The Duke Lacrosse Scandal and the Birth of the Alt-Right

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Duke lacrosse player David Evans (center-R), 23 years old, proclaims his innocence after being indicted on sexual-assault charges on May 15, 2006, in Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

After work one day in January 2007, Scott McConnell left his office at the magazine The American Conservative in Arlington, Virginia, and walked to a nearby Thai restaurant that was hosting a panel discussion about the Duke lacrosse scandal. Nine months earlier, three members of the university’s men’s lacrosse team had been accused of raping a black woman they had hired as a stripper. Much of the Duke community, including 88 professors who signed a statement calling the situation a “social disaster,” declared this was merely the latest and most egregious example of the racist, sexist, and privileged behavior that permeated the elite campus. Jesse Jackson showed up, as did news trucks from every major network, and most of the reporting coalesced around the same narrative: A group of wealthy, white men had taken advantage of a poor, black woman, just as white men had done for centuries.

McConnell and his magazine had largely ignored the scandal; identity politics weren’t top of mind for conservative media then, and most outlets weren’t especially interested in defending a group of rich jocks who had hired a stripper. But by January, the case was imploding. The accuser had changed her story more than half a dozen times, one of the players had a well-documented alibi, and DNA tests found no match with any member of the team, a fact the prosecutors initially hid from the defense. McConnell was reminded of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s novel about 1980s New York in which an overzealous prosecutor, the media, and the city’s liberal elite rushed to condemn an innocent white man accused of killing a black man. “There was this palpable yearning among the liberal establishment for guilty white people they could put on trial,” McConnell said, of the lacrosse case.

McConnell and one of his editors, Michael Dougherty, went to the Thai restaurant panel hoping to find someone to write about the case. They knew most of the speakers — an economics professor, an editor at the Washington Times, a men’s-rights blogger — but their talks were so boilerplate that neither McConnell nor Dougherty could recall much about them. The fourth speaker, however, was a Ph.D. candidate in Duke’s history department who delivered a blistering critique of the Duke faculty’s rush to prejudgment. “Scott and I both thought, Here’s a young guy, he presents himself well, and his talk was the most interesting of the night,” Dougherty said recently. “God, I hate to think that we were part of creating this.”

Richard Spencer, the fourth speaker, is now America’s most famous self-identified white nationalist. “In this funny chain of events, the Duke lacrosse case changed the course of my career,” Spencer told me recently. “My life would not have taken the direction it did absent the Duke lacrosse case.” The speech at the Thai restaurant — “Ironic, isn’t it?” he said — pushed him from an academic track toward a more activist one. McConnell commissioned Spencer to write a piece for The American Conservative about the case, and, by the end of the semester, Spencer had dropped out of school to work at the magazine full-time. A year later, he coined the term “alt-right.”

The charges against the lacrosse players were eventually dropped, ten years ago this week, although many people still falsely remember them as having been declared guilty, and the case’s legacy has only become more and more fraught. It has become a touchstone for many on the far right, who have cited it to defend everyone from George Zimmerman to Donald Trump. It chastened the media — until it didn’t — and kneecapped movements at Duke and elsewhere to address issues of racism, sexism, and classism.

It not only launched Spencer’s career, but that of White House adviser Stephen Miller, too. On the morning of Spencer’s talk at the Thai restaurant, Miller — who was then a senior at Duke — published a column in the student newspaper titled “A Portrait of Radicalism,” just a few days after he appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show to chastise Duke’s faculty. Donald Trump didn’t have much to say about the scandal at the time; he hadn’t yet joined Twitter and was devoting his cable-news appearances to his simmering feud with Rosie O’Donnell. But Miller seemed interested in little else. He had become known to some at Duke as the “Miller Outrage Machine” for his willingness to take controversial stands in his biweekly “Miller Time” column, which he wrote for the campus newspaper as a way, he says, to “defend the idea of America.”

