture or sense of greatness, outside of having a McMansion.” He emphasized culture in a way that evoked a full-bodied, Germanic sense of Kultur. In fact, Spencer has joked that he would like to be the Kulturminister of a white “ethno-state.” He imagines himself having a heroic role in the grand cycle of history. “I want to live dangerously,” he said. “Most people aspire to mediocrity, and that’s fine. Not everyone can be controversial. Not everyone can be recognized by a random person in a restaurant.”
In the fall of 1997, he struck out from Dallas to find his cultural fortunes at Colgate University, in upstate New York. His time there produced even more profound amnesia, and he doesn’t say much about it, except that he starred in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is not a play especially beloved in Texas bro culture, and classmates who saw Spencer in that period report that he took on a Wildean air, dressing foppishly and affecting accents. (On Facebook last year, one of the card-carrying bros of our class called Spencer “Homo Himmler,” although he quickly apologized for the derogatory use of homo. Spencer denies the “stupid rumor,” widely whispered among our classmates, that he is gay. He is married to a Russian Canadian woman, Nina Kouprianova, who lives with their toddler daughter in Montana.) That Spencer may have experimented with his identity as a young man is hardly surprising or incriminating—he was, after all, still in his teens, and entitled to try on personae.
He lasted just one academic year at Colgate before transferring to the University of Virginia, where he majored in music history and English. He developed intellectually after a swift kick in the cortex from Richard Wagner and, ultimately, Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher whose skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism later made him beloved by the Nazis. “You could say I was red-pilled by Nietzsche,” Spencer told me. To “red-pill,” in alt-right slang, is to enter a vertiginous spiral of awakening and reassessment. The term comes from The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves’s character discovers, after swallowing a red pill, that his universe is counterfeit, his fellow humans are enslaved to false dreams, and he himself is destined to free them.
The false dreams from which Spencer found himself freed were the dreams of the good ol’ boy, who goes to church on Sunday and does things as his granddaddy did before him. Spencer started off with Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, a systematic dismantling of the moral and religious truths of European civilization. Nietzsche saw Christianity as a slave religion, a consolation to the weak. Spencer says that the general effect, an inversion of his moral universe, was “shattering.”
The influence of Nietzsche may explain why Spencer’s conservatism is not, in good-ol’-boy fashion, merely an attempt to revive a bygone way of life. “Some people in the alt-right are kind of like, ‘Women go back to the kitchen, gays go back in the closet’—like everything was great in the ’50s. I don’t believe that at all.” The concerns of conservative Christians don’t interest him. He doesn’t mind gay marriage, and he favors legal access to abortion—partly to reduce the number of blacks and Hispanics. “Smart people are not using abortion as birth control … It is the unintelligent and blacks and Hispanics who use abortion as birth control,” he said recently on AltRight.com’s YouTube channel. “This can be something that can be a great boon for our people, our race.”
Spencer graduated from UVA in 2001, then proceeded to the University of Chicago for a master’s degree in humanities. He said he studied there with the philosopher Robert Pippin, who “influenced me a great deal.” “It was there I started questioning the fundamental nature of democracy,” Spencer said. (Pippin doesn’t remember him. “I regard his rhetoric and activities as loathsome and despicable,” Pippin wrote to me. “I revere the founding principles of liberal democracy, and want no association with the man.”) At a party during his year at Chicago, he confessed his political leanings to the Marxist philosopher Gopal Balakrishnan, then a professor at the school. Spencer recalls that Balakrishnan gave a professional diagnosis on the spot: “You’re a fascist.”
Americans dismayed by their country’s direction have sought exile and renewal in Europe many times: Think of John Reed’s migration to Bolshevik Russia in 1917, or Ezra Pound’s flight from America’s “botched civilization” to Mussolini’s Italy. In the early 2000s, Europe far surpassed America in right-wing innovation, and when Spencer arrived in Germany in 2002, he landed on a continent pregnant with multiple nationalist, anti-immigrant groups: Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the National Front in France, Jörg Haider’s parties in Austria.
He spent parts of the next few years studying German on the banks of the Chiemsee, a lake southeast of Munich; working as a gofer at the Bavarian State Opera; and reading widely in German literature and history. Among the German ideas he adopted was a concept of race different from the one he and I had been taught in our multicultural workshops in the ’90s. In the modern era, American discussion of race has limited itself, by convention, to a few canonical categories: black, white, Asian, American Indian, Hispanic. “Race isn’t just color,” Spencer told an audience in December. “Color is, in a way, a minor aspect of race.”
