On Friday afternoon, Richard Spencer, president of the innocuously named National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, took the podium at a tiny conference room at the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington. Earlier this week, Spencer and his guests, Jared Taylor, editor of the white supremacist site American Renaissance, and Peter Brimelow, of the anti-immigration site VDARE, announced they would hold a discussion called “What is the alt-right?” ahead of Trump’s speech at the Values Voter Summit across town at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
The alt-right, as you may have heard, is having a bit of a moment. In earlier years, the movement — which combines elements of racism, anti-Semitism, and a general preference for nationalist strongmen over the candidates of either party — was mostly confined to the realm of dark web message boards, 4chan, and obscure blogs. About a year ago, they burst onto the scene and established a new home for themselves in Donald Trump’s campaign. In Trump, they found a candidate uniquely suited to the movement’s interests: funny, eminently meme-able, and promising to fix America’s worst problems through the sheer force of his will. Perhaps most important, they found a man willing to say the racist things no other mainstream politician would. As Trump steamrolled his way through the primaries, the newly emboldened alt-righters emerged as a force on social media. Among their targets were liberals (otherwise known as libtards), Jews, feminists, the media, and insufficiently reactionary conservatives, whom they called “cucks” — an insult that reveals more about the person delivering it than it does the target of the insult.
Still, the alt-right mostly avoided mainstream recognition until last month, when Hillary Clinton took to the national stage to verbally bludgeon Trump for enabling the alt-right’s emergence into mainstream American politics.
Up until now, the public face of the movement, if you can call it that, has largely been Pepe the frog. Spencer and his fellow alt-righters wanted to seize the moment to explain their beliefs to journalists, but even the logistics were controversial: A few days before the event was to happen, Spencer sent out a press release — complete with a logo spelling AR in triangles, set on a celestial backdrop — advertising the talk as taking place at the National Press Club. The day before the event, though, the press contact announced the alt-right had been dropped from the venue. Spencer, decrying the press club’s censorship, moved it to an undisclosed location owing to unspecified security concerns. When I emailed the press contact asking how to attend, I was directed to go to Old Ebbitt Grill, a lunch spot popular among tourists and downtown D.C. office dwellers, to await instruction. When I arrived, a man wearing a gray suit and brown tie pointed me down the street to the Willard Hotel, where the press conference was being held at the end of an ornately tapestried hall, in the appropriately named Peacock Room.
“So, who are we?” Spencer said. “I think if I were to describe what a lot of people know about the alt-right, it’s probably some things they’ve seen online — it’s Pepe memes, it’s the parenthesis,” he said, referring to the practice, first used by anti-Semites but later reclaimed by Jews, of putting parentheses around the names of Jewish writers to signify their ethnicity. “It’s the take-no-prisoners attitude on places like Twitter and things like that. I think people have a superficial understanding about who we are by looking at those things.”
Spencer tried to elaborate: “I don’t think the best way of understanding the alt-right is strictly in terms of policy. I think metapolitics is more important than politics. I think big ideas are more important than policies,” he said. If the alt-right were in power, he argued, the world would be a happier place, and “we all would have arrived here via magnetic levitation trains.” A good mantra that encapsulates the beliefs of the alt-right, he said, is that “race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity. You can’t understand who you are without race.” The refugee crisis in Europe, he said, by way of illustration, “is something like a world war, something like a race war.”
“I would say another aspect of the alt-right is don’t be a cuck. Cuckservative is probably a term that all of you know,” he continued. “This is a term that was organically invented, it came into being on Twitter and other places a year ago — it’s obviously a reference to being a cuckold — raising other people’s children, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s also a reference of the cuckoo bird. The cuckoo bird will fly into another bird’s nest and lay eggs with the other eggs.”
This is, to put it mildly, a very polite gloss on the much more graphic popular conception of what a cuckold is, especially on the internet. And if Spencer, Taylor, and Brimelow were attempting to put a more human face on a social-media movement that has made a name for itself by publishing the most vile shit imaginable, it was going to take a little more work. While Spencer spoke, someone with an alt-right hashtag in their Twitter bio and a background image of a swastika rising like a golden sun over the countryside was adding me to a Twitter list called “cattle cars” — as in, the vehicles used to send Jews to death camps during the Holocaust. Another was inviting his internet friends to “rate this yiddess’s aesthetic.” “The frog is an expression of — it’s a smug frog that’s an expression of someone who’s willing to speak the truth,” he said, as young men in the audience snickered.
But in some ways, Spencer was just the warmup act. After a brief talk from Brimelow, a silver-mop-haired man in a three-piece suit warning of America’s inevitable crackup, Spencer introduced Jared Taylor as the man who “red-pilled me” with his writings about race.
A key thing to know about Taylor — other than that he is a virulent racist — is that he pronounces whites wuh-hites, with extra emphasis on the h. “We have very good data on this subject, going back 100 years now,” said Taylor. “It’s very, very clear that Asians have the highest IQ, then wuh-hites, then Hispanics, then blacks.” Taylor went on like this, noting that the kinds of bacteria that make up a person’s mouth could be used to determine their race, that there was a reason that Haiti and Africa were both poor. The idea that race is a social construct, he said, “is so wrong and so stupid that only very intelligent people could convince themselves of it.” It was the most apt — and ironic — thing that any of them, including Taylor, a Yale graduate, said all afternoon.
If there were ever any real security concerns, they never materialized. In all, the event lasted over two hours, and most of the question-and-answer segment was taken up by alt-right supporters and members of the media asking about Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Spencer was happy to oblige. “I don’t think our support of Trump is really about policy at the end of the day. It’s about style over substance. Because, you know, policy, what does that really matter? I think it’s really about Trump’s style, the fact that he doesn’t back down, the fact that he’s willing to confront his enemies, especially on the left … you look at that and think, this is what a leader looks like, this is what we want,” he said. “He seems to be willing to go there. He seems to be willing to confront people. That’s very different than a cuckold.”