In it, Miller complained about Hollywood’s lack of movies about “the merits of capitalism,” and wrote a column titled “Sorry feminists,” in which he declared, “I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable hiring a full-time male babysitter or driving down the street and seeing a group of women carrying heavy steel pillars to a construction site.” In another piece, he called for the celebration of American culture’s “unprecedented depth and unparalleled greatness,” and cited the following examples:

Our culture includes Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jackie Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Milton Friedman, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, and again, for emphasis, Elvis Presley.

(Congratulations to Jackie Wilson, the only nonwhite member of Stephen Miller’s cultural canon, and congratulations to no women.)

But Miller devoted more of his column to the lacrosse scandal than any other topic. As with his early support of Trump, he separated himself with his willingness to defend the players when doing so was unthinkable to many. “If you find yourself in the presence of a student who insists the lacrosse players are a bunch of racist criminals and that the players are guilty no matter what the evidence says — put them in their place,” Miller wrote. “If you don’t, I will.” He took issue with the lack of due process in the case — the prosecutor was later disbarred — but his emerging priorities seemed to be influenced most by the reaction of Duke’s faculty and people in the town of Durham, North Carolina, and he spent most of his time targeting “the chants and screams of the Duke-and-Durham-Left who sprang into action as soon as it became clear that the alleged victim’s story could be used to propagate their destructive black-versus-white worldview.”

Miller’s columns made him a sought-after guest for cable-news bookers desperate for a conservative campus voice. “He was unusually media-savvy,” said K. C. Johnson, a Brooklyn College professor who wrote a book about the case and met Miller several times. “My sense of Stephen then — and there’s certainly nothing that’s changed my mind — is that criticism from what he would see as politically correct elements was not going to dissuade him from speaking up.” Compared to other Duke students who appeared on TV, Miller delivered his arguments forcefully and coherently and withstood criticism. At one point, he appeared during prime time five nights in a single week, and regularly went on Nancy Grace’s show, where he displayed no fear of getting into fights. In one early appearance, Grace asked Miller about the initial indictments of two of the players:

Miller: I speak for many students when I say that we’re very, very concerned that two innocent people may have possibly …

Grace: Oh, good lord! … Do you have a sister?

Miller: Yes, I do.

Grace: I assume you’ve got a mother. I mean, your first concern is that somebody is falsely accused?

Miller: Don’t tell me what my first concern is, please.

Miller was a “true believer,” as Kevin Miller (no relation), a local reporter who often appeared alongside him, told me. “He might as well have been one of the lacrosse players,” he said. At one point, Grace asked Stephen Miller, of the players, “If they jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?” When the case still looked dire, she asked, “Have you filed your transfer papers yet?” Kevin Miller said that he had received death threats during the trial, “so imagine what it was like for Stephen.”

The criticism made it even sweeter for Miller when the case fell apart. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day,” he said on CNN the night the charges against the three players were officially dropped. According to Politico, Miller believes he did as much as the players’ lawyers to exonerate them. “I can see where he would feel vindicated,” K. C. Johnson said. “His basic take on the case proved to be correct, and he was right in a way that the establishment media — the failing New York Times — was not. It took a lot of guts to do what he did.”

Miller’s experience as an unofficial spokesperson for the lacrosse players apparently gave him the confidence and the qualifications to become the official spokesperson for newly minted congresswoman Michele Bachmann, less than a year after graduating from Duke. In Congress, Miller bragged to colleagues about his TV hits from the lacrosse scandal, and three years later, National Journal cited his experience in the lacrosse case as the moment when he “found his own talent for persuasion,” in a piece declaring Miller the youngest of ten “Young Hill Staffers to Watch.” (“Honesty tends to win most issues at the end of the day,” Miller said.) Last year, Miller told Politico, “The thing that I’m proudest of is that I spoke out early and often on behalf of American legal principles in the Duke lacrosse case when it was not popular.” (Miller did not return requests to comment for this story.)

