On the way to Richard Spencer’s top-secret white-supremacist conference on November 19, a young African-American woman drove me in her Uber from Washington, DC, to the rolling hills of Maryland horse country. On the peaceful drive past large, beautiful estates, she told me how she’d had to work three jobs—as a DHL courier, Amazon-warehouse deliverywoman, and Uber driver—just to continue to live in ever-more-expensive DC, where she’d grown up. When we finally got to the winery that Spencer’s National Policy Institute had booked, Mike Enoch of the Daily Shoah podcast, who promulgated the slur “dindu nuffins” for African Americans, was holding forth on the horrors of “corporate neoliberalism.”
Then Eli Mosley of the campus group Identity Evropa, who calls Jews “oven-dodging…kikes,” took Enoch one further: “We need to be explicitly anti-capitalist. There’s no other way forward for our movement.” As 60 mostly young, male racists gathered around him, Mosley, whose real name is Elliott Kline, confidently predicted, “Twenty eighteen is going to be the year of leftists joining the white-nationalist movement!”
These were clear examples of the alt-right’s seductive, and highly contradictory, new emphasis on economic issues. Fascism has often incorporated a pretense of holding “socialist” positions, but some members of the alt-right seem to genuinely believe that the racist state they’re fighting for will benefit what one recently called “the proletariat.” That same afternoon, in an interview in the winery’s unheated barn, Spencer said, “I support national health care. Becoming alt-right means…we have duties to our fellow [white] people. And the trillions spent in insane wars, I would much rather spend that on something that is immediately useful to whites.” About the concept of a guaranteed minimum income provided by the government, Spencer told me, “I actually really like this idea.” In the whites-only, Jews-out, no-votes-for-women ethnostate that he is trying to create, Spencer said, “We need to have a kind of altruism. We need to be willing to take care of people and not simply think of ourselves as individuals who can acquire as much wealth as possible.”
A few minutes later, Spencer’s co-panelists told the gathering exactly who “the capitalists” and “the corporations” were who were hurting “the people”: “Jewish interests,” Enoch, whose real surname is actually Peinovich, enunciated deliberately. “This cosmopolitan clique of elites!” he boomed, as Spencer giggled. “The left will not…name the people behind this…but we can!” he went on. “We can…speak for white Americans who don’t want to sacrifice any more of their children for Jewish wars!”
Yes, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Trump’s bombing of Syria, had become “Jewish” wars to the white people in the barn, some of them veterans. To Enoch/Peinovich, it seemed that any unnecessary, unjust, or imperialist war had been secretly started by the Jews.
“This rootless! cosmopolitan! clique!” Peinovich vociferated, as Spencer nodded vigorously and laughed. On Twitter and his podcasts, Peinovich frequently exhibits a sadistic streak when he goes after individual women, Jews, and people of color. On one podcast, he attacked criticisms of rape as “this bullshit fantasy of the media, academic elite.… It’s been done, it’s what happens.… Whatever.” But here, in addition to his usual violent bombast, Peinovich spoke with what appeared to be real passion about the enormous misery that George W. Bush’s wars had wrought. His voice quaking, the bearded founder of the white-nationalist blog The Right Stuff said, “I’m against these wars, which…are not [in] our interests.” Kline, an Army veteran, added, “You want to know why there’s so much PTSD, drug abuse, suicide…among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Because they come back and they don’t know why. ‘Why were we there, what did I do, why did my friends die?’ The answer is no more of these wars!” Then Kline screeched, “Jewish wars!”
Next, the white nationalists went after the Trump-backed Republican tax plan. “We need to reduce taxes on the Apple Corporation that is sitting on $200 billion!” Spencer mocked the GOP. “They just don’t have enough money!” While Spencer blasted the plan as “stupid.…Reaganite nostalgia,” Peinovich talked about how hard it is to live in this culture, where “everything” runs the risk of getting “corporatized and capitalized.” The Upper East Sider said, sounding haunted, “Everything is empty and fake.… One of the great struggles that everyone has in this corporate neoliberal world is for meaning in their life. Our struggle provides that for us. Everything else is empty…but our movement.”
