How did explicit racism move from a taboo to an open, unabashed force in American politics? A loose but sprawling internet army, often called the alt-right, gave white supremacy a massive megaphone. And with the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy, it suddenly seemed to be everywhere at once.
In fact, that movement had an infrastructure — organizations, journals, conferences, money — that had been laid down years before. It was in large part funded by one person: a secretive and aging multimillionaire named William H. Regnery II, the most influential racist you’ve never heard of.
Despite inheriting immense wealth, having grown up in a prominent family in the conservative movement, he had managed to chalk up virtually no public success in his first six decades of life. He never graduated from college, and he floundered in his attempt at running the family business.
But starting in 1999 — when he convened a dozen other middle-aged white nationalists at an ornate seaside hotel nicknamed the Pink Palace — he has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the quest to transform America and create what he calls a white “ethnostate.”
His traceable donations have gone chiefly to two organizations, both of which he established and led as founding president. The first was the secretive Charles Martel Society, named for a leading figure of the European Middle Ages who fought off Muslim invaders. That organization helped create the second: the innocuously named National Policy Institute, which became a nerve center of the alt-right. In 2011, Regnery hired Richard Spencer, the charismatic speaker widely credited with coining that term, to be the NPI’s president and director.
Still, for more than a decade and a half, Regnery’s investments and activism achieved no measurable results, and his dream of an America separated by race seemed destined to end as just another of his failures.
Until, that is, they were redeemed by an extraordinary historical event: the candidacy of Donald Trump. In a rare interview, Regnery reached for a word to describe the effect: “I think Trump was a legitimatizer,” he said. White nationalism “went from being conversation you could hold in a bathroom, to the front parlor.”
Suddenly, the seed money Regnery had doled out — often in small grants under $25,000 — started to show returns. The alt-right became a political force, trolling America with obscure philosophizing, pro-Trump messages, and outright racism, while Richard Spencer gave Regnery’s movement of aging white nationalists a clean-shaven, camera-ready face. Since Trump’s win, the movement has only gained prominence: A Nexis news archive search for the terms “Richard Spencer” and “alt-right” returns 1,200 results — all but 40 after the Nov. 8 presidential election.
Now, at 76, the long-ignored and rebuffed Regnery is savoring success as the alt-right commands ever more clout. “My support has produced a much greater bang for the buck than by the brothers Koch or Soros, Inc.,” Regnery boasted in a recent email to BuzzFeed News.
THE SECRETIVE MILLIONAIRE SPEAKS
As much as he cultivates influence behind the scenes, Regnery avoids a public role and almost never speaks to reporters. But he agreed to meet in his hometown of Boca Grande, where he moved from Illinois. The white nationalist benefactor now lives the life of the retired grandfather there, staying fit by biking.
Nestled on a calm island just a mile across, connected by a toll bridge to the west coast of Florida, the town of 1,700 is an enclave of understated wealth for old-money families including the Bushes, the du Ponts, and the Steinbrenners. Palm trees line the medians on Gilchrist Avenue right near the Gulf, and residents tool around in golf carts. The median home price is $1.3 million.
One steamy May morning, in the fastidiously antique, vast parlor of the century-old Gasparilla Inn, the most expensive of the handful of hotels on the island, sunlight streamed in from the outside, and giant overhead fans pushed the musty air.
Regnery sat in a cushioned wicker chair, browsing through clippings of the day’s news. Incongruously, he wore a bright yellow spandex biking shirt. When he stood to introduce himself, his hand trembled as he offered it.
“Bill,” he said, introducing himself.
He’s frail and a bit bent, with thinning white hair and bushy eyebrows, but he is still spry, and announced plans for a 15-mile bike ride as soon as the interview was over. Speaking about a wide range of subjects, he folded his legs and looked off into the distance, wearing a serious expression and avoiding eye contact. When the questions got personal, about his family, for example, or his perceived failings, he answered calmly but began clicking his ballpoint pen, in and out, in and out.
