by Alex Knepper
Seven years ago, on our way en route to CPAC 2010, I got into an argument with current alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer — then just a measly freelancer and activist like yours truly — about race, politics, and the meaning of Western values. I was a 19-year-old college sophomore at the time; he was 32. I recounted the tale on David Frum’s website Frum Forum shortly after Spencer opened his own website, ‘Alternative Right,’ for the sake of exposing the ‘alt-right’ label, which he had just coined, as nothing but a thinly-veiled euphemism for white nationalism:
Tim Mak is right: the website Alternative Right is run by a white nationalist, for white nationalists.
I happen to intermittently know Richard Spencer, the site’s director. Through a couple of mutual contacts, I met him in the midst of CPAC 2009 and received a ride from him from Washington DC’s Dupont Circle, where we were each protesting the censorship imposed upon Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, to the Marriott Hotel where the convention was being held.
Along the way, things got a little testy. We somehow got into discussing biological differences between the races. Our ideological differences soon emerged…
“Show me one black nation that’s ever been run competently,” he challenged me…
“This is not Western,” I said. “How can you possibly claim to stand for Western civilization? What’s brilliant about our values is that they stand for the individual, not the supremacy of the group. You come to America, you’re judged by your merits — not by what you look like.”
After a few more back-and-forths, we arrived at our destination, and as our car-mates went ahead, he told me to stay with him for a minute so he could talk to me. As the others faded into the background, he moved just inches away from my face, gave me a menacing look and yelled: “You little child. How dare you talk to me — me! — about the West! You don’t know the first thing about the West! You’re a little twelve-year-old who thinks he knows shit. Don’t you ever talk to me like that again or I will beat your face into the fucking ground!”…
I let him walk ahead of me, and it ended there. But that is the real Richard Spencer: a white nationalist, a bully, and an intellectual coward.
He replied to this by, essentially, denying the incident happened. (I stand by my account.)
Through other mutual contacts, I met a few other white nationalists at CPAC, and decided that I was interested in talking to more of them directly, so I could pick their brains and write something about what they were up to. One particularly blockheaded alt-right groupie failed to perceive me as hostile to his cause, and inexplicably invited me to visit a meeting held by a white nationalist group he was interested in, the ‘Wolves of Vinland.’ I did so, and wrote a trollish piece saying that these were the people Spencer, who had a sophomoric interest in Nietzsche (who, by the way, once proclaimed that he wanted to have anti-Semites shot and expressed gratitude toward the Jews), thought were the ‘supermen‘ who should form the new vanguard of the right:
In the course of my readings, I picked up contacts within this bizarre movement, and was once invited to a white nationalist gathering by an acquaintance of mine who lives in the area…He was told to bring someone he knew, and for whatever reason, he thought to ask a gay, atheist, classical liberal…
I sat and watched in morbid curiosity. The conversation soon shifted to the direction of the movement, and three of them discussed who counted as legitimate members of the folk. The first man, whose ancestry could apparently be traced back to Northern Europe, thought that the folk, properly conceived, was strictly a Nordic venture…
Another man, whose heritage was German, argued that the blood of the folk actually extended to central Europe and the surrounding areas. Conveniently enough, the third man, whose ancestry was Irish, believed that anyone of any European ancestry should be included in the folk. The folk are a pan-European movement, not a Northern European one — even though, he admitted, the purest folk were of Nordic descent…
The ‘Alternative Right’ most diverges with American conservatism in the way that it takes a sledgehammer to classical liberalism. A crude ‘might is right’ philosophy is applied to human action, with the understanding that group loyalty and self-preservation within the collective is the only way to prosper. Richard Spencer seems to have picked at least part of it up after a hideously poor reading of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche…
While not all of the Alternative Right contributors subscribe to this silliness, a good portion do. Richard Spencer sympathizes with it, at the very least. But whatever the makeup of the sympathies of the contributors, one must not mistake Richard Spencer and the Alternative Right for conservatives. They’re not, and they don’t pretend to be. More of a cult than anything else, these proud reactionaries are primitivists, tribalists, and racialists. They despise modernity, classical liberalism, individualism, and any attempt to suppress what they view as the natural right of the hammer to tell the nail whether it stays up or gets pounded down.
Spencer got wind of all this and fired back with his own piece. He was miffed that I associated him with these people despite there being no direct connection between them other than shared political sympathies and Facebook group interests, and thought to snark in return that, based on my logic, I must be an anti-Christian ‘Satanic girlieman,’ since on my Facebook there was a picture of me crossdressing and was an atheist Christian-basher who liked the Church of Satan’s Facebook page. The point of the piece, of course, was merely to mock him for thinking that people like these were going to lead any kind of resurgence of the West. And since I actually did have a trollish interest in Anton Szandor LaVey as a 19-year-old, really did despise Christianity, and was indeed a ‘girlieman,’ in that I really was openly gay and enjoyed playing with gender roles, including wearing some feminine clothes — he did not choose a very good example to make his point that Facebook is a poor representation of who a person is. He wrote the following to Frum:
Dear David (if I may),
I’m a rather lenient man, and so I’m inclined to look over young Alex’s Facebook indiscretions (indeed, I just try to ignore people like this.) You, on the other hand, have dedicated most of your adult life to policing the Right and driving out various evildoers and reactionaries. The presence of a Satanic, anti-Catholic, eugenicist Mormon-basher would seem to be something that you of all people, David, simply could not tolerate at your website. At the very least, Alex doesn’t seem particularly helpful in forging a “New Majority.”
