White nationalism has a branding problem. The election of Donald Trump proved there’s an appetite for its basic principles — namely, that an ideal America is an America ruled politically, culturally, and demographically by white people, catering to their desires and ideas about belonging and maintained through the demonization, flagellation, and expulsion of their chosen enemies. But nobody wants to be called a racist. So while the prospect of an ethnostate has its charms for many Americans, being associated with unsavory types like Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen remains a deal breaker for some. The movement’s activists know this. Leaders like David Duke vehemently reject the impulse to cast those “[defending] the heritage of European-American people” as “racist.” Others, like Identity Evropa organizer Daniel Morley, have dedicated their lives to helping others game the debate. “A good strategy would be to steer the definition of ‘racism’ toward ‘racial hatred,’” Morley reportedly told one member last year. “We don’t hate other races, so we’re not racists. After all, the word isn’t going away. May as well control it.”
These people thrive in the gaps between Americans’ fear of being called racist, their attraction to racist ideas, and their inability to recognize racism that doesn’t advertise itself as such. Representative Steve King espoused white nationalism from the House floor for 16 years before earning a rebuke from his Republican colleagues, which came only after he asked a New York Times interviewer how terms like white supremacist had become offensive. Meanwhile, he has managed to win nine Congressional elections. Recognition that people like King are not outliers — that racism is most palatable in a suit and tie — has inspired a spate of news features about similarly groomed bigots at outlets including Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. The subject of several has been Richard Spencer, whose profile rose alongside Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016. The so-called dapper face of contemporary white nationalism, Spencer runs a white-supremacist think tank and was a featured speaker at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Over the weekend, Milo Yiannopoulos, the disgraced former Breitbart editor and a social rival of Spencer’s, published audio that he claimed had been leaked from a meeting Spencer attended after the Charlottesville rally. Spencer was purportedly angry about the negative press generated by the killing of Heather Heyer — whom white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. intentionally hit with his car during the march — and how it might disfavor his political movement. Here’s an excerpt:
I am so mad. I am so fucking mad at these people. They don’t do this to fucking me. We’re going to fucking ritualistically humiliate them. I am coming back here every fucking weekend if I have to. Like this is never over. I win. They fucking lose. That’s how the world fucking works. Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octoroons. My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit. I rule the fucking world. Those pieces of shit get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them. That’s how the fucking world works. We are going to destroy this fucking town.
If the man on the recording is indeed Spencer, the veneer he has cultivated as a palatable alternative to people in white robes burning crosses in the woods is all but shattered. His references to “kikes” (a slur for Jews), “octoroons” (an anachronism for a person with one-eighth black ancestry), and the enslaving of their forebears are the most flagrant expressions yet of the animus he has long tried to hide beneath sartorial verve. The recording remains unverified by news outlets, and the possibility that Yiannopoulos, a notorious troll, fabricated it for attention is not out of the question. But nor does its ideological veracity require it to be authentic: None of what Spencer stands for is mysterious, and the frequency with which his public appearances are protested — and even greeted with punches to the face — suggests that plenty of others aren’t fooled either.
But the recording occasions a larger point, which is that what’s normal is no longer scandalous. And the president of the United States has already been such an effective mouthpiece for Spencer’s ideals, and for so long, that the activist greeted his election with chants of “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” before a crowd of followers performing Nazi salutes. The hordes of white supremacists among whom Spencer allegedly noted a branding problem in Charlottesville contained “very fine people,” according to Trump — perhaps the most fortuitous public-relations boost he could’ve asked for at the time. Meanwhile, Trump’s casting of black people as “shithole”-dwellers, Latino immigrants as criminals, and Muslims as terrorists to rationalize preventing their immigration to the U.S. is as enthusiastic a meld of bigotry and policy as Spencer could’ve dreamed up. Trump’s campaign to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census in order to expand the political influence of white people at the expense of Latinos advances a broader GOP effort to erode black and brown electoral power and, by extension, reduce our say in government.
None of these efforts require the “white nationalist” label to implement a white-nationalist agenda. Nor do their respectable trappings negate their violent implications. But Americans have long proved that they’re easily seduced by ugly ideas in shiny packages and will gladly deny the presence of racism as long as it’s declared obliquely rather than explicitly. Spencer may have violated this implicit contract. But he can rest easy knowing that the president of the United States is doing more to advance his cause than he ever could.