How did it come to this, that three of the most prominent white nationalists in the country were sitting in a freezing barn attacking what Spencer had once misspelled as “bourgeoisie capitalism”? After Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi who plowed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Internet companies finally acted against the racist sites they had merrily hosted for years. For months, NPI, Stormfront, Counter-Currents, and others lost their websites, payment mechanisms, or Facebook pages, and became unable to communicate openly with the newbies they were hoping to attract. Most, including NPI, eventually found new hosting, but their ability to organize had been curtailed, and, after the entire country saw the alt-right marching with truncheons and guns and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!,” even Steve Bannon no longer wanted to be associated with them.
White nationalists often speak of deliberately pushing “the Overton window”—the limits of acceptable public discourse—so that it becomes “normal” and unremarkable to hear racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic content. In the past three years, some journalists have abetted them by treating white nationalism as just another “philosophy” competing in the marketplace of ideas. Spencer, who speaks well, has a graduate degree in “humanities,” and wears expensive clothes, was a perfect exemplar of the efforts to remake the racist movement into something that appeared “reasonable.” But Charlottesville—with neo-Nazis punching and kicking women and African Americans, streamed on TV—changed all that. It terrified the country.
The federally owned Ronald Reagan Building in DC, where NPI had held several prior conferences, turned down the group’s request to hold the confab there this year, citing the events of August 11 and 12 (in which Spencer, Peinovich, and Kline were major participants, and for which the three men are defendants in a federal civil-rights lawsuit accusing them of seeking to terrorize and inciting violence).
The Reagan Building, which houses private businesses as well as government offices, is managed by an outside firm called Trade Center Management Associates. In a statement, TCMA said that “the significant risk of violence and injuries posed to our clients, event attendees, tenants, employees and the general public” would be too great, and the costs of enough security to prevent such violence would be prohibitively high, to rent to NPI. In the wake of Heyer’s murder and the more than 35 injuries at Charlottesville, private hotels in the DC area had also become loath to host white-supremacist groups. Two days after Charlottesville, both the Sofitel and the Willard rescinded permission they had given Spencer for press conferences at their sites, after receiving substantial public criticism.
In fact, the white-nationalist movement had been so effectively de-platformed and delegitimized, and become so frightened of drawing protesters like the ones who turned out to mock Spencer from the audience at the University of Florida, that NPI’s executive director, Evan McLaren, refused to tell reporters the conference’s new location until half an hour after the meetup was scheduled to start on November 19.
When I finally arrived at the organic winery and cow-and-hog farm in Poolesville, Maryland, an hour outside of DC, I learned that NPI had not even trusted its own attendees with the conference location. Instead of allowing its followers to drive to the winery themselves or even learn its name, NPI made its adherents leave their cars behind and hand in their cell phones so they could not see where they were going and inform others. Instead, NPI monitors drove them in 10-person vans to Rocklands Farm, which turned out not to have known that the white supremacists were coming, either.
Though Spencer claimed there was “no deception” involved, NPI had hidden its identity from the winery. A third-party logistics firm had approached Rocklands Farm on the group’s behalf and booked the barn/tasting room for what the firm said was a “corporate” event, without mentioning the use of Nazi language and gestures at last year’s conference, or the fact that the speakers and attendees this year would rail against “Big Gay,” “Hispanics coming in,” and whites who “have a nonwhite girlfriend.”
When the farm’s owners discovered they were hosting a white-power group, they immediately asked NPI to leave. Though Spencer told the media afterward that the cancellation had come halfway through the event, in fact NPI was far less lucky. Amid the confusion and secrecy of trying to ferry all the registrants out to Poolesville and confiscate their phones, the conference had started two hours late. There was only time for one conference session—the panel with Peinovich, Kline, and Spencer that I mentioned above—and a socializing break before NPI Executive Director McLaren told everyone the jig was up, and that all the registrants needed to get back in the group’s vans “expeditiously.” The man who was to have delivered the keynote address, Kevin MacDonald, a retired evolutionary psychologist from California State University and perhaps the most prominent anti-Semitic writer in America, never got to deliver one of his famous diatribes calling unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin a “thug,” “hoodlum,” drug dealer, and jewelry thief who likely deserved his fate. Spencer himself gave no major speech. Swedish fascist megapublisher Daniel Friberg, who’d been announced as a headliner along with MacDonald and Spencer, couldn’t appear because the United States had barred him from the country following Charlottesville. The event was a bust.