For the first quarter hour, the subject of race did not come up. Then suddenly he introduced it. “I’m not all that race conscious,” he said, brightly at first. “I say ‘vive la différence!’”
“I’m most comfortable around Europeans,” he went on, as if describing a preference for tweed suits rather than twill. But soon his preoccupation got serious: “I just like living around people with whom I’m most comfortable, and that’s white.”
Soon he corrected himself. “Yes, I’m race conscious,” he said. “In my ethnostate,” he explained, “I would exclude, as a rule of thumb, non-whites, non-Europeans, wherever, however you want to define them. So, that includes blacks. We keep getting back to blacks, but we've got to throw in Han Chinese, have to throw in Amerindians, people who are distinctly different.”
In a subsequent email, he said that even without any laws in place, the process of total segregation is further along than most people are willing to admit: “Ironically, on a sublimated basis, most white Americans — left included — vote quietly with their feet and occupy segregated neighborhoods where their children attend lily-white schools with a few Asians tossed in for verisimilitude.
Asked whether he considers Jews to be white, Regnery cocked his head and said, “That’s a good question!” Turning to “racial science,” he said that DNA shows Ashkenazi Jews are half white, while Sephardic Jews are not white at all. If he ever gets his ethnostate, he said, he might allow some Jews to live there, but not others. He joked that Paul Gottfried, one of his Jewish allies years ago, would be OK.
What would happen to those excluded from his ethnostate? He didn’t really say, nor did he truly address the underlying premise of his dream: massive violence and ethnic cleansing. This will all happen, he insisted, “by consent.”
How? It's hard to get a clear answer on that, or on any other of his remarkable positions. Both in person, where Regnery tried to deflect many questions, and even in email, a medium in which he seems more comfortable, meandering down philosophical and historical byways. In one response to a question from BuzzFeed News, Regnery wrote:
I define a man of the left as a cultural universalist and social egalitarian. I, on the other hand, am a cultural particularist and social pluralist; I applaud a variety of cultures each populated by their discrete swath of humanity. I do not support world improvers who seek dominion over others in the name of a utopian ideal. Personally, I am most comfortable not only among my tribe but more specifically with members who agree with Robert Frost that “good fences make good neighbors.”
His response went on in this vein for three more paragraphs, veering from Amish Rumspringa to “an elected denaturalization council” to Vladimir Lenin to Woodrow Wilson to John Maynard Keynes, ending with an observation of the Casablanca Conference. It was a response, ostensibly, to the question “Do you admire or sympathize with the Nazi efforts?”
NEW LIFE FOR AN OLD IDEA
“America First,” Trump announced during his campaign, “will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” It is a phrase he has deployed repeatedly and to great effect.
But 77 years ago, “America First” had another distinctive meaning: It was the name of the organization formed to prevent the US from entering World War II and battling the Nazis. One of the America First Committee’s chief financiers was Regnery’s grandfather and namesake, the first William Regnery, who was born on a farm in Iowa and became a textile magnate, banker, and philanthropist in Chicago. The face of the original America First movement was Charles Lindbergh, better known for making the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 but who earned a reputation as an anti-Semite. “Our bond with Europe is a bond of race and not of political ideology,” he said in a 1941 address.
There are no published writings by the elder William Regnery, and little record to know exactly why he financed the America First Committee. Bill Regnery, who was born in February 1941, said he has little memory of his grandfather. But Spencer told BuzzFeed News that the America First Committee is “absolutely” an intellectual and political forebear for today’s alt-right. “I agree with liberals who say that ‘America First’ line has racial connotations. I think it clearly does,” Spencer said.
After the war, in 1947, Bill’s uncle Henry launched what would become one of the longest-lasting and most influential conservative publishing houses in the country, Regnery Publishing, which went on to publish William F. Buckley and other pillars of the modern conservative movement.