For Spencer, race is more akin to the German Volksgeist, literally “the spirit of a people.” Volksgeist is associated, historically, with Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), and Germans became enchanted with it during the 19th century. Some would say the Second World War was the culmination of German devotion to their own Volksgeist. Herder’s followers proposed that each people has an essence that distinguishes it from others. Germans are not French; French are not Zulus; Zulus are not Koreans. The idea was adopted by the black American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), who traveled to Germany at the same age as Spencer and drank his philosophy of race from the same Teutonic fountains:
The history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history. What, then, is a race? It is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.
Spencer told me the Volksgeist he advocated was that of white Christendom, a group with indistinct geographical borders, but roughly including European peoples, from Iberia to the Caucasus, who were Christian as of a few hundred years ago. I proposed that this understanding of “white European culture” seemed arbitrary. It ignored the divisions that European identity movements found crucial. He suggested that any concept of identity could be knocked down if overanalyzed, and overanalysis would only lead to inaction. “I could just sit here masturbating in my own filth,” he said, probably rhetorically.
The importance of identity creation for Spencer cannot be overstated. It is why every black-on-white rape must be portrayed as the ravishing of all white womanhood, and every Syrian orphan who moves into an American city as the general of a colonizing army.
I asked whether I, as someone who is half-Chinese but had a classical Western education, would fit within his group, and he hedged, impishly. “I’m a generous guy,” he told me. “If you truly identify with our people, I would not have any problem with that.” But there were genetic deal breakers. “A full-blooded African, no matter how wonderful he might be—I’m not sure that would really work.”
The other German forerunner Spencer claims is Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who was, for a time, the court political philosopher of the Third Reich. Schmitt’s work has enjoyed a renaissance recently, and even liberals have found it useful, in part as a worthy oppositional philosophy that has forced them to improve their own. Spencer is hardly Schmitt’s heir. But his reading of Schmitt is fair and reasonably nuanced.
“There’s this notion of parliament as an ‘endless debate,’ ” Spencer explained over lunch. Liberalism accepts that disagreement is part of the political process, and that people who disagree profoundly can live together. But eventually, Schmitt argued, the parliamentary debate does end, and someone gets his way while someone else does not. The state’s job is to provide not the coffeehouse for the debate, but the threat of a beating to compel the loser to accept the result. “Politics is inherently brutal,” Spencer told me. “It’s nonconsensual by its very nature. The state is crystallized violence.”
To this already dangerous political philosophy Schmitt eventually added a further provocation. Given that debate, procedure, and politics all end in the same place—crystallized violence—what or whom should the violence serve? The answer, he said, is some group of close affinity. And the groups with the most full-bodied affinity, a common mythology and experience, are races. “The idea of the ethnic identity will pervade and dominate all our public law,” Schmitt wrote in 1933, and he was just getting started. Within a few years, he was defending the nearly complete annihilation of law and politics as the Führer’s prerogative as champion of the German race. In times of emergency, Schmitt argued, the leader can declare the law null (he called this a “state of exception”) and use force at will to serve the state.
The upshot of this philosophy is, in Spencer’s interpretation, to devalue the homespun truths that have united America’s political parties for decades. Good ol’ boys, neoconservatives, and liberals all honor democracy, freedom, markets, human rights, and various other abstractions. To Spencer, these are idols, and their twilight is upon us.
“Obviously, German National Socialism is not something that has any direct relationship with what I’m doing right now,” Spencer told me. That was horseshit, but I let him continue. Nazis were violent, he said, and “that is not something that I would have anything to do with. I’ve never advocated that or ever glorified that. I am a dissident intellectual. I am not in charge of the police force or the Army. I’m not ordering the roundup of anyone and throwing them into camps.”
There is the small matter of his aesthetic, starting with the famous fashy haircut. One might, with exceptional charity, attribute the haircut to a trollish desire to get his enemies worked up. But hair aside, his appropriation of Nazi tropes is relentless. In his notorious speech that ended in a roomful of fascist salutes, for instance, he referred to the mainstream media as the “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”), a Nazi-era smear against anti-Hitler media, even if Spencer flubbed the pronunciation.
More to the point, Spencer’s ideas themselves are Nazi to the core, and he knows it, even if many of his followers do not. Hitler, too, viewed politics as a struggle and disdained those who imagined it instead as cooperative. For his own race he envisioned a special destiny, like that of an apex predator, expanding its territory until it occupied the land nature intended for it. Here is Spencer, in that same “Hail Trump” speech, on the destiny of whites:
To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward … For us, it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands. And it is appropriate because within us, within the very blood in our veins as children of the sun, lies the potential for greatness.