McLaren said the conference would “resume” at a second location, but that turned out to be a dive bar in Alexandria, Virginia. There was no resumption of the conference, only brewskis. But only half an hour after 40 white nationalists sat down and demanded beer and pizza, the waitress on duty and the owner, also a woman, threw them out.
The waitress, a white single mother, said one of the NPI registrants had “thrown a dime” at her, and another had been sexually inappropriate and threatened her. More importantly, she had recognized the obscure Identity Evropa logo pin many wore on their lapels, and knew from prior reading exactly what the group stood for. She had no intention of serving Nazis. Out they all went into the streets of Alexandria, the gentrified, nearly lily-white DC-adjunct where NPI rents its offices above an expensive chocolate shop called Blüprint Chocolatiers.
So went one actual encounter between the NPI attendees and a member of the white working class. But in the long run, this country may not be so lucky.
The desire to embrace “anticapitalism” and reach out to the left is not a new thing for the white-supremacist movement. A disparate group of far-right writers—from the late Pat Buchanan adviser and slavery apologist Sam Francis, to Greg Johnson of the intellectual racist journal Counter-Currents, to “pan-anarchist” Keith Preston of Attack the System—have been bashing capitalism and attempting to recruit the left for many years. Most chillingly, “anticapitalism” is one of the main points of agreement of the Nationalist Front, a coalition of roughly 10 American neo-Nazi groups organized in 2016 by Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, an anti-gay, anti-Semitic group linked to street violence.
In fact, as political scientist Joseph Lowndes wrote in an important recent piece in the magazine Konturen, the contemporary alt-right was seeded in crucial ways by the formerly progressive critical-theory journal Telos. The publication’s neo-Marxist founder, Paul Piccone, was so arrested by the idea of traditional forms of “authenticity” that could combat capitalism that he eagerly published racists like Francis, “godfather of the alt-right” and Spencer mentor Paul Gottfried, and, most importantly, Alain de Benoist, the French anti-egalitarian philosopher who has provided the intellectual backing for the Europe’s anti-immigrant Identitarian movement and, after being translated into English by Telos, for the American alt-right.
Still, NPI itself has never focused on economic matters, and, until recently, neither did Peinovich or Kline. That they chose to spend so much time at the conference’s only panel talking about “neoliberalism,” and how, according to Peinovich, “We have to push a right-wing workers’ movement,” can partly be attributed to desperation. Kline suggested that the reason for the new focus was that “we’ve almost literally drained the market of libertarians,” who had been the main source of new members. To find new customers, he suggested, white nationalists now needed to look left. As he helpfully noted to the other two, “Leftists are natural activists. That’s gonna be a huge resource we can really tap into.”
White nationalism’s desperation comes not just from the activists’ public shaming and de-platforming after Charlottesville but also from new levels of infighting in a movement that was already famous for it. Shortly after the conference, Kline was forced to step down as head of the racist campus group Identity Evropa, and some alleged this was because of his closeness with Spencer. The organization’s new leader, Patrick Casey, said on an alt-right TV show that the change was made because the membership decided that “What happened in Charlottesville—how disastrously it turned out—really can’t happen again.” Among other things, he said, “We shouldn’t be having rallies where people come and wave swastikas around.” Also, said Casey, three “very serious lawsuits” against IE itself, Kline, and the group’s founder, Nathan Damigo, following Charlottesville were a strong motivation to change.
Still, desperation was hardly the only reason the panelists at NPI talked so much about economic inequality. You could say that the main reason they talked about it is because it’s there. Even middle- and upper-middle-class white folks face rising rents, falling wages, and increasingly inadequate and shoddy health insurance. Even they are dealing with ever rising work hours and the consuming need to increase income to fill the gaps. (One lesson the left failed to take from the pioneering research of Thomas Piketty et al. is that “the 99 percent” means exactly that; even white suburbanites are suffering from the restructuring of the economy to benefit the super-elite, they’re just not suffering nearly as much as poor working people, among whom people of color and immigrants constitute a disproportionately large percentage.)
