Just two weeks after Hillary Clinton delivered her August speech decrying Donald Trump's ties to "an emerging racist ideology known as the 'Alt-Right,'" the Alt-Right movement's leaders host a press conference – a coming-out party of sorts – at Washington, D.C.'s tony Willard Hotel. Sponsored by the National Policy Institute, a small non-profit "dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States," the conference prominently features the institute's president, Richard Spencer, a trim and tidily dressed 38-year-old with grandiose ambitions to usher in a white "ethno-state." Spencer is joined by two older compatriots: Jared Taylor, the founder of the website American Renaissance, which promotes faux science claiming that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, and Peter Brimelow, who once wrote for Forbes and National Review before founding VDare, an anti-immigrant site named after Virginia Dare, who is said to be the first British child born in the American colonies. The trio spends two hours holding forth on the Alt-Right's core beliefs and its growing notoriety in the age of Donald Trump.
"We want something heroic. We want something that is not defined by liberalism, or individual rights, or bourgeois norms. We want something that is truly European and truly heroic," Spencer says at the podium. "That is fundamentally what the Alt-Right is about." Race, he says, "is real. Race matters, and race is the foundation of identity."
The Alt-Right prides itself on its leaderless ethos, using social media to spread its ideology through viral memes and anonymous attacks on its enemies, real and imagined. But Spencer coined the term Alt-Right, back in 2010, and has since positioned himself as the movement's leading intellectual and most visible spokesman.
Post-conference, Spencer invites a cluster of journalists and Alt-Right fans for drinks at the staid hotel, where he relishes being the center of attention.
Spencer says he guesses women comprise only about a fifth of the Alt-Right – an imbalance that's obvious at the gathering, where there appears to be only one female follower amid the dozen or so men who cycle in and out.
No matter. Spencer tends to see women as manipulative figures who are best when submitting to Alt-Right virility. Women, he tweeted during the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump, "should never be allowed to make foreign policy. It's not that they're 'weak.' To the contrary, their vindictiveness knows no bounds." Over drinks, he suggests that most women secretly crave Alt-Right boyfriends because they want "alpha genes" and "alpha sperm." When a man by the bar suggests someone should write a novel about "a liberal feminist studies major falling in love with a Richard Spencer type," Spencer suggests I write it.
More recently, in a podcast recorded after the exposure of the so-called Trump tape, Spencer scoffed at the "puritanical" criticism of Trump, saying it's "ridiculous" to call what Trump was talking about sexual assault. "At some part of every woman's soul," he said, "they want to be taken by a strong man." Pointing to how Trump said he had taken Nancy O'Dell furniture shopping, Spencer added, "Is this really the worst thing you've ever heard? In a way, he's like the most gentlemanly, kindly philanderer of all time."
Spencer has become more enthused as Trump has ramped up his claims about how his campaign represents an "existential threat" to "global special interests." After Trump's widely criticized speech in West Palm Beach last week, during which the GOP nominee alleged a "conspiracy" against the American people led by a "global power structure," Spencer tweeted, "The shackles are off, and Trump is getting radical. We've never seen a major postwar politician talk like this." He later amplified his appreciation of what he characterized as Trump "demystifying 'racism' and the financial power structure," concluding, "No matter what happens, I will be profoundly grateful to Donald Trump for the rest of my life."
At the Willard in September, over a Mint Julep followed by Manhattans, Spencer, whose free-wheeling style with journalists has made him the Alt-Right's "it boy," gabs about white nationalism and his disdain for electoral democracy. He also discusses why he supports Trump, and their shared respect for Vladimir Putin. "I admire Putin too," he says. "Who wouldn't?"
"I love empire, I love power, I love achievement," he goes on, growing animated. Spencer loves imperialism so much, he says, that he'll sometimes "get a boner" reading about Napoleon.
"Trump sincerely and genuinely cares about Americans, and white Americans in particular."