His uncle also published Human Events magazine, a journal that soon became one of the standard-bearers for American conservatism. (It still exists online, where it provides a platform to the likes of the conservative provocateur Ann Coulter and the commentator and politician Pat Buchanan.) Back then, it promoted ideas such as “What Negroes and other low income groups in the big cities require is work, not more abstract ‘civil rights.’” That was in a 1965 essay arguing against raising the minimum wage to $1.75 from $1. A 1964 article about colonialism argued that that “the average African republic is about as well prepared for popular self-government as any kindergarten.“ It was titled “White Man Come Back!” Bill was weaned on this worldview: His father subscribed on his behalf to Human Events so he could read it at boarding school.
Regnery went on to study political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he joined a conservative students group called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, sometimes known as ISI. On its website, ISI says it “was there when the American conservative movement started sixty years ago.”
He was an impassioned conservative on campus. He was also clearly wealthy, one former friend remembers, and lived in his own large house in the Philadelphia suburbs. He started a conservative student magazine, called Analysis. Despite his wealth, however, Regnery never finished college. He said he was “still a couple credits short of a degree.”
One reason he didn’t graduate, he told BuzzFeed News, was politics: He became impressed with the conservative icon of the moment, Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona who memorably voted against the Civil Rights Act. Rather than finish his schoolwork, he said he joined “Citizens for Goldwater Miller” during the 1964 presidential campaign.
His most memorable effort, he claimed, was a convoluted scheme called Operation Dewdrop, intended to suppress Democratic voters in Philadelphia. At the time, he explained, the theory was that Democrats voted less in the rain. So on election day, he said, he tried to seed rain clouds by using dry ice and a twin-engine airplane. It didn’t rain, he recalled, but he burned his fingers from the dry ice canisters, a detail that helps add a ring of authenticity. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.
His grandfather’s business was built up in Illinois, and that’s where Regnery later returned for decades and raised a family.
Bill Regnery seems to have inherited little of his family’s business acumen. His cousin Frederick Meyers told BuzzFeed News that Regnery ran the family textile business — and nearly ruined it. A court noted that the business was losing money when Regnery was in charge.
“He had no idea how to run a business” and drove it into “a very dire situation,” Meyers recalled. “I was put in as president,” Meyers said, “and the thing improved rapidly and we sold it five years later. He was maybe a little bit bitter, even though that made him a lot of money.”
Alfred Regnery, the son of Henry Regnery, the famous publisher, confirmed that his cousin was ill-suited for a career in business: “That was the consensus in the family.”
Regnery said the company was already losing money when he stepped in, and he ran it for only 15 months. It got “back in the black” within half a year after he left, he said, a success he and a manager he hired, Jim McCrary, attributed to measures taken under Regnery’s leadership. Meyers, Regnery said, had an ax to grind because he lost a lawsuit Regnery and other family members brought against him.
Regnery had few public accomplishments and published no writings BuzzFeed News could discover, and gave few hints about his support of white nationalism. Asked what he did during this period, he replied, via email, “The next 30 years were devoted to business and family. I never looked back.”
But it was during this time, he said, that he reached a turning point on race. In 1993, in a hotel conference room in downtown Chicago, he watched a speech in which the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman declared that the West had won the Cold War. “‘We have won. The West has prevailed,’” Regnery recalled the speaker saying.
Such confidence seemed false, he said, and sparked in him a surge of outrage. “I looked around and said, ‘I’ve got to leave this building,’” he recalled. “I just said, ‘This is wrong. That’s wrong.’”
It was that experience, he said, that set him on the course of total racial segregation.
Asked repeatedly how that seemingly ordinary speech could affect him so deeply, Regnery finally wrote in an email, “Against this ebullient optimism I saw nascent political correctness stifling debate, unrestricted immigration changing the demographics of the country, affirmative action penalizing whites and open housing curtailing freedom of association.”
