Richard Spencer looks like a mild-mannered sort, and he sounds like a mild-mannered sort. In an alternate reality, he would be a bank manager, a realtor, or work some other inoffensive white-collar job. He’s actually the current president of the innocuous-sounding National Policy Institute based in Arlington, Virginia. Its motto is, “For our people, our culture, our future.” He is also the executive director of Washington Summit Publishers.
Sounds innocent, right? Maybe nationalistic, but not exactly dangerous.
Except the NPI is a white supremacist and white nationalist organization, and Washington Summit Publishers is a white supremacist publisher that produces and distributes books about race, eugenics, and white nationalism. A cursory glance at the websites of these organizations makes them seem reputable, based in honest academia, but it’s a stylish mask worn by hate.
Spencer himself is a white nationalist, and one of his better-known beliefs is that of, “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to allow for the creation of a white homeland. Allow that to sink in, when has there ever been a “peaceful ethnic cleansing?” A cursory glance at this list shows that in all recorded history there has never been a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” The very idea is at best naïve, and at worst implying a campaign of coercion and intimidation that forces the targeted groups to leave the area (which isn’t peaceful).
For those of you who may not recognize the name, he’s the guy who got clocked in the head on inauguration day just before he proudly displayed his Rare Pepe pin.
Or maybe you know him as the guy who who threw a victory rally on the night of Trump’s election, where he finished his speech with a sieg heil and the words, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” But don’t worry, he went on to defend the gesture as, ironic.
Make no mistake: Richard Spencer is dangerous. Not only because of his rhetoric, but because of how he portrays himself.
We’re used to a certain image of white supremacists and far-right extremists. They carry barely-legal firearms, wear field jackets from surplus Army stores or wife-beaters, shave their heads, and speak in double-negatives. Their bases of operations are remote hideouts in the woods and comprised of ramshackle cabins. Richard Spencer doesn’t fit the bill, and that makes him seem like the guy next door. Never mind the fact this guy quotes Nazi propaganda and is a raging anti-Semite; the important thing is he looks and sounds like a normal guy. Then again, the same could be said for Trump. He looks like an aging businessman, and talks like a racist uncle after a few too many on Thanksgiving. Harmless, right?
For over 70 years, fascism and anything like it has been forced underground. When it popped up in the wild, it existed like a domesticated animal that had gone feral. Now? Now it’s back wearing a suit and tie, and it speaks like a politician. It makes nationalism, racism, isolationism, and authoritarianism not only seem palatable, but downright rational.
Another example of this is Milo Yiannopoulos, a senior editor for Breitbart News (the de facto press of the alt-right and Steve Bannon’s old employer before he joined Trump’s court). At first glance, he’s a metropolitan, sassy, ideologue that seems more content with disturbing sensibilities than upending democracy. He’s a shock jock, that claims he’s for the freedom of speech. The problem there is that Yiannopoulos hides behind such a powerful idea, the idea of free speech. By asserting that he is for free speech, anyone who is against him must also be against free speech. It makes it easy to disregard him, or see him as right-wing troll that’s trying to make a point.
Here’s the problem with simply ignoring Spencer’s attitude regarding minorities and his resurrection of Nazism, here’s the problem with writing off Yiannopoulos as a “right-wing troll”: it normalizes their actions. It numbs people to the reality that a person, like Spencer, can spew hateful vitriol without consequence. Should he be shot? No. Should he be imprisoned? Also, no. Should he be shouted down and forced back to whatever xenophobic hole he crawled out of? Absolutely.
It’s irresponsible to approach this kind of insanity with handwringing and the trotting out of, “Well, everyone has an opinion.” Yes, and people who had similar opinions produced some of the worst atrocities in human history. It doesn’t mean Spencer should face prosecution, but it shouldn’t be treated as acceptable or normal for this kind of dialogue to exist.
So, what’s the proper action?
On the one hand, if it’s ignored it can grow in the background like a vicious cancer left untreated. On the other hand, if it’s ignored, it can’t reach a larger audience and gain power.
Or, are Spencer and Yiannopoulos treated as man-children seeking attention, or are they treated as legitimate threats to democracy and progress? Again, it’s a catch-22: if they’re mocked they can gather power behind the scenes, but if they’re ridiculed it could strip them of their power.
On a slightly more philosophical note, how did Spencer and Yiannopoulos get to this position? Spencer isn’t an uneducated man, he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and music from the University of Virginia, and a master’s in the humanities from the University of Chicago. He studied at the Vienna International Summer University, and spent time at Duke University studying modern European intellectual history for a doctorate degree. That’s a far cry from the denizens of backwoods Nazi hamlets. It would be folly to try and psychoanalyze him, but you still have to wonder how someone like him becomes a raving proponent for one of the worst political ideologies in human history. Maybe after getting dumped from The American Conservative he got radicalized at Taki’s Magazine? Based on this profile done by Mother Jones it seems Spencer misread Friedrich Nietzsche and got drawn in by a white nationalist/supremacist at the University of Chicago. It doesn’t really explain why he fell in with that sordid crowd, but it gives some more clues. What about Yiannopoulos? He didn’t graduate from college, but he still attended college. He’s not uneducated. Maybe it’s ignorance, or maybe it’s simple, animalistic fear of the unknown? That doesn’t paint the full picture, though, because they’re just two guys spouting off about far-right politics.
So, how did we get here? How did America look at people like Spencer, or at Yiannopoulos and decide that they were at least acceptable? Some would argue it began on September 11th, but that’s an all too simple conclusion. Certain parts of fascism have always existed in the American DNA, like a defective hereditary gene just waiting for the right moment to surface; anti-intellectualism, big business in bed with government, and persistent militarism are just some of the pre-cancerous symptoms. It’s the ultimate dark side of a capitalist democracy, waiting to rear its ugly head when the people start to believe the game is rigged against them. Still, Americans don’t have short memories, we’re just naïve sometimes. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or the American Nazi Party wouldn’t find traction with a larger audience. They’re too brash, too despised, and almost too comical to be taken seriously. What about young, clean-cut demagogues like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos? Sure, they’re saying some pretty awful stuff, and it’s a little disconcerting, but look at how they’re dressed, and listen to how they talk, why, they could be the guy next door…