NEW YORK - The night Richard Spencer shouted “Hail Trump!” before a crowd of white men – who saluted with raised arms at a far-right conference in Washington – was the moment the 38-year-old leader of the so-called alt-right, a white nationalist movement, became known around the world.
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In addition, he also gave a face to the fears of Jews and other minorities in the United States. But that night, November 19, also exposed the paradox at the heart of the alt-right movement: Denial of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism are its key strategies to go mainstream, but that contrasts with its leaders' public outbursts of the same old symbolic fascist gestures – thereby ruining the carefully crafted image and perhaps exposing the movement for what it is.
“I understand why people were offended, but they have to understand the context in which it happened. The context of fun and exuberance,” Spencer told Haaretz in an interview.
The alt-right (or “alternative right”) movement is a mix of white nationalist groups and activists who reject mainstream conservatism and embrace racism and white supremacism in various degrees. Its members oppose multiculturalism and activism for the rights of nonwhites, women, Jews, Muslims, the LGBT community, immigrants and other minorities. Global awareness of the movement arrived with the appointment of Steve Bannon – the founder of the far-right website Breitbart News Network, who has called Breitbart "a platform for the alt-right" in the past – as chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Donald Trump.
Spencer, a resident of White Fish, Montana, grew up in Dallas, Texas, where he attended the prestigious St. Marks’s school (mocked by alumni Owen Wilson in the film Rushmore). He received a BA in English Literature and Music from the University of Virginia and an MA in Humanities from University of Chicago. Since 2007, he has been an far right activist, editing and writing for a variety of extreme right magazines. In recent years, he has become the leader and unofficial spokesman for the alt-right movement, and is even widely credited with coming up with the term "alt-right." The Southern Poverty Law Center has described him as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.” In 2014, he was arrested in Hungary for organizing a white nationalist conference. In June, Spencer was banned from the U.K. for activity that could "foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence.”
In all his media activity and the conferences he organizes, Spencer tries to whitewash the image of the alt-right as racist neo-Nazis and skinheads, carefully and eloquently crafting a more vague white nationalist ideology to help raise support and reach the corridors of power in Washington.
Spencer previously talked about creating a separate “ethno-state” in America only for white people, who he sees as a persecuted minority in need of shelter. In his “Hail Trump” speech, he stated, “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
In an interview with the Washington Post before that November 19 speech, he said he would expel Muslims from his ethno-state and that most women would return to their traditional role of bearing children. But in an interview with Haaretz, he insists that Jews and other minorities have a place in his vision. “All citizens should have the same rights and protections. American citizenship is not up for debate, I’m talking about identity,” he says.
“Donald Trump would be the first step for identity politics for white people in the United States,” he continues. “His election was not about conservatism. It was not about the religious right, and it has not been about capitalism or the constitution. Donald Trump is a nationalist, and that is something brand new and it is something to be excited about, because I feel like the tide is turning in the United States.”
At the same time, Trump’s appointment of Bannon is seen by many as the appointment of an alt-right representative to the White House, something Spencer sees as another positive step – even though he claims Bannon does not represent the alt-right. “He is a political pugilist, but when I listen to him speak philosophically, he does have a lot of conservative mainstream ideas,” says Spencer. “What I think happened is that Breitbait has been open to the alt-right ideas, it has been a platform for the alt-right. That is a very positive step. But I don’t think Steve Bannon is an alt-right thinker,” he adds.
After the media storm that erupted following the publication of the “Hail Trump” tape, Trump distanced himself from the alt-right, stating, “It’s not a group I want to energize.” Spencer tells Haaretz he understands Trump’s reaction. “I think it is something he has to do, clearly, as president of the United States. But also, I did not expect the alt-right to become mainstream overnight. We will have to fight for our seat at the table.”