To be honest, David, I doubt you’ll actually purge young Alex, as in your book, Satanic anti-Catholicism probably doesn’t rank as high in unpatriotic-ness as opposing the Iraq war or criticizing Israeli settlements. But I’m rather excited to see how you explain away this one!
Since the rise of Donald Trump, media interest in the ‘alt-right’ has spiked, and, understandably, Spencer has emerged among reporters as one of its favorite representatives. Since the Trump campaign took off, Spencer has made the rounds as a speaker on college campuses, notoriously led an audience in a Nazi-style salute of his Trumpenfuhrer, and participated in last weekend’s already-infamous ‘Unite the Right’ march in Charlottesville, VA. (Although he may be most famous for being punched in the face.)
Since 2010, I developed my interest in the preservation of Western civilization by completing a Great Books graduate program at St. John’s College — Annapolis, where I wrote and presented papers about Plato, Hobbes, Burke, and other great thinkers from our inheritance. Richard Spencer’s pretend-interest in the West as a whole is merely a smokescreen for his real interest in a certain version of the West — a narrow vision rooted only in modern European history. Through his limited historical perspective, which is enabled by his ignorance of the Western canon, he can perpetuate the lie that ‘whiteness,’ rather than Christianity, is what bound Europe together. It was not so long ago that the notion that Swedes, Italians, Poles, and Irishmen were all of the same racial stock would have been met with laughter. But a combination of American liberalism — a universalist creed insofar as it proclaims that our rights are rooted in nature rather than convention — and opposition to blackness made the concept grow and stick.
Pow! Right in the kisser!
As one of the leaders of last weekend’s march in Charlottesville, where he held up his tiki-torch and joined in chants of ‘Jews will not replace us!’ alongside the likes of Mike Enoch, David Duke, Augustus Invictus, troll-haven writers from The Right Stuff, and some guy ranting about ‘fucking Jew-lovers,’ Spencer has affirmed that, yes, these are ‘his supermen,’ and these are the people he counts on to lead his movement and lead a resurgence of the West.
They have been emboldened, of course, by President Donald Trump. While the president is not a white nationalist, and Spencer and his ilk know this, they see him as moving the goalposts forward a little bit, shifting the terms of the conversation, and making it possible to ask questions that once seemed forbidden to ask — about immigration, race, nationality, and more. They hope that history will come to look at Trump’s election as the beginning of a racial awakening among white Americans — a new recognition that, owing to policies pushed by a heavily-Jewish (that is: non-white, non-European, ‘rootless,’ ‘deracinated,’ etc.) media-financial-political empire, they are being racially displaced by non-whites while being manipulated into fighting amongst themselves over relatively minor issues like gender, sexual orientation, and class.
The ‘alt-right’ remains a small movement, largely limited to internet hideaways, and in a sense, Spencer and the people who attended the ‘Unite the Right’ rally don’t represent anyone but themselves. They are trying to force their way into the conversation by arching their backs, attempting to appear stronger and bigger than they are. Like the president/troll-in-chief they admire, they have a keen sense of how to manipulate the media: how to push the right buttons to win press coverage, how to dissemble and equivocate — this was the point of the seemingly-innocuous ‘alt-right’ moniker in the first place — and how to hijack news stories to insert themselves into them. This raises the question of whether it is better to ignore them, or whether to adhere to the maxim that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant.’ Charlottesville made clear that this movement is not ready for primetime, and such overt public displays, attracting such intense media coverage, are likely to backfire. I certainly decided myself many years ago that the ‘alt-right’ ought to have been nipped in the bud rather than ignored. But still — last weekend’s so-called ‘unity’ march featured just a few hundred people — compare against 2010’s 9/12 March on Washington, D.C., which attracted about a million people. Local Tea Party events routinely attracted more people than this march. Why should the world’s eyes be upon them, looking at them as a looming threat rather than a repulsive nuisance barely worthy of consideration? Again, we must wonder whether these people even represent anyone but themselves.
In the end, the ‘alt-right’ white-nationalist set’s tendency toward excess and self-destruction is likely to do them in, regardless of what reporters, writers, and activists choose to do. The movement’s appeal is too narrow, its tone too vicious and hostile, its people too divided, its ideas too shallow and illiberal, and its strategy too scattershot. Spencer is what I said he was seven years ago, along with everyone else who attended that noxious gathering in Charlottesville: a white nationalist, a bully, and an intellectual coward.