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When Miller joined the Trump presidential campaign, and later accepted a role in the White House, many of Trump’s supporters remembered him. “Just An Attaboy To The New Public Face Of Trump’s Administration Stephan [sic] Miller. Also While A Student At Duke University, Miller Defended Three White Men Of The Lacrosse Team Who Were Falsely Accused Of Rape,” read a post on the subreddit r/The_Donald. The lacrosse case had been Miller’s first experience lambasting the mainstream media while being a guest on mainstream media, and he seemed to have taken several lessons from the experience, including the value of remaining steadfast in the face of full-throated criticism and the potency of pitting one ethnic group against another. Trump’s defense of his comments in the Access Hollywood tape — “This was locker-room banter” — was also a familiar one to Miller, who responded to the revelation of a lewd email sent by one of the lacrosse players (“I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the[y] walk in and proceding [sic] to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke issue spandex”) with a similar defense:

I hate to say it, but if you go to the Great Hall, which is our main dining facility on campus, and you get a group of gregarious guys together and you were listening in on their conversations, they might say something disgusting like that.

Miller also recognized the value of taking cues from Fox News. “You know what you and your paper should do?” Bill O’Reilly told him, at the end of one appearance. “You get your own petition against [the faculty], and we’ll see how many students sign it. And we’ll have your back.” Miller returned to campus and started a petition.

Miller met Richard Spencer during the lacrosse scandal, when the latter became a graduate adviser for the Duke Conservative Union, a student organization Miller led. While Miller has denied Spencer’s suggestion that Spencer served as a kind of mentor, their views on the lacrosse case meshed, and both felt aggrieved by Duke’s faculty. Spencer says that he once served as a TA in a class about the history of genocide — “It was not a how-to course,” he said, as reassurance — and the professor accused him of subverting the class by arguing against intervention in Yugoslavia.

Spencer says that, at the time, he was only beginning to understand the media’s power to shape a narrative. “I learned some things from watching Stephen Miller,” Spencer told me. “I learned from the lacrosse case, and from Trump, that there is a value to perseverance, and there’s a value to just keep going and keep pushing.” Spencer submitted a column to the student paper that he says was rejected, but he didn’t say much publicly about the case until his Thai-restaurant talk. That success — and watching Miller’s cable-news performance — made clear the personal benefits that could accrue for someone willing to provide a conservative counter-narrative in a young fresh package. “I was, philosophically speaking, more or less the person I am today,” he said. “But the Duke lacrosse case catalyzed me to be a pugilist for my views. I’m more combative and come out of the gate taking stands in a way that I wasn’t then.”

Spencer lasted less than a year as an editor at The American Conservative — Scott McConnell said Spencer’s more radical inclinations weren’t yet fully apparent, and the bigger issue was that he “wasn’t really that great at copyediting” — and began writing for a variety of publications, including his own site, altright.com. In his writing, Spencer often cited the lacrosse case as an example of the problems with the liberal insistence on multiculturalism. In a 2010 piece titled “White Devils: The Unbearable Whiteness of Duke Basketball,” he praised Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski for the fact that his rosters often had more white players than other top college basketball teams, “creating a singular program in which Anglo-Saxons and Europeans stand tall.” Duke’s reputation as a privileged, largely white institution, which Spencer found appealing, had fueled much of the vitriol leveled at the university during the lacrosse case. “During the heights of the ‘Duke Lacrosse Hoax,’ I didn’t know how Coach K got away with it,” Spencer wrote. “Or how long the faculty would stand for a starting five that so represented White Privilege and the legacy of slavery.”

Spencer followed that piece with another in 2015 called “Where Have All The White Devils Gone?”, in which he criticized the fact that the percentage of black players on Duke’s roster had gone up since the lacrosse scandal. Spencer theorized that Krzyzewski had engaged in a politically correct makeover of his team, which, in Spencer’s worldview, had the unfortunate effect of giving white and black people a reason to interact. He suggested that the cause of white nationalism might require the dissolution of college and professional sports. “There are tons of reasons for being highly skeptical of sports in America,” Spencer told me. “The reason that is uniquely identitarian is that, at a major college, you end up having white people rooting for black athletes that they would otherwise have nothing to do with.”