The change didn’t come all at once. During the Clinton years, “I marinated,” he said. But he increasingly saw the conservative heritage of his uncle, and of authors like William Buckley, as a betrayal. They had accommodated political correctness and embraced things such as free markets, military intervention overseas, and support for Israel. So, as he approached 60 years old, having made little mark upon the world, he started “collecting” people, as he put it, of like mind.
BUILDING A WHITE NATIONALIST EMPIRE
He called up Jared Taylor, founder of the American Renaissance magazine, which regularly publishes stories about black and immigrant crime and once argued that black people “are more psychopathic than whites.” Taylor had already convened conferences of other white nationalists. Regnery headed down to Kentucky to see him. He sought out Sam Francis, a one-time Washington Times columnist who went on to become chairman of an anti-immigration organization, and Sam Dickson, the Atlanta-based attorney who made his name defending members of the Ku Klux Klan.
He invited them and roughly 10 others in December 1999 to a lavish, Gatsby-era Florida resort, the Don CeSar, better known as the Pink Palace for its rose-colored towers and archways. Regnery had prepared a grandiose opening speech titled “For Our Children's Children.” Warning of an ominous future — “generation by generation our kind will be winnowed out” — he closed with a vision of the North American population carved up “along racial, cultural, and social lines.”
“I am for the United States ceding territory” to create smaller countries “that are indivisible by reason of race, religion, or mutual interests,” he declared. “I charge the participants of this conference with the sacred task of beginning to secure for our children’s children a proper home.”
He led the way, playing a crucial role in the 2001 launch of the Charles Martel Society, which describes itself as “the intellectual home of Western Nationalism.” Regnery never had formal criteria for which groups the organization should fund, he said; he simply knows what he likes. Regnery himself signed the Charles Martel Society’s initial tax form, and entirely covered the first year’s budget of $48,000.
People affiliated with the Charles Martel Society instantly clam up about it when asked. Taylor initially said, “I don’t know about the Charles Martel Society.” Later, when reminded that he is listed on the organization’s paperwork as a founding member, he said, “My association with it is so old I don’t think I can talk about it.”
Richard Spencer, asked about it over lunch, abruptly changed the subject: “Excellent meal,” he exclaimed.
“It’s a secret society,” explained Kevin MacDonald, the only member who would discuss it. Only the board is public, as required by law, he said. MacDonald, who is a well known white nationalist academic, writes frequently about Jews and says that they have a “desire for the end of Europe as a Christian civilization with its traditional ethnic base.” He is a retired professor at California State University at Long Beach. The Charles Martel Society members, he said, are bound by nondisclosure agreements: “You have to sign a paper saying you will not divulge any information. If you did it, you’d be thwarted by a lawsuit.”
But one thing that MacDonald was happy to divulge: the group’s racist precepts. “From the beginning,” he said, “we stressed you had to be on board about race and you have to be on board about Jewish influence.” Taylor, he said, is an outlier at the Society meetings because he believes Jews are white and should be accepted.
Regnery himself insists that the Charles Martel Society is not actually secret but “private” and “confidential.” The Society publishes Occidental Observer, a magazine that describes itself as covering “White Identity, Interests and Culture.” It also publishes the academic-sounding journal Occidental Quarterly, which featured Regnery’s “For Our Children’s Children” speech in its first issue and has articles such as “The Case for Eugenics in a Nutshell.”
In 2005, Regnery and a group of his close associates launched a white separatist think tank, the National Policy Institute.
NPI started with $596,000, according to its initial tax filings, $380,000 of which came from the Charles Martel Society. Regnery told BuzzFeed News that about half the money for NPI came from him, and that the rest came from “matching” grants.
Its very first press release, in December 2005, was a call for the deportation of all illegal immigrants. Back then, it fell on deaf ears.