That is the great struggle we are called to. We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet. We were meant to overcome—overcome all of it. Because that is natural and normal for us. Because for us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again.
Thwarting the competition among races, Hitler proposed in Mein Kampf, was a cavalcade of abstractions: justice, human rights, democracy, communism, capitalism. Spencer mocks these same abstractions as shibboleths of the modern age. Members of the mainstream right, he said in a December 2016 speech, “talk about global capitalism, and free markets, and the Constitution, and vague Christian values of some sort. But they never ask that question of Who are we? They never ask that question of identity.” His “Hail Trump” speech describes
the concepts that are now designated “problematic” and associated with whiteness—power, strength, beauty, agency, accomplishment. Whites do and other groups don’t … We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us, and not the other way around.
These are among the most orthodox Nazi statements ever uttered by an American public figure.
Spencer wears a permanent naughty grin, as if he is getting away with something. In a sense, he is: There are vanishingly few true Nazis in this country, and few people believe everything Spencer believes. And yet he has become a beacon to those resentful of the direction of American society and of their own lives. That grin is the grin of a man who cannot believe his luck at being a fascist just at fascism’s moment of American ascent.
The American right has had extreme fringes for some time, operating on low radio frequencies and languishing in obscurity. Perhaps the best known of these was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 as a dying wheeze of McCarthyism. But the Birchers existed to vanquish communism. Individual members were racist, but the society’s leaders tolerated blacks and Jews willing to rail against the Reds. (George Schuyler, a former official of the NAACP, was a member.) The Birchers were twisted patriots, and in their patriotism they resemble mainstream conservatives (think Clayton Williams, but also George W. Bush) much more closely than they resemble Spencer.
Spencer emerges from a darker tradition, one that sees American values as something not to restore, but to replace. His “Hail Trump” speech, even more than Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address, described a diseased America, its culture mired in “filth” and its cities “rotted.” He nodded to the Founding Fathers and the disapproval they would cast on modern America—but only to note that their ideals clash with present-day liberalism, and not to suggest that their ideals are his own.
No census of the alt-right exists. The movement, such as it is, may have come together and found public expression in part because of the internet, where its followers can amass and reinforce one another’s pathologies. But clearly a few of its claims have acquired special salience, all at once.
The world may be no more complicated now than it was in the past, but exposure to more aspects of it has proved disorienting to many Americans. Far-off wars and economies determine, or seem to determine, the fates of more and more people. Government has grown so complicated and abstract that people have come to doubt its abstractions altogether, and swap them for the comforting, visceral truths of power and identity.
Meanwhile, religion has faded. Hitchens would have said that’s for the best. But at the Christmas party, Spencer was right about religion’s power. It exerted a binding force and sense of purpose on its followers, and in its absence, the alt-right is delighted to supply values and idols all its own.
It is impossible to hear Spencer or Trump speak about the “filth” and “carnage” of America without sensing that many of their followers consider the whole American project discredited. Spencer’s is only one philosophy offering itself as an alternative. As we talked, I was frequently reminded of John Georgelas, the 33-year-old Dallasite who is now the Islamic State’s highest-ranking American. (I profiled Georgelas in the March 2017 issue of this magazine.) Both men are the only sons of wealthy north-Dallas physicians. They both bloomed late, intellectually and politically, and overcompensated by immersing themselves in books and ideas with gusto uncommon among their bourgeois demographic. Both admired Ron Paul, and both saw their home country as a broken land—and themselves as its savior.
They are also both young. Trump’s supporters skew old, but the alt-right’s warriors are Spencer’s age (he is 39) or younger. Millennials are rapidly untethering themselves from American values that until recently have been described as bedrock. The political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have noted that belief in the essential importance of living in a democracy has dropped off dramatically among the young, and support for “Army rule” has increased to one in six Americans. A generation ago it was one in 16.
Perhaps some of this disregard for the cornerstones of modern Western government can be written off as (very late) adolescent posturing. Spencer himself is aware of the hipness gap that yawns between the alt-right and liberalism, to the former’s advantage. The young are suckers for rebellion, and Spencer’s is a rebel movement. Some will age out of rebellion, but others will, like malevolent Peter Pans, refuse to grow out of the fascism of their youth.