I first meet Spencer at the Republican National Convention in July, at a party headlined by Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart editor and self-described "dangerous faggot" who tours college campuses to rail against "social justice warriors," political correctness and the left in general. (Spencer perceives Yiannopoulos as a fellow traveler of sorts, but not truly Alt-Right; he does, however, see Yiannopoulos' followers as ripe for Alt-Right recruitment.) The crowd, Spencer later notes, is populated by lots of Alt-Right "shitlords" – a form of high praise on social media that designates true believers. They're wildly excited about a speech by far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who's attending the convention as a guest of the Tennessee Republican Party. After a lengthy diatribe about "so-called leaders" who've allowed "Eurabia" to be overrun by Muslims and who "do not defend our liberty, our sovereignty, our values, our national identity," Wilders elicits loud chants of "Trump! Trump! Trump!"
After the speeches, as the crowd mingles, Spencer reflects on the significance of what he sees as Trump's affinity for white nationalism. "It's not so much about policy – it's more about the emotions that he evokes," he says. "And emotions are more important than facts. Trump sincerely and genuinely cares about Americans, and white Americans in particular."
Spencer is ebullient over how Trump has legitimized his movement. "It's not just about 'deport illegals' or 'stop illegal immigration,'" he says. "It's about the sense – the existential sense – of, Are we a nation? He's brought an existential quality to politics."
He, and other Alt-Right activists, would never have attended a political convention in the past, Spencer tells me, but with Trump, "now we have something at stake."
Trump, Spencer believes, has exposed the Republican Party's id. "The Trump phenomenon expresses a fundamental truth," he says. "It's an unspoken truth, and that is that the Republican Party has won elections on the basis of implicit nationalism and not on the basis of the Constitution, free-market economics, vague Christian values and so on. Even a leftist would agree with that statement. Like, Trump has shown the hand of the GOP. The GOP is a white person's populist party." Unlike Trump, though, the party is "embarrassed of itself."
After Trump tapped Breitbart chair Steve Bannon as campaign CEO in August, the Alt-Right instantly became a fixture in political conversation. (Bannon boasted to me at the RNC that Breitbart is "the platform for the Alt-Right.") Yet for Spencer, who sees Breitbart as having only "elective affinities" with the Alt-Right, the real turning point was Clinton's speech on the Alt-Right the following week. Spencer speculates that she aimed, with her speech, "to bleed the GOP of upper-middle-class whites who are embarrassed by their race." Clinton is not just a political adversary, in Spencer's view – she's "cagey" in her effort to reach the traditional conservatives he and his followers call, pejoratively, "cuckservatives" or "cucks," a reflection of their view that conservatives have been so "de-masculinized" that they've lost the ability to stand up for their principles.
Raised in Dallas, where he attended a private boys' school, Spencer graduated from the University of Virginia, and went on to earn a Masters in humanities from the University of Chicago and study toward a doctorate, never completed, at Duke. He briefly worked as an assistant editor at The American Conservative magazine, starting in 2007, which he says "really changed my life" – "it was the first time I was, even in a small way, a professional ideologue." Scott McConnell, a former colleague at the publication, says that when Spencer worked there, he "was interested in a lot of the European conservatives, many from the anti-democratic tradition. So he doesn't buy into egalitarianism."
He later served as managing editor of the far-right magazine Taki's, and created the website AlternativeRight.com, which gave the movement its name, in 2010. He took over the National Policy Institute in 2011. Spencer's wife, Nina Kouprianova, who also writes under the pen name Nina Byzantina, is a Russian scholar who has translated the work of Russian far-right theorist and Putin ally Alexander Dugin, and criticized Western media coverage of Putin as "unjustifiably critical." In 2014, the conservative Daily Caller denounced her as "the wife of a well-known American fascist and white nationalist" who pushed "anti-Kiev talking points" while discussing events in Ukraine in an appearance on the Kremlin-backed, English-language outlet Russia Today.