Soon, Regnery met a young man named Richard Spencer, who then worked at the American Conservative magazine. Other than coming from a privileged background, Spencer seemed everything Regnery wasn’t: academically successful, publicity-hungry, and youthful. The two men hit it off. At that time, Regnery together with his friend Gottfried, the right-wing author, helped set up a group called the Academy of Philosophy and Letters. Spencer, too, was an early member. But their obsession with race soon put them at odds with the organization they had helped build. Spurned by the academy, Spencer, Regnery, and Gottfried established a new group called The Mencken Club.
That was the place where the phrase “alternative right” was first used, according to Regnery, Spencer, and Gottfried. Spencer used it to title a speech by Gottfried: “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right.”
In 2010, Regnery asked Spencer to find candidates to lead the organization. Spencer suggested himself.
At the time, leading such an explicitly racist organization carried great risks for someone with political ambitions. “I felt he was too accomplished and had too bright a career in the offing to accept a position that would forever brand him with the mark of Cain,” Regnery said. “I remember spending time gently trying to talk him out of the idea.” But he took the job, and in a speech last year Regnery said that putting Spencer in charge of NPI “secured my place in history.”
Indeed, Spencer got the group off to an energetic start. He set up a website called AlternativeRight.com and launched RadixJournal.com, where authors have recently argued that “this planet, mankind, and European man would all be better off with less and better humans” and pondered whether the reboot of Gilmore Girls depicts “the death of White America.”
Within a year, NPI held a press conference at the National Press Club, on the subject of “The Majority Strategy: Why the GOP Must Win White America for Victory in 2012.”
Regnery said he can’t remember how much money he’s contributed to the movement, and there is no way for others to track all his personal donations to political groups. But those that he made through family charities and other tax-exempt organizations that he controls or influences total $580,000 since 2001.
That’s a pittance next to the philanthropists Regnery has compared himself to. The Koch brothers were able to pledge $889 million to candidates for the 2016 election, from their own money and other donors, and Greenpeace has said the Kochs spent $100 million between 1997 and 2015 on groups that deny climate change. Meanwhile, Soros has given away about $14 billion to his philanthropic efforts over the past three decades through his constellation of international foundations. But in the small pond of white nationalists, $585,000 is “a ton of money to be spending on these efforts,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group that tracks hate groups and other extremists. (The organization has drawn the ire of the far right and even mainstream academics because of concerns that its characterization of hate groups can sometimes be unfair and capricious.) “The amount of money Regnery has given is far and away ahead of anyone else.”
HIS WHITE NATIONALIST EFFORTS FAIL
Regnery seems surprised that, until the rise of Trump, he was repeatedly rebuffed or ridiculed for his racist views. Take his 2004 suggestion for a white dating site, which he said was inspired by JDate, a Jewish dating service, but which was lambasted in the press.
His cousin Alfred rolled his eyes when he recalled it and said Bill Regnery was a source of embarrassment for the family. He said his father Henry, the conservative publishing giant, “would just dismiss what Bill would say without any comment. He would have said this is complete nonsense and it is not even worth talking about.”
In 2006, Regnery was ignominiously voted off the board of ISI, the conservative student association he and his family had been affiliated with for decades. “It’s hard enough in this world without having a board member who is obviously racist,” said Alfred, who abstained from the vote. “He blames me,” Alfred added. “I don’t think I’ve talked to him since then.”
When that episode came up during the interview in Boca Grande, Regnery began clicking his pen open and shut rapidly. He had been part of ISI for decades, he said, and had never discussed the issue with his cousin Alfred.
One of NPI’s major efforts has been to produce academic-sounding documents. In 2007, it produced a report called The State of White America. “The past 53 years have not been kind to white America,” the report begins. “And as white America goes, so goes America.”
It offers white supremacy as the way to help people of color: “it will only be via reassertion of white prerogatives, that the social order which once helped so many blacks and Hispanics to overcome their ‘communities’ and once redeemed those communities from their baser instincts, that black and Hispanic Americans will be able to enjoy the fruits of American civilization.”