Spencer expects many of his critics to fall in line once victory comes. “People are herdlike,” he told me. “There’s a story about a Bolshevik agitator who was always getting harassed and beaten up by a policeman in Moscow. Ten years later, the Bolshevik was in power, and the same man came into his office and literally clicked his heels: ‘Onwards with the revolution, sir!’ ”
The ambition is evident but the path to victory unclear. Spencer’s revolutionaries seem, at present, to consist largely of anonymous online activists. The alt-right has masterfully inflated itself by fielding zombie armies of Twitter accounts—just like isis does—and trolling journalists and others capable of amplifying its collective voice. The closest connection between Spencer and the White House is Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser to President Trump. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Spencer called himself a “mentor” to Miller. He told me that the two of them worked and socialized with each other as members of Duke University’s conservative union, while Miller was an undergraduate and Spencer a graduate student in intellectual history. (After receiving his master’s from the University of Chicago, Spencer studied for a doctorate at Duke, though he never earned his degree.) But Miller denies any close association between them, and he told The Washington Post that he “condemn[s]” Spencer’s “rancid ideology.”
As Spencer himself notes, Donald Trump is not a creature of the alt-right or, one suspects, of any other coherent political philosophy. He is, Spencer has said, “compromised by the perversions that define this decadent society” (so much for Spencer’s ever getting a plum ambassadorship), and he doesn’t really mind blacks and Jews, when having them around suits his purposes. I suspect that any high-ranking official in the Trump administration would be fired if discovered collaborating with Richard Spencer. (Then again, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump for national security, has allegedly associated with a far-right Hungarian group known for its Nazi ties—Gorka denies this—and he retains his office.) Some statements by Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former chief executive of his presidential campaign, harmonize with Spencer’s core claims. In 2015, when discussing the alleged overrepresentation of Asians among executives in Silicon Valley, Bannon told a guest on the satellite-radio show Breitbart News Daily that “a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” The obvious question—why wouldn’t Asians be a part of American civic society?—has an answer that Spencer is ready to provide. The guest on the podcast, who did not dissent from Bannon’s comment, was Donald Trump.
Before the election, Spencer wrote on Twitter: “Forget the polls. We have a candidate for President who’s demystifying ‘racism’ and the financial power structure.” “No matter what happens,” he continued, “I will be profoundly grateful to Donald Trump for the rest of my life.” At a Trump victory party in Washington on election night, Spencer was spotted hooting and running about giddily. He had hoped that Trump’s candidacy would be a small step toward the mainstreaming of his ideas. In a single evening, his timeline skipped a decade ahead. The long-term goal, Spencer says, is the establishment of a “post-American” white “ethno-state,” through a slow process of awakening ethnic pride and instituting government policies that reflect a new white race consciousness.
Spencer has been casing out a role for himself as a human alarm clock in this process of awakening. He told me that he wanted to be the alt-right’s William F. Buckley Jr.—an intellectual entrepreneur who patrols the ideas behind the politics, swinging the nightstick when someone from his movement gets out of line.
Buckley emerged, at an age younger than Spencer is now, as a cultural icon, the founder and editor of mid-20th-century America’s most unsubmissive journal of ideas, National Review, and later the host of its most highbrow television show, Firing Line. Buckley had a flair for theater. He injected his ideas into the public consciousness both openly and insidiously, by announcing them loudly, and by making roguish and heretical asides in otherwise sleepy moments of debate. The poison (or antidote, depending on your view) entered the bloodstream with only the slightest prick felt—but felt it was, and many a viewer came to love and hate Buckley for the thrill of intellectual disorientation. Spencer lacks this suave touch, but he tries to work a lowbrow form of the same magic, through the obnoxious, needling harassment that he and his shitlords call trolling.
“There is a value to shock,” Spencer told me. “You can open someone’s mind with something shocking: ‘I’ve never thought of that before!’ ‘I can’t believe he actually said that!’ There is something to be said for not just retreating into a bourgeois, boring version of my ideas.” Here is the kernel of truth in Spencer’s justification of his “Hail Trump” salutes as ironic, or performative. The salutes provoked sputtering rage from right-thinking people, and between sputters the enraged dropped their intellectual guard. It is hard to be enraged and analytical all at once, and many chose rage. But rage confers no defense against ideas. “Take the term ethno-state. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but ethno-state has now been used in mainstream sources!” (This article is one of them.) “That term would never be used before. They’re not necessarily original ideas to me, but they’ve never been brought to the mainstream in this way.”