Spencer is noncommittal over the potential role of American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson in advising Trump, and likewise on the active role of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in the president-elect’s transition team. “I don’t have a strong position on this, that is his business,” says Spencer. “Trump has been a positive thing. It is what it is. He can pick his own advisers and listen to whoever he chooses, that is his prerogative. Again, if Sheldon Adelson would promote the same immigration policy in the United States that Israel has, I would think that is a good thing.”
Spencer says he still hopes Washington will stop offering financial aid to Israel. “Israel is an incredibly wealthy and successful nation-state, it has booming industries. It’s rather odd for the United States to be giving financial aid to a First World country,” he says.
He also believes the United States should not be getting involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict or “be taking sides,” but adds that “if Washington could broker a peace deal, it would be wonderful, obviously.” Spencer says he “respects Israel” and that, in regard to whether the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, “Wherever Israel wants to declare its capital, I would respect that.”
This isn’t the first time Spencer has tried to wink at Israel, at least in terms of being a U.S. nationalist leader. In online publications for his National Policy Institute, a think tank termed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white supremacist organization, Spencer avoids making blatantly anti-Semitic remarks – in sharp contrast to his alt-right peers. “I think it’s clear that Jews underwent tremendous suffering during World War II. I don’t deny the Holocaust,” he tells Haaretz.
And in an August 2010 article called “An Alliance with the Jews,” published on his Radix Journal website, Spencer argued that Israel could become an ally of white nationalists in the United States. He wrote that in the face of the threat of nuclear weapons in countries hostile to Israel, there would be “hard-liners” in Israel who would prefer to see the extreme right in the White House.
“Your average eastern seaboard liberal Jew, who takes his marching orders from The New York Times and reads Phillip [sic] Roth in his spare time, will likely never want to have anything to do with the far right – even if his life depended on it. Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman are a different story,” he wrote.
At the end of the article, Spencer even allowed himself to dream of Jewish financial contributions. “Who knows? Israeli nationalists might want to help finance the far right in Europe and North America,” he concluded.
Spencer is not the only one on the alt-right who calls to renounce overt Nazism in order to enter the American mainstream. Colin Liddell, who previously founded the Alternative Right website-magazine with Spencer, wrote in September that the “Nazi schtick” helps break through the “mainstream media’s blanket of silence,” but damages the future of the movement.
He called on alt-right people to quit trolling anonymously and publishing anti-Semitic memes calling for Jews to be sent to the gas chambers, and instead to speak openly and coherently in an unthreatening manner. “A more important group, as it is a natural majority, are those wanting to be sensible and moral white nationalists. This group, as well as other denizens of the alt-right, should not have to suffer their beliefs being tarnished by (((Nazi))) schtick,” Liddell wrote on his website.
But even as Spencer tries to distance the alt-right from neo-Nazism, and is crafting a different image and ideology for the alt-right, he is well aware of the viral power of neo-Nazi gestures such as those he made in Washington.
“It has been absolutely crazy, it’s nothing like I have ever experienced in my life. It means that we are ... making an impact, and people are listening,” he says, addressing the media reaction to his “Hail Trump” speech.
“I actually don’t regret it and I definitely don’t condemn it,” he continues. “This has made a wave in the media and there are many people who will start looking into the ideas of the alt-right, so it is ultimately a good thing.”
Spencer said similar things in a podcast to his fans this week, where he also complained of journalists asking him about Hitler.
“I want people to understand that we are not neo-Nazis,” he repeats to Haaretz, saying he would not collaborate with any neo-Nazis at his events, adding, “I don’t know any neo-Nazis that want to work with me, to be honest.”
Regarding the Ku Klux Klan, Spencer is evasive. “I really don’t know if they really exist,” he says, adding that he has never met a member of the KKK. David Duke, a former leader of the Klan and a vocal supporter of Trump, has called Spencer a "white hero." “I have my own feelings about strategy and aesthetics, but I’m not going to denounce anyone who doesn’t do anything wrong. If someone ever engages in violence, I’m going to denounce them. That is the line. But I’m not going to let anyone tell me or the alt-right what to do.”