To Regnery’s frustration, these pronouncements, as authoritative as they might sound, had little apparent impact. NPI kept publishing articles, but the mainstream media rarely if ever picked them up, and America wasn’t getting any closer to mandated ethnostates.
A final insult came when Spencer and Regnery, through the National Policy Institute, tried to arrange a right-wing conference in Hungary in October 2014. Soon after stepping off the British Airways plane, Regnery was detained by Hungarian immigration officials. “We were accused of being Nazis,” he said. It was a rude awakening for a 73-year-old multimillionaire, accustomed as he was to living in luxury. He was held overnight in a detention area, like a common immigrant.
HISTORY CATCHES UP
Trump’s entry into the Republican presidential primary in June 2015 began with a speech audaciously promising to end Islamist terrorism and decrying illegal immigration. Trump said that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”
Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and his proposal to build a wall to deter Latino immigrants appealed to the organizations Regnery had been funding — and to a broader audience of white people unsettled by America’s changing demographics and by the first black president.
White nationalists such as Taylor made robocalls for Trump before the Iowa caucuses. “We don't need Muslims,” Taylor said in the recorded message. “We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture.” Despite the significant media attention that message attracted, neither Trump nor his campaign did anything to repudiate it.
Spencer offered his enthusiastic support for Trump in a video released the day after Trump won the New Hampshire primary. “Trump’s an important phenomenon because he expressed a kind of nationalism,” he said. He called Trump “an icebreaker” in “bringing forth this kind of nationalism.”
As for Regnery, Trump inspired him to cast a ballot for the first time in a half century. “I tell people I voted twice for president,” Regnery said. “The first time for Barry Goldwater and the second time for Donald Trump.”
Since the election, the alt-right has fractured, with many popular figures in the pro-Trump internet, such as Mike Cernovich, disowning the label because of its white nationalist connotations. But the racist movement that grew from Spencer’s and Regnery’s efforts continues to wield considerable influence in American culture.
“It’s hard to imagine the last political cycle without the alt-right there,” Beirich said. “It provided a constituency for Trump and Trump paid them back in kind. Now some of their ideas are becoming policy.” And some of their leaders now hold important public positions — most notably Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist who used to run Breitbart News, which he described as “the platform for the alt-right.”
Spencer, too, has emerged as a powerful figure on the national stage. To take just one measure, since Election Day he has been profiled extensively, by former classmates in The Atlantic and The Point magazines, by the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, by the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Telegraph in London. He has essentially given Regnery’s movement of aging malcontents a fresh face. New York magazine even took care to note how often his media profiles have fixated on his fastidious fashion choices.
After the election, he created a scandal during an NPI conference by making what appeared to be a Nazi salute and calling out “Hail Trump.” At the time, Trump told the New York Times, “I don't want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”
But some observers still see a connection, at least on the level of political philosophy. “I would say that Trump’s vision of America has been narrowed to focus on and to reflect the ideas of Bannon and Regnery,” said Chip Berlet, a journalist and historian of extreme right-wing movements in the United States.
MacDonald, the Occidental Quarterly publisher who churns out academic-sounding tracts, says the credit all goes back to Regnery, without whom there would have been no Charles Martel Society, no Occidental Quarterly, and no Washington Summit Publishers, a publishing house run by Spencer that specializes in white nationalist and far-right books. And there would have been no National Policy Institute, the institutional home of the alt-right — “of course not,” Spencer agrees. Without those organizations, the alt-right as we know it might not have come into being, and the racialized politics it broadcasts might never have found such a powerful megaphone.
Regnery himself is understated in describing his role in the birth of a movement. “I wouldn’t say proud, but it’s an expression of attitude that has blossomed in the last 10 years, 12 years.” he says. “I had a hand in it.”
Asked if that expression of attitude has been destructive, he thinks, then replies, “Yeah, but destructive — you know how it is — creative destruction.” ●