The media's astonishing fixation on a tiny band of white nationalists
The other day I looked up and saw a former co-worker on CNN. He was shouting "Hail Trump… Hail victory!" and receiving the stiff-armed Nazi salute from some of his racist friends. It was Richard Spencer, who was holding the latest of many recent conferences for his white nationalist pals in Washington, D.C.
This one attracted by far the most attention, because Spencer had successfully attached himself and his "alt-right" movement to the cause of Donald Trump — at least in the media's eyes. In this Spencer was helped by one of Trump's most senior advisers, Breitbart boss Steve Bannon, who said that his populist web portal was a platform for "alt-right" views, by which Bannon seems to have meant the larger constellation of right-wing populists and trolls, and not straight-up Nazis.
At the conference, Spencer gave a valedictory speech cheering the success of his movement and its ability to land on the front page of USA Today. But really, Spencer has been inescapable all year.
The sheer tonnage of media attention given to him is astonishing. Spencer has been featured in major profiles in Mother Jones, Huffington Post, BBC, BuzzFeed, and NPR. And there are more coming every day: The Washington Post and Vice and another one in Mother Jones. The Atlantic promises a documentary on him next month.
For decades, popular entertainment and late-night basic cable documentaries portrayed white nationalism as the province of subliterate Reich-y cosplayers, shouting "White power!" in some sheltered wood, waiting for one of the deep cover FBI agents among them to effect their arrest. These are not people who take media requests.
Richard Spencer is not like this. And the profiles linked above often portray his story as a kind of glamorously sinister rise from internet obscurity to potential influencer over the Trump administration. It's a story that journalists are excited to produce, and that Americans apparently love to read.
Almost a decade ago, Spencer and I worked together at The American Conservative for a little under one year. At the time he was making a go at being a paleoconservaitve, a term that distinguished conservatives who were against the Iraq war from the pro-war "neoconservatives." He had attracted our attention with a talk about the faculty at Duke during the lacrosse team's rape scandal, which became an article. Spencer had a strong affinity with an occasional contributor, the academic Paul Gottfried. But gradually the editors began to understand where Spencer's interest in Freidrich Nietzsche and the Nouvelle Droite were leading him, and they parted ways. The "paleo" term is now a pejorative when Spencer utters it. We were friendly then, and we've exchanged a few emails in the years since, but we mostly stay out of each other's way, in the mutual belief that the other is working toward a political and moral dead end.
Spencer's recent notoriety is lamentable, for a few reasons. But chief among them is that the journalism that aims to cover or even expose Spencer is so often witless, and ultimately plays into his hands.
Perhaps in their effort to make the story more compelling, most journalists spend time ruminating about how "presentable" he is or how charismatic his followers find him. One profile began with the sentence, "Richard Spencer uses chopsticks to deftly pluck slivers of togarashi-crusted ahi from a rectangular plate." Gawping at the way someone holds their chopsticks is the sort of minuscule color detail that is used to fill out celebrity puff pieces when the ingénue limits the interview to 15 minutes. Some profiles have tried to catch him out for having dated non-white women. They highlight the most outrageous things he says, but give him lots of time to give them quotes that sound moderate in tone but convey a radical meaning. The effect of so much coverage makes him seem much more influential than he is, and allows him to dramatize himself as standing against an enormous tidal wave of attention that would wash away and drown a lesser man.
The coverage of Spencer also misses the kind of ideological tricks at work in his movement. Any word used to disempower someone — like "queer" — can swiftly be transformed into the banner under which those people march, and in which they find a a more articulated and newly expressive political identity. Spencer is trying to do the same thing to the word "white." In his speeches, Spencer even calls attention to the kind of jujitsu he is performing with the left's discourse. Voices on the left demand that whites become conscious of the historic sins of European civilization. Spencer says fine, let's focus even more on the achievements of European civilization. The left asks that whites become conscious of their unearned privilege, which sounds like a prelude to reducing their material advantage or inducing a psychological state of guilt. Spencer turns that around and suggests that maybe what they call your privilege is a birthright that you ought to embrace.
He is also riding on a wave of global inequality. Much has been written about how the new wave of nationalism exists because working-class populations have seen their standing diminish not just materially, but also socially. Spencer's more radical form of white ethnonationalism anticipates that the integration of the world economy will mean the further internationalization of politics. As the population of Europeans and their descendants shrinks in relation to the rest of the world, Spencer puts himself in the vanguard for explaining why Europeans retain material advantages. He is preparing to attribute to their genius what will otherwise be attributed to malice or neocolonialism. His dream is to tell the upwardly mobile white progressive that he and his fellow racialists are the only allies they have in preserving the SWPL lifestyle of artisan coffee, civilized NPR newscasts, and upper-middlebrow taste in movies.
Clearly Spencer brings more energy and organization to his racialist cause, along with a greater willingness to reach across the ocean to find speakers and sympathizers. He is adept at tying his ideas to great global trends, giving the impression of inevitability. But in all, the great coming-out party of his last conference attracted as many members of the media as actual participants. The speakers at his conferences are often men who have been giving talks to other racists in small hotel ballrooms for decades, people like Jared Taylor, who holds his own American Renaissance conference annually. Or Kevin MacDonald, who published his anti-Semitic books 15 years ago. The great impression of "newness" and unprecedented vigor has been created by a cast of racist internet trolls who left their message boards and began campaigns of targeted harassment of journalists on Twitter. These journalists naturally publicized the phenomenon. But we have little idea exactly how many people really are out there, or how many of these are sock-puppet accounts. Is Spencerian white nationalism inevitably on the rise? The case is unproven.
The coverage of these radicals rarely recognized what creates the real danger they can pose, which is that mainstream parties and factions just surrender issues of real concern to the extremists. This was the same problem that so many political and media actors had in dealing with Trump. Trump would take an extreme position on immigration, and his opponents would either cease discussing it, or give the impression that talking about the issue at all was now taboo, because the issue now belonged to the insurgent force.
Repeating this error allows radicals to colonize politics. And Spencer is very adept at rhetorically pushing his enemies to defend the barest, most uninspiring vision of society as merely a free market's drive to efficiency, and the state's drive to manage people into more egalitarian attitudes and arrangements. In the speech that ended with his fascist flourish, Spencer talked about more issues than the creative power to be found in longing for some kind of whites-only ethnostate. He spoke about immigration control, of course. But also the difficulty many Americans have in achieving what used to be the American dream, forming a family and buying a home on the purchasing power of one wage. He articulated longstanding conservative and liberal critiques on the ineffectiveness of the modern American state in delivering services to people, like health care. He echoed new urbanist ideas about the necessity for beautiful public spaces. He draws on Romanticism's dim view of commercial society because it does not imbue people with heroic ideals or meaning. He borrowed left-wing critiques of the surveillance state, saying that Trump's proposed "Muslim registry" already exists in the no-fly list. He took his critique of American foreign policy from the paleo-conservatism he has since outgrown.
The idea that Spencer's vision of a cracker-utopia will generate the answers to all these problems is absurd on its face. Only by falling utterly silent on them or stubbornly defending a system in desperate need of reform does he begin to look credible.