On Inauguration Day, Spencer gave an interview to an Australian television station near Franklin Square in Washington, D.C., and was asked to explain his movement’s mascot, a homely cartoon frog. “It’s Pepe,” he said. “It’s become kind of a symb—” and then a masked assailant clocked him on the ear, hard enough to send him reeling off camera. Spencer’s many, many haters shared the video, gloating, and even mainstream outlets glamorized the assault by distributing remixes of the footage. I do not recall seeing Buckley assaulted on camera, although I’m sure many viewers would have enjoyed the spectacle; Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would gladly have contended in a semifinal for the privilege of coldcocking him.
I went back to see Spencer again a few days later. He had upgraded his security. The nebbishy sentinel who had caught me out by the trash cans had been replaced by another man, halfway between bodyguard and babysitter, who accompanied Spencer when he left his apartment. A new dead bolt secured the door, and a Bowie knife rested on a windowsill. There was a pistol in the kitchen.
Spencer was hit twice, once under the left eye and once on the right ear. The eye sported a shiner, and the ear was crusted with blood. Spencer said his eardrum had ruptured. “It kind of feels like when you’re flying in a plane and your ears pop,” he said. “It basically feels like that all the time.” He insisted that we order our Thai food in this time. “You saw that I got spotted even the last time we were out,” he said, referring to the black woman at lunch. “I don’t know how people will react now.”
“Am I just going to be harassed for the rest of my life? Living in Whitefish is quite difficult,” he said, due to protests. “I thought there would be a little bit of anonymity” in Alexandria. Now he could not walk around without fear.
He said he was going to change his haircut—I’d remarked that it made him stand out—but insisted that fashion was the reason. “I think the fascist haircut has peaked. Aesthetically, I think it can definitely be improved on. Maybe I’ll try a Tom Cruise, from Mission: Impossible IV.”
He sounded vulnerable, for the first time since he’d said the St. Mark’s campaign had wounded him. “I have a right as a citizen to walk the streets and not be attacked, and I have the right to be protected,” he complained.
Spencer was obviously right when he said he should not be assaulted. But we both could taste the irony in the situation. If he hadn’t caught himself, he might have started talking about his “human right” not to be brutalized with impunity. Instead he recovered, and used the irony to his advantage. “The fact that they are excusing violence against Richard Spencer inherently means that they believe that there’s a state of exception, where we can use violence,” he said. “I think they’re actually kind of right.”
“War is politics by other means and politics is war by other means,” he said. “We don’t all want the same thing. And that’s why I think there is a kind of state of war going on.”
As one who knew Spencer when we were both hapless, overprivileged adolescents, sharing a desire to transcend our origins, what interests me the most about him is his self-reinvention, the intellectual costume changes (foppish actor, grad-school blowhard, opera-director manqué, and now architect of a white utopian dream of world-historical consequence) spanning three decades. After all, it is said that one of the great advantages of America is that its daughters and sons can escape the strictures of the world in which they were raised, be unlike their forefathers. Spencer has certainly done that.
Much about his most recent and significant transformation reminds me of a 1957 Norman Mailer essay, “The White Negro,” that tried to explain trends in white culture during an age that was, in some ways, as disorienting as our own. Living in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, and having freshly returned from war, whites found their own culture anemic and soporific. They craved danger—and they found it by imitating blacks, who knew danger without craving it, and whose culture, language, and daily life were smelling salts for their own. Mailer described the sensation: “No Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk … [He knows] in the cells of his existence that life [is] war, nothing but war.” Spencer, too, is a pale imitator. He wanted danger, or thought he did, and now he has it.
Spencer must have known that the life he was choosing would get him hated and taunted. But he seemed at most half-aware that it would get him slugged in the face, and completely unaware that it might get him killed. Fifty years ago, George Lincoln Rockwell, the urbane leader of the American Nazi Party, was shot dead in the parking lot of a laundromat, just seven miles from where Spencer lives now. There must be an intellectual thrill in knowing that people might care enough to want to kill you. Spencer seemed unsure whether the thrill would remain worth the risk.
It is difficult to conceive of a path to repentance for Spencer. There is enough in his philosophy that is challenging to the modern American condition, and enough about the modern American condition that is challenging to itself, that he isn’t likely to be convinced of his error. His revolutionary movement is unlikely to succeed. But it is, I fear, authentic and durable. The shame of its indecency is felt only by those who share the country with Spencer, not by the man himself.