Spencer was far from the only far-right writer who regularly referred to the case. “The Duke lacrosse hoax” has appeared regularly over the years on a range of sites, from Stormfront to Breitbart to The Daily Caller, almost always as a means of suggesting that the liberal establishment has yet again been too eager to ascribe guilt and, often, racist intent to accused people in a mind-boggling range of cases — from Amanda Knox to the police officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates. “This is turning out to be the Duke lacrosse case all over again,” Rush Limbaugh said, after George Zimmerman was arrested for Trayvon Martin’s killing.

It didn’t matter how nonsensical some of the comparisons were — “I don’t recall the Duke lacrosse players shooting anyone,” K. C. Johnson said — because the case had become a dog-whistle for many on the right. “Duke lacrosse was sort of the beginning of what, on the right, is hugely talked about now, which is the idea of hoax crimes,” Michael Dougherty, the American Conservative editor, said. “For the last five or ten years, ‘hoax hate crimes’ were what ‘fake news’ is now.” In 2014, Breitbart listed the lacrosse case, alongside O. J. Simpson and Tawana Brawley, as one of “6 Times Black Americans Jumped to Racial Conclusions.” (Many on the right were gleeful, in 2013, when the accuser in the lacrosse case, who was shown to have mental-health issues, was convicted of murdering her boyfriend.) As an earlier version of today’s right-wing trolls, professors who spoke out about the campus culture at Duke had their emails posted on white-supremacist websites, where there were also posts instructing people to leave negative comments on ratemyprofessor.com. Even today, Lee Baker, one of the 88 professors who signed the ad calling for action, says his and other professors’ Wikipedia pages are occasionally edited to include disparaging remarks about their involvement.

While Donald Trump has never explicitly made much of the lacrosse case, it remains meaningful to many of his followers. In the spring of 2015, Ann Coulter wrote a series of columns in which she made rhetorical hay out of the lacrosse scandal, as she had done for years. “There have been more stories about a rape by Duke lacrosse players that didn’t happen than about the slew of child rapes by Hispanics that did,” Coulter wrote. Around the same time, Donald Trump announced his candidacy by declaring that Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems … They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Last April, an NPR listener in New Haven, Connecticut, identified himself as a “white male,” and offered “two words about why I support Donald Trump, and it’s ‘Duke lacrosse.’”

Throughout the campaign, Trump supporters complained about “Duke-lacrosse-style attacks” on their candidate and his circle. “President Trump believes in the presumption of innocence unlike Duke lacrosse hoaxers,” Mike Cernovich, the alt-right journalist, wrote when Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski was accused of assaulting a journalist. When the Access Hollywood tape was released, Trump supporters cited Duke as evidence that the media was continuing its hatchet job, with one going so far as to photoshop Trump’s head onto the body of a Duke lacrosse player:

The case was less meaningful to many of the younger people who seem to make up the alt-right — “I think you have to be at least 30 for Duke lacrosse to affect your consciousness,” Richard Spencer said — but it remains powerful as a moment that justifies the far right’s narrative of modern American society. “It was like a preview of the more dramatic racially charged cases of the last couple of years — how those clear battle lines would get drawn and that the key things were not the facts of the case,” George Hawley, a University of Alabama professor who is writing a book on the alt-right, said. Heidi Beirich, who tracks extremist groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the lacrosse case’s impact wasn’t limited to race-related cases. “It was a big issue in the men’s-rights movement,” she said. “It was heavily discussed on the radical right as a concerted effort to damage the perception of white males — the idea that this multicultural, bullshit, feminist society is setting us up, trying to destroy us, and undermining our behavior; that women are liars and you can’t take them seriously; and that the mainstream media cabal is complicit.”

