Reporters Notebook: America’s alt-right champion credits Trump with movement’s revival
Extremist groups are surfing US president’s nationalist wave
White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) speaks to select media in his home office on August 14th, 2017, in Alexandria, Virginia. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Standing in front of a portrait of George Washington at the White House on Monday, Donald Trump finally denounced the hate groups that had rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Racism is evil,” the president declared.
It was a long-awaited denunciation for many Americans, including some of the president’s own supporters. But not everyone.
“He sounded like a Sunday school teacher,” lamented Richard Spencer. “I just didn’t take him seriously. It just sounded so hollowed and vapid.”
Mr Spencer, 39, is one of the co-creators of the alt-right, the neo-nazi movement that has helped spur a public resurgence of far-right ideology in the US to troubling ends. A graduate of the University of Virginia himself, the activist was one of the featured guests at the Charlottesville event, where chanted slogans included “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” a slogan associated with the Nazi Germany.
On Monday, he was back in Washington and ready to address the media from the downtown Sofitel – just steps away from the White House. However, when word of the location leaked out to the public, the meeting was shifted to the Willard Hotel. Those details were also leaked and eventually Mr Spencer was forced to move the meeting to a third location: his home office in Alexandria, Virginia.
A small group of reporters squeezed themselves next to the kitchenette – a rendition of Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps on one wall, and a James Bond poster on the other. For the occasion, Mr Spencer was wearing a blue suit jacket, charcoal pants and black shoes adorned with buckles. At about 4pm, Mr Spencer took a swig of whiskey from a glass tumbler and began.
“What happened in Charlottesville this weekend was absolutely unacceptable and it was undeniably tragic as well. It is the kind of thing that no one wants to repeat.”
“That said,” he added, “we really need to look at a) responsibility for what happened. We need to look seriously at that. And we need to get beyond a kind of vague happy talk about how, oh, racism caused this, or something. We need to look at who is truly responsible for policing the city of Charlottesville.”
The torch-lit rally staged on Friday night by the alt-right groups in Charlottesville, which conjured up visions of the Ku Klux Klan, had been “absolutely beautiful and magical and mystical”, he insisted. “The idea that the KKK has a monopoly on torches is just not the case.”
He and other members of his group had not intended the protest to turn violent, he claimed.
The clashes, which led to the deaths of two policemen and a woman, have raised questions about the alt-right’s growing popularity and the extent to which Mr Trump has fanned the movement.
By Mr Spencer’s account, the president is not “an ally of the alt-right”. But he acknowledges that his movement would not be where it is today were it not for the president.
“Donald Trump is not an identitarian,” he said, using a word white nationalists use to describe themselves. “But we were connected with Donald Trump on this kind of psychic level,” Mr Spencer says. “He was the first true authentic nationalist in my lifetime . . . We rode that wave.”
He dismissed the president’s Monday statement at the White House as “Kumbaya nonsense”. But other developments were more positive, Mr Spencer said.
He applauded White House aide Stephen Miller for standing up to a reporter during an exchange on immigration, and Mr Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon for being “open to ideas that are outside the conservative bailiwick”.
Also positive from Mr Spencer’s perspective was a series of presidential tweets on Monday evening that appeared to undermine his earlier remarks with a swipe at the “truly bad” media.
Mr Spencer, meanwhile, says he has felt emboldened by the events in Charlottesville and the response it has generated. “Am I going to stop?” he asked. “No, I’m going to double down.” It was an ominous reminder that there are likely to be more events like Charlottesville to come.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017