The white nationalists talked about economic inequality because it really does motivate them, along with the roiling hatred of so many scapegoated groups: African Americans, Latinx, Jews, Muslims, women, Asians, queer and trans people, and others. In discussions of the alt-right, a common error leftist analysts make is to debate whether the movement is primarily motivated by anti-corporate anger or race hatred: The unpleasant and dangerous reality is that it’s both.
Before and after the conference’s only panel, the audience of young white men and some older ones lined up at an omelet station for a luxurious brunch of liquored fruit salad and scrambled eggs with house-smoked salmon and delicious vegetables. I interviewed a few there and in one of the vans that took the racists back to Alexandria, Virginia.
One, a 28-year-old, who called himself “Antiochus,” said he’d been “in high school” when 9/11 happened, and “We were all wondering, why Iraq? What was the purpose [of that war]?” That war, one of the causes of millennials’ dimmed prospects, had been launched by “Jewish interests,” he was sure. His girlfriend, a 26-year-old who said she had “done college online,” told me “the greatest source of meaning in her life” was work to preserve “the environment,” which she said was perfectly compatible with white nationalism. “I’m sure these big corporations are part of the problem,” she told me. About what she called “little corporations,” the woman furious over “mass extinctions” of animal species wasn’t sure. “I think buying from local sources is the most important thing, buy from a local farm!” Antiochus said he’d become “obsessed with Human Bio-Diversity,” the fancy, progressive-sounding term for the old racist notion that there are, as he put it, “obviously subspecies of humans” and that he fell into the “subspecies” most intelligent, most ethical, and most deserving of the few spoils left over after neoliberalism had finished wrecking the earth.
In our interview, Spencer sketched a similar future vision of white people controlling the spoils. He has claimed in the media that he’s “not a fascist,” but in our interview, he finally allowed that “I do have certain elective affinities with the fascist intellectual tradition.” In the state he’s hoping to create after deporting all Jews and people of color, he said, “We will know better for people. We will be a good elite. We will guarantee the health and safety” of whites only.
In JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Saruman is a wizard with seductive powers of persuasion. He delivers hateful, vicious messages to those with whom that method works, sweet messages of solidarity to those who need a warmer touch. Where he trips up is when his opponent finally finds a way to make listeners hear both the vile and wheedling parts of his spiel at once.
Spencer is the alt-right’s Saruman—often its most educated-sounding, coaxing, flattering voice. (A major reason white people join this movement is because it tells them they are smarter and more worthy than the majority of humanity.) But when he thinks no one in the mainstream media is listening—when he thinks that only his “subhuman” enemies or his fellow fascist converts can hear—Spencer delivers the bile: shouting the English translation of “Sieg Heil!” to his Nazi-saluting followers when he thought reporters had left the room; telling the black, British journalist Gary Younge, “You’ll never be an Englishman!” and that “Africans benefited from their experiences of” slavery; and using on Twitter anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi terms that are decipherable only to those already in the know, like the hostile, smirking triple parentheses around the names of Jews, or the term “ZOG,” which refers to our purportedly Jewish-controlled government.
In fact, the alt-right itself is a kind of Saruman—offering a grotesque caricature of social care, community, and the fulfillment of needs, predicated on the violent “cleansing” from society of people of color, Jews, and what the right terms sexual “degenerates,” and the complete subjugation of women. Fascism’s parody of the beloved community is predicated on the constant threat that even those within the magic circle of white malehood can be tossed out on a moment’s notice: Spencer is constantly gay-baited by other white nationalists, Peinovich and Kline viciously trolled by “comrades” who insist their names mean they are Jews. Another neo-Nazi left the movement because his peers made clear to him that they were not fond of his disabled son.
What the left needs to do in this moment of doubt and danger is to put out our vision of care for all, mutual aid for everyone, a true beloved community—a deep and nurturing vision most of us have not mentioned since Trump won. Instead of spending our last breath heaping scorn on our opponents on Twitter, we need to launch long-term, grassroots campaigns of education and conversation in the sectors in which white supremacists are organizing: in the tech world, among white male veterans, and with libertarians and organized atheists, as well as among poor whites. We need to use what even the right acknowledges are our superior skills in organizing to, well, organize: convince, convert, persuade, excite with the vision of what a loving and mutual society would be like.