The Rise of the ‘Alt-Right’

Richard Spencer, the part-time Whitefish resident who helped raise the profile of the white separatist movement, celebrates Trump’s election and the subsequent wave of attention

By Tristan Scott
Richard Spencer. Beacon File Photo

On the same day in November that Whitefish resident Richard Spencer took to the airwaves touting his controversial vision of a white ethno-state on National Public Radio and The Daily Show, the social-media nerve chamber Twitter suspended his verified account, as well as those belonging to other prominent members of the so-called “alt-right” movement that Spencer is credited with invigorating.

Twitter’s move to block the accounts coincides with a groundswell of attention centered on Spencer, 38, the founder of the aseptically named think-tank National Policy Institute, and on other white nationalist leaders whose platforms have been criticized as racist but are buoyed by the ascendancy of President-elect Donald Trump. It also removed a support leg that has long served to prop up the alt-right, which eagerly adopted Twitter as an unfettered tool of choice for promoting its extreme views about race and white separatism.

The decision to ban alt-right ringleaders from the Twitter-sphere was reported one day after the site announced new policies on harassment and abuse, and elicited outrage from Spencer, who decried its “censorship” as “corporate Stalinism,” insisting he had neither engaged in harassment nor abuse. But its effect on quieting the alt-right remains unclear as key figures in the movement reassume their social media presence on alternative sites while they look for potential surrogates in a Trump cabinet.

The alt-right, a term Spencer says he coined, has seized on two core issues that the Trump team espouses — a fundamental opposition to immigration and a penchant for eschewing political correctness and customs. Establishing a deeper connection, meanwhile, is Trump’s selection of Stephen Bannon as his senior adviser and chief strategist, positioning the former head of Breitbart News, perhaps the alt-right’s most prominent platform, just footsteps from the Oval Office.

“It’s like a dream,” Spencer said in a recent telephone interview with the Beacon from his current post in Washington, D.C., where he headlined a Nov. 19 alt-right conference titled, “Become Who We Are,” at the Ronald Reagan federal building blocks from the White House. “We have taken our message so far and made white identity politics part of the national conversation. I’m euphoric, obviously.”

Following the conference, Trump’s transition team released a statement, saying, “President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind and he was elected to be a leader for every American. To think otherwise is a complete misrepresentation of the movement that united Americans from all backgrounds.”

But in hitching its racist brand of ideology to Trump, Spencer has supplied the alt-right’s booster fuel to propel a once-marginalized movement out of obscurity and into the mainstream.

The sheer volume of media attention recently paid to Spencer — profiles have sprung up in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Mother Jones, and almost every other major media outlet — is evidence that his alt-right agenda has moved away from the fringes and is coming to bear on the prevailing current of thought, even as most mainstream media couches its coverage in caveats (NPR interrupted its Spencer interview with warnings that his views were extreme, and ran a lengthy follow-up segment dedicated to listeners’ concerns that the coverage only further emboldened his platform).

Even if the movement has gained momentum, its trajectory could be short lived, critics say, and its rise to prominence is sharply denounced by human rights advocates who predicted and warned against the fringe’s foray into mainstream politics in the current social climate.

Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, has made it her mission to expose groups and individuals attempting to legitimize traditional white separatist activity by reinventing their image in a more toothsome format.

And as Spencer’s polished version of white nationalism gains purchase in mainstream channels, Rivas cautioned against normalizing an extreme agenda of “racism,” noting that the views are rejected by the majority of the American public.

“This is exactly what we have been warning against, and I think that we are seeing the realization of our fear as those extremist ideas make their way into the mainstream political sphere,” she said. “This makes my work harder because how do we call out a white-supremacist organization when all of a sudden it is institutional? It has actual policy implications, and it is hidden in plain sight.”

Rivas placed much of the blame squarely on the Republican Party, which she said failed to openly reject the alt-right’s ideas early on, and in doing so invited its members into their establishment fold.

Until Trump’s candidacy, Spencer said he had given up hope that the GOP could serve as an incubator for his message, having long ago grown disenchanted with the party’s entrenched traditions and tenets.

But as president-elect, Trump’s platform includes promises to jail or deport between 2 million and 3 million illegal immigrants, whom he described as criminals, while as a candidate he suggested deporting as many as 11 million people.

And if previous operatives in the GOP weren’t listening, “now we at least seem to be on the same page,” Spencer said. “Donald Trump is not me, but Donald Trump is on the same page. Stephen Bannon is on the same page.”

Spencer divides his time between his office in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and his home in Whitefish, where his presence has sparked outcry from concerned residents and, in 2014, prompted a proposed municipal ordinance to ban hate-related activities in the community.

In an interview, Spencer boasted about how he predicted Trump’s Election Day victory on Twitter, but he acknowledged that he privately viewed it as a “long shot.”

Still, even if Trump lost, Spencer said his candidacy alone had elevated the alt-right, and he was “prepared to spin it in a very positive way.”

“I have been gaming everyone, but I never imagined that Donald Trump would come along, to be honest,” Spencer said. “I think it’s due in part to my ability to break through into the mainstream media, and, granted, almost all of the coverage is critical, (but) people are still talking about the idea of the ethno-state. Of course they are against it, but they are actually talking about it.”

The ideals of Spencer’s vision could not diverge more radically from those of Martin Luther King, Jr., the celebrated civil rights leader who famously called for an end to racism in the United States. That the conversation about race relations has again risen to the fore is troubling for civil rights activist and Whitefish Rabbi Allen Secher, who was among 16 reform rabbis who answered King’s entreaty in June 1964, marching through segregated neighborhoods in St. Augustine, Florida, to assist in efforts to end segregation.

Today, Secher is wary of spreading fear in a cultural climate that reacts quickly to the threat of terror and violence, but he is horrified by the prospect of reversing the social progress he fought to achieve.

“I fear that greatly. And I am not hiding under my bed. If I battled 50 years ago, I am still battling today, and I have every expectation of continuing the fight,” Secher said.

Spencer has been spending the majority of his time in Arlington, Virginia, and while he has no intention of leaving Whitefish permanently, he said he’s not trying to promote his agenda here, describing his goals as loftier than a local ethno-state.

“I get why a lot of people were angry two years ago, and I have lived up to my promise not to make political hay in Whitefish,” he said. “That being said, I am not going to fully abandon Whitefish. I do have some roots there. I feel like we have reached a sort of détente.”