WASHINGTON — The white nationalist alt-right movement, once the very definition of fringe politics, is facing a truly unexpected scenario: Their preferred candidate is about to be in the White House.
To capitalize on this turn of events, alt-right leaders held a press conference on Saturday at the gathering of the National Policy Institute, the white nationalist think tank headed by Richard Spencer. The event was held in the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, and attracted vigorous protests outside.
Spencer appeared onstage with VDare’s Peter Brimelow, anti-Semitic writer Kevin MacDonald, Arktos editor Jason Jorjani, and American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor. More than two dozen reporters were in attendance, a stark shift from previous alt-right gatherings that attracted fewer. Behind the press conference, the rest of the NPI attendees gathered to watch, at times booing and jeering the reporters when they asked questions. The audience was nearly all young, white, and male, with some sporting Make America Great Again hats and many displaying the “fashy” cropped-sides haircut common to the movement.
The alt-right, Spencer said, had before the election been like a “head without a body,” trapped in internal conversations and debates.
“The Trump movement was a kind of body without a head,” Spencer said, saying that Trump’s campaign had been “half-baked” on policy despite having the right instincts on foreign policy and immigration. “I think moving forward the alt-right as an intellectual vanguard can complete Trump.” Spencer, who can take credit for coining the name of the movement, believes the alt-right has a “psychic connection” with Trump in a way they do not with other Republicans. Indeed, the very name of the alt-right indicates its wish to disassociate itself from the wider right: An important part of its project is to challenge and dismantle the conservative movement.
Spencer and the others are careful not to identify Trump himself as alt-right, nor his campaign CEO and soon-to-be White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. The alt-right leaders are aware of their political radioactivity and seek to not harm Trump by linking arms too firmly with him. "I don't think Steve Bannon is alt-right as I would define the term,” Spencer said, saying Bannon has no direct connection to the movement but that “I think a few of us have shaken his hand” and that there is “common ground” between the beliefs of Bannon and those of the alt-right.
Bannon has described Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right,” and under his watch, the site evolved to embrace alt-right ideologies. Spencer said he 90% agreed with Bannon’s assessment but doesn’t think Breibart itself is alt-right per se.
“It’s clearly moved away from the conservative movement, it was pro-Trump and it was also a site that tons of people on the alt-right like, they get their news from, they share,” Spencer said.
Now that Trump has won, the alt-right must grapple with policy in real-world terms. NPI plans to start putting out policy papers as recommendations for the Trump administration going forward (regardless of whether these specific plans will ever have audience in the White House); the first, out now, is called “Beyond NATO.” One proposal by Spencer is to institute a 50-year freeze on net immigration. He also spoke approvingly of Ivanka Trump’s federally sponsored maternity leave proposals, and of the choice of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Spencer told me later that he’s also proposing a “less is more” idea in which there is less college attendance and college is reserved for a “cognitive elite,” and a “greatness agenda” involving wildlife conservation.
The alt-right’s willingness to push the boundaries of left vs. right gives it common ground with European ethno-nationalist movements, a fact Spencer acknowledged during the press conference, saying, “I would say that many people here have been influenced pretty profoundly by the European new right.” His co-panelist Jorjani’s website, Arktos, translates works of the European movement into English.
Spencer has emerged alongside Brimelow and Taylor in particular as the public face of the movement as it gained notoriety during the election cycle. A sardonic man with a fondness for three-piece suits, Spencer clearly relishes the attention, and told me afterward how much fun he’d found the press conference to be. He says he’s beginning to be recognized in public; someone came up to him on the T in Boston and told him, “God bless you, Mr. Spencer,” he said.
But even if some of the leaders crave the limelight as they bask in Trump’s glow, many of the alt-right rank and file are still wary of public attention. Spencer gave a warning to the media before the press conference to not film attendees without their permission. The alt-right is generally hostile towards the media — a term that’s currently in vogue is “lügenpresse,” an old term used by the Nazis meaning “lying press. Alt-right Twitter trolls have aggressively attacked journalists, particularly Jewish ones, for the entire election cycle. (Last week, Twitter cracked down and banned several alt-right accounts, including Spencer’s.)
Many in the movement use a nom de guerre at these events for fear of being doxxed. I spoke with a 23-year-old who goes by Ajax and who was wearing a pin that he said signified his membership with Identity Evropa, a group that he said organizes direct actions based around white identity. These actions include giving out flyers.
“We understand identity groups broadly like BLM, and to a lesser extent Zionism, on the level that most liberals and conservatives never will be able to because we recognize what it’s like to be completely uprooted and be without an identity and feel alienated from society at large,” Ajax said.
A frequent criticism of the term alt-right, and particularly of the media’s use of the term, is that it is a kind of euphemism: an attempt to elide the movement’s focus on white nationalism and preoccupation with race.
Speaking from the stage on Saturday, Taylor denied that the use of the term is an attempt to sanitize the movement’s true beliefs.
“The suggestion in your question is that this is some kind of attempt to hide the ball,” Taylor said. “To pretend that we are not who we are. No one is guilty of that. We are as straightforward as any movement I can imagine.”