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White Nationalism’s New Clothes

Dressing down the so-called “alt-right”

Richard Spencer has taken a break from leading torch-wielding mobs to get back in shape, as we learned this month when photos emerged of his dressing-down at a local fitness center. A fellow gym rat recognized Spencer and gave him hell for being a white supremacist. “You don’t get to be a Nazi from nine to five,” his challenger said later, explaining why she bothered to confront Spencer during his solo session.

This was a late-capitalist turf war of a particular kind—a real-world dispute over what caliber of person should be allowed to pay $100 a month to drape his body undisturbed across the sticky equipment of a nondescript workout facility in the D.C. suburbs. It eventually spilled into the digital sphere, igniting a multi-day Twitter feud over who deserved to be there: the woman who yelled, or the Nazi who sweated. Our tireless pundits took up this question with alarming speed, but ultimately, it wasn’t theirs to answer. That honor belonged to the discerning management team of the Old Town Alexandria branch of Sport & Health, a subsidiary of US Fitness Holdings LLC, the “ninth largest health club company in the United States.” They told Spencer to stay away.

Certain bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes to gay couples, and certain gyms oust despicable Nazis from their member rolls.

Spencer’s response was what you’d expect—pocked by smarm and anti-Semitism. “I am wandering the earth looking for a new gym,” he offered in a late-night tweetstorm days after the fact. “So this what it feels like to be a Jew…”

With so few public spaces in America to feud over, we’ve begun to adjudicate the boundaries of civil discourse in the tinier, sweatier worlds of private membership. Our “public” universities are too expensive to attend, our “public” parks close at dark, and our “public” sidewalks are increasingly the target of anti-protest legislation. Meanwhile, certain bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes to gay couples, and certain gyms oust despicable Nazis from their member rolls before they can build their deplorable muscles. To be comfortable in America, the private spaces must work in your favor. Most of the time, you notice only when they don’t.

Private spaces afford a sort of vulnerability to those whose success is dependent on carefully curated public identities. Nowhere is this more apparent than the resurgent far right. Everywhere Richard Spencer—our valiant cheerleader for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”—goes, he wears an outfit that your time-travelling friend from the 1980s would dub “preppie,” and which real humans in the present have described as “dapper,” “sharp,” or—and this is the intended goal, apparently—“radical-traditionalist.” Fitted pants are involved, topped by a button-up, and—depending on the season—a vest, tweed, linen, plaid, khaki, a jaunty cap, a pocket square, or some unholy combination of the above.  

Count me among those who do not give a rip about Richard Spencer’s wardrobe; still, his tweed is fair game because it affords him plausible deniability. Despite hundreds of bald-faced statements to the contrary, Spencer’s attire—especially when combined with his academic pedigree—allows him to pass as a (hyper-conservative) public intellectual, rather than a know-nothing peddler of the basest form of racial animus. He can still swan around Northern Virginia predicting that his white-nationalist think tank, the inconspicuously named National Policy Institute, will continue to attract educated, middle- and upper-class aspirants of the finest and most influential sort, until it gathers enough steam to migrate across the Potomac River, where it will displace the Cato Institute as our nation’s leading center of respectable conservative policy and research, or some utter garbage like that.

His suit is his disguise, and he wears it so doggedly that he almost fools us into thinking that he has fooled himself. This is partly why it is so satisfying to witness Spencer in situations where he’s been caught unaware—more than entertainment value, the grainy photos of his gym ouster show a denuded dunce who can’t have it both ways. As a woman a full foot shorter than him gets in his grill, Spencer searches for help, all the while donning athletic attire that looks like it’s been gathering mothballs in his overstocked closet. It’s a reminder that we need to do more of this: catch the white supremacist off guard, refuse his terms, reveal his disguises.

No, this is not a call to punch or pants our nation’s egghead-wannabe eugenicists. There are better options.

Some of them I’ve tried. Like many left-wing academics, journalists, and researchers before me, the far right’s efforts to re-imagine American ethnonationalism drew me to their private conferences, conventions, and symposia, whether they wanted me in attendance or not. These are their “safe spaces”—although they loathe the term—and they don’t take kindly to interlopers. Inside these spaces, I’ve gotten a clearer picture of what the so-called “alt-right” is up to than I’ve seen anywhere else. And this includes a first-hand look at how they mimic the conventions of academic culture to shore up their program of exclusion.

Conferences are notoriously boring; it’s part of what Spencer and his colleagues like about them. Although the notion of an “intellectual” racism geared toward educated, middle-class partisans has been around for centuries, the roots of the current generation’s normalization effort goes back to the late 1980s. The year 1988 brought us Louisiana state representative David Duke—the former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard gone politician and pundit. Four years later, Yale/Sciences Po-educated Jared Taylor founded American Renaissance (AmRen)—a Virginia-based “think tank” and (now online) journal that bills itself as the premier destination for “race realist” content.

In contrast to the militia movements sprouting up throughout the American West in the early 1990s, AmRen was once (and arguably still is) a standard-bearer for “sophisticated” racism. Later in the decade, it began holding conferences modeled after those organized by the usual D.C. policy shops. One early report from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education observed that “for the most part, civility reigned at the conference.” Indeed, “the entire weekend passed without one speaker using the word ‘nigger’ though in their private moments not all were so genteel—and these attendees tout advanced degrees, not prison tattoos.”