The cabal had certainly done itself no favors. “It was a journalistic tragedy,” Dan Okrent, the former New York Times’ ombudsman, said. The case “fulfilled every wet dream of a particular type of editor’s sensibility: white over black, privileged over poor, male over female,” Okrent said. Most of the media didn’t cover the case with near enough scrutiny. (A notable exception was Megyn Kelly, who made her name as a former lawyer covering the legal aspects of the case; Roger Ailes’s only criticism of Kelly at the time was, “Megyn, you have to show vulnerability.”) If there was an overarching lesson for the media, it was that fitting facts to a narrative was a dangerous game, and little since has suggested any deeply learned lessons: in 2014, Rolling Stone’s false rape story at UVA became another far-right touchstone. Twitter has only encouraged prejudgment across ideological lines without much evidence — whether from conservative outlets insisting that something must be amiss within the Clinton Foundation, to liberal ones insisting President Trump is a Manchurian candidate hewing to the demands of Vladimir Putin. “I suspect — and I really stress the verb — that it did have an effect for a while,” Okrent said, of the humbling effect the lacrosse case had on the press. “But the way things work in media culture is, if you see something delicious come your way, you forget that you overate last night.”

On campus, the backlash against those who had spoken out so strongly in the beginning made it difficult to address the deeper issues that had come up. “Some of my most skeptical and radical friends still harbor shame that they thought these men were guilty,” Shadee Malaklou, a classmate of Miller’s who is now a professor at Beloit College, said. While some tried to argue that, regardless of the facts of the case, the outcry had been necessary, given the fact that a poor, black woman had little reason to believe the system would protect her in the face of wealthy, white defendants, the case’s collapse made it more difficult to address the issues — privilege, jock culture, the university’s poor relations with neighboring Durham — that much of the campus agreed needed reckoning with. The players were declared innocent, legally speaking, but everyone could see there was something wrong with a group of 40 white college students hiring a black stripper, only to greet her arrival with one of the players saying, “We asked for whites, not niggers.”

Miller was one of the few prominent voices who didn’t seem to think there was much of a problem at all. After the scandal first broke, he denounced calls for Duke students to become more engaged with Durham, which is more than one-third African-American, by calling it “one of the last spots in America anyone would visit” and declaring that “Duke has about as many racists as Durham has museums.” Miller’s concern in the lacrosse case was always clear: He routinely claimed that he was defending due process, and yet, when he condemned the lack of faculty outrage about the alleged rape of a white Duke student by a black man that happened after the lacrosse scandal, he did so two years before that case was properly adjudicated.

In many ways, Miller seems to have moved on from what ultimately vindicated him in the lacrosse case. At the time, he condemned the use of racist rhetoric (“If somebody said to a black person or an Asian person or a Jewish person or any person something like that and I was around, I would put them in their place, because there’s no place for that in America”) and demanded that Duke’s professors admit when they had made mistakes. He talked about how nongovernmental entities such as universities, or perhaps political campaigns, shouldn’t get ahead of law enforcement in encouraging that someone be locked up.

More than anything else, he stuck to the facts. “The reason Miller was right was he had the facts on his side, and he was willing to argue based on those facts,” K. C. Johnson said. “He wasn’t claiming there were a million people from Massachusetts crossing in buses into New Hampshire. It’s almost as if he’s taken the willingness to engage in the rhetorical battle and forgotten that the reason you win is you have the facts on your side. I’m not sure that lesson has stayed with him.” In closing his American Conservative essay on the matter, Richard Spencer offered a warning. “As is often the case,” he wrote, “those who seek power usually have the greatest pretensions of authenticity and moral outrage.”

*This post originally stated that the lacrosse players were acquitted; the charges against them were actually dropped. The story has been updated.

The Duke Lacrosse Scandal and the Birth of the Alt-Right