Spencer is the closest thing the Alt-Right has to an official spokesman, a role he brushes off as inconsistent with the movement's freewheeling, anti-establishment culture – yet one he clearly enjoys. Taylor says in an interview that he, Spencer and Brimelow are the most recognized faces of a movement whose size and reach is difficult to measure because its growth has been fueled online, and often by anonymous social media users. But while Taylor and Brimelow have strived to give white nationalism an aura of intellectualism over the years, they lack, in their 60s, the youthful looks, pop-cultural fluency and rhetorical audacity that has made Spencer, three decades younger, the face of a newer, Internet-fueled white nationalism that is undergoing a rebirth. Spencer, wrote Hunter Wallace, the pen name of neo-Confederate white nationalist Brad Griffin, on the influential white nationalist site Occidental Dissent, is the Alt-Right's "acknowledged leader." Spencer sees his moving of white nationalism beyond the margins and Trump's "gusto" as evidence that white nationalist ideas resonate with Trump's base. "I wouldn't want to go back to the old white nationalism when no one was listening to us," he said recently. "I want to be in a place where our ideas are entering the mainstream."
Those ideas boil down to open racism. The Alt-Right, Spencer says, "opposes the basic ideas behind the Civil Rights Act." He's called Martin Luther King Jr. "the god of white dispossession," the latter being one of the Alt-Right's major obsessions. True "shitlords" are gripped by the fear that white people in America are being "dispossessed" by immigration and multi-culturalism, to the point that they face an imminent "white genocide." Spencer has called anti-discrimination laws "the enemy of all tradition, not just the Anglo-Saxon American society it has helped destroy."
"No matter what happens, I will be profoundly grateful to Donald Trump for the rest of my life."
The Alt-Right, in Spencer's formulation, signals a sharp break from Ted Cruz-style Christian right politics, which frames the United States as a Christian nation, as well as Ron Paul-style libertarianism that portrays government as an oppressive, freedom-crushing behemoth. So Spencer says he is neither a libertarian nor a constitutionalist, but rather a "statist" – one with a weak commitment to constitutional democracy. "The important thing," he says, "is that the people in charge are people like me."
While Spencer reviles conservatives, he believes they secretly share his white nationalist beliefs. "Saying that you want a culture of life, or Christian values," he said in a recent podcast, "that's just basically saying you want to live in a white country that's normal and decent." Or, as he explains to me at the Willard, the Family Research Council's name already implies a call for "more white children." In Spencer's eyes, the Alt-Right is an "intellectual movement" so powerful that "in the future, we're going to be thinking for conservatives," whom he disparages not only as "cucks" but as "losers and dorks." This superior Alt-Right intelligence will eventually allow the movement to harness the institutions the religious right built, he believes, and entice religious conservatives into white nationalism. It would be easy enough, he says, because "there's not a single intelligent person in that entire world."
Despite Spencer's bluster, and the Alt-Right's seeming ubiquity this election cycle, thanks to Trump's embrace, this is a nascent movement, many of its activists still visible only through anonymous Twitter accounts and Reddit posts that help distribute racist and anti-Semitic memes. That anonymity, Taylor says, is still necessary because political correctness marginalizes their "racialist" views, and Alt-Righters fear for their livelihoods and even their lives. Still, Spencer claims he has a "hard core" of hundreds or perhaps thousands of people who attend his periodic conferences, some of which are private, and that a "five- or six-figure number" of individuals read his commentary website, Radix, and listen to his conversational podcasts; he also has some 18,000 Twitter followers. Spencer claims analytics show a far larger, "seven-figure number" of people read his tweets because they're so widely circulated. "In terms of who knows about the Alt-Right and has a vague inkling about what we believe," he says, "that's like an eight-figure or nine-figure number now, thanks to Hillary," who he says bolstered the Alt-Right's visibility with her August speech.
Deep-pocket donors and well-funded institutions have defined modern conservatism, in Spencer's view. But he is counting instead on the raw enthusiasm of the Alt-Right. If the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, is like an "elephant," he says, the Alt-Right is a "flea," capable of "getting people excited and crazy" about its white ethno-state ambitions.
Building a movement strong enough to reshape American politics by organizing anonymous racists on Twitter would be without precedent – but Trump's rise to the top of the Republican presidential ticket makes it seem, to Spencer, deliciously plausible. "It might not happen in my lifetime," Spencer says, "but yes, people like me are going to define the civilization. Because we've done it in the past, and we're the ones who want to rule."
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.