The goal behind these gatherings was obvious. To ensure its survival, the ethnonationalist movement needed to work against the received idea of racists as hilljack psychopaths and to appeal to the ever more disgruntled ranks of the white middle class. Years before Richard Spencer could’ve dreamed of capturing the attention of the mainstream media, academic Carol Swain observed in her 2002 book, The New White Nationalism in America, that “unlike the Klan and Nazi movements, white nationalism is aggressively seeking a mainstream audience, and in going mainstream it has found it necessary to abandon most of the tactics, postures, and regalia of the older racist right, which no longer resonates with America.” As one pseudonymous blogger observed in Radix Journal in 2015:

When I use the words, “White Nationalism,” what comes to mind? Probably skinheads, swastika tattoos, and jackboots. Maybe some heavy metal, if you are into that kind of music. Oh, and Klan rallies. . . . Only a tiny, tiny minority of White Nationalists actually wear those kind of clothes or associate with those kind of people. In fact, of that minority, probably half of them are FBI plants. I stay as far as possible from those types as I can. They are kooks.

Today’s intellectually minded white nationalists may throw up the occasional festive “Sieg Heil”—or even call to “party like it’s 1933.” But they do so after making a conscientious effort to trade in their white hoods for suits, violent screeds for polite conversations about postmodern political theory, and rural cross burnings for cocktail-sipping networking events. America’s white nationalist elite had, as Swain noted more than a decade before many of its current figures became household names, remodeled itself to become “preeminently a movement of discourse, persuasion, and ideas.” Its “idea-centric” approach mirrored that of European nativist groups abroad, including the European ideological predecessor to America’s alt-right: France’s Bloc Identitaire. The radical far-right organization, which was inspired by the French New Right (Nouvelle Droite) school of political thought, has given rise to spinoff groups in a number of European nations. As Fabrice Roberts, Bloc Identitaire’s founder and the occasional white nationalist conference speaker, explained in an interview, the right’s “struggle for the cultural hegemony must be total and therefore take different modes of action: agitprop operations, community network development, creation of alternative media, development of our presence on of the Internet, etc.”

What is it like inside one of these elaborate and often secretive events? Incredibly white, but you knew that already. Some of them offer press passes—such as the NPI conference in November, which was overrun with journalists—but others have required me to go incognito, which I can manage only because my skin is every bit as pasty as Spencer’s. I had the unfortunate honor of covering (and nearly being chased out of) the now-infamous NPI dinner with Tila Tequila just weeks after Trump’s electoral win in November. For people who claim to have ideas they want the whole country to hear and obey, they sure have a lot to whisper about. Earlier in May, the far-right publishing house Counter Currents held a strictly vetted conference in New York City that was barred to “outside agitators.”

These pseudo-academic babblers have managed to conceal the ferocity of their hatred with exclusivity, insularity, self-congratulation, and tweed.

One thing I’ve learned from my research is how thoroughly these pseudo-academic babblers have managed to conceal the ferocity of their hatred with academic culture’s bad habits: exclusivity, insularity, self-congratulation, tweed. Their conference programs look like any number of others proceeding in snazzy convention centers and faded hotel ballrooms across the country. Meet and greets and keynotes, hors d’oeuvres and panels, name tags and networking—who would have pegged these as the weapons of a resurgent far right dreaming of genocide?

Most of us still don’t. But one perk of sitting through a session in which far-right white nationalists talk among themselves—instead of to the media—is that their ideas are bound to reveal themselves eventually. The sooner we recognize that their anti-democratic goals are distinct from their fastidiously professionalized methods, the sooner we can understand their connection to the history of racism in America, and what it is they want with our future. “Attending alt-right conferences [is] an essential part of doing this kind of reporting and [allows you to bypass] the scripted narrative they are keen to deliver,” noted Carol Schaeffer, a journalist and researcher focused on the international far-right, in an interview. You get a perspective “that you can’t see from plucking the leaders from their perches and putting them in an interview scenario.”

Daryl Lamont Jenkins, an anti-racist, anti-fascist activist and founder of One People’s Project, has been doing such work for years. “Look at somebody like Matthew Heimbach,” he said of the twenty-six-year-old leader of the Traditionalist Youth Network during a phone interview. “Everything you know about Heimbach he has provided. There’s a lot that we need to do in order to make sure that the things they don’t want to talk about are put out there. The only way you’re going to do that is do the legwork yourself, doing the research they don’t want you to do [and] being in the places that they don’t want you to be. . . . You get access to things that they wouldn’t expect you to have.”

Grappling with a resurgent far-right for the Trump era involves renegotiating the space we’ve ceded to these groups, both in terms of journalistic coverage and our daily lives. Our responsibility as reporters and researchers is to shed light on Spencer’s heavily perfumed vat of sewage. We should, in other words, stop handing white nationalists the mic and start historicizing their ideas.

For a movement that dresses itself up in the trappings of mainstream academia, any blandly critical coverage on a major cable news network can be a blessing. A Spencer-studded episode of CNN’s United Shades of America adds nothing to the collective good, but it does manage to downplay the threat posed by Spencer’s ideas. Oppositely, by capturing his followers throwing up Nazi salutes in unscripted coverage of a quasi-academic conference, we can expose the inconspicuously named “alternative right” for what it really is: a band of racists hiding behind butchered postmodernist rhetoric. 

Keeping self-styled white nationalist leaders from permeating the airwaves may be one aspect of “no platforming”—and an easy, uncontroversial one at that. Appearing on CNN isn’t a right in any coherent philosophical or legal sense—it’s a privilege. But hosting conferences without disruption from protesters isn’t one either. Even the private businesses that have refused to host white nationalist groups are within their rights to do so. There’s no coherent “slippery slope” argument to be made against Sport & Health’s anti-fascist gesture.

After all, politics doesn’t stop in the locker room. And unless you’re Edward Norton in American History X, you sure as hell don’t get to be a Nazi from nine to five.