Some of the most prominent members of the so-called “alt-right”, the white nationalist movement that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency, gathered in Washington DC on Saturday to plot how the movement can “start influencing policy and culture” under the Trump administration.
There was a celebratory mood as Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, a nationalist thinktank which hosted the day-long conference, talked about how the “alt-right” would be an “intellectual vanguard” for Trump and the rightwing at large.
But to an outsider, the conference merely served as a shocking insight into the racism, sexism and disturbing beliefs of the “alt-right”.
The event concluded with a 40-minute pseudo-academic lecture called America and Jewish Consciousness, by Kevin MacDonald, a former psychology professor described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic”, and a series of Nazi salutes by members of the audience.
Trump’s win in the presidential election, and the subsequent selection of Stephen Bannon – the executive chairman of Breitbart News – as Trump’s “chief strategist”, made for plenty of optimism.
Spencer, one of the most prominent faces of the movement, was among the most optimistic about Trump’s presidency.
“With Donald Trump, we feel like we have a dog in the fight for the first time,” Spencer told the Guardian. “And with him there’s a real chance we could start influencing policy and culture.”
Spencer said the “alt-right” was aiming to exert that influence by publishing regular policy papers advancing white nationalist ideas. The hope is that “alt-right” ideas can enter the mainstream and – through Trump and Bannon – have an impact on the government.
A policy he mentioned several times on Saturday is “a break on all immigration” for a 50-year period – something he believes would help maintain a white-dominant society in the US.
“We want to influence people. We want to be an intellectual vanguard that starts to inflect policy, inflect culture, inflect politics,” he said.
“That’s what we can do.”
The “alt-right” visit to Washington DC had got off to an inauspicious start.
Conference attendees had gathered at a restaurant for a private dinner on Friday night, but anti-fascism protesters were tipped off to their location and stormed into the restaurant, disrupting the meal.
The protesters were swiftly ushered outside, but not before one of them had sprayed Spencer with what the thinktank president described as a “shit-smelling substance”.
On Saturday morning, about 200 activists demonstrated outside the conference at the Ronald Reagan building, a couple of blocks south-east of the White House.
Inside Spencer, who seemed to have got rid of the smell, held a press conference in the convention hall. About 150 movement adherents watched as journalists asked questions; listeners occasionally booed certain publications – including the Guardian.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has described Spencer as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis”, and on Saturday he was dressed accordingly, in a fitted grey suit and brown loafers, and sporting an undercut hairstyle.
Spencer, 38, who grew up in Boston, had convened a panel of five other white men for the conference, but he did most of the talking – railing against the protesters and Twitter, which recently suspended the accounts of Spencer and others.
When the time came for questions, I pointed out – to more boos from the crowd – that there were very few women at the event. It prompted a surreal discussion between six white men about the sexual preferences of women.
The almost entirely male audience cheered when Spencer made his statement about women’s desire for a “strong man”.
“I’ve looked at a lot of romance novels that women read and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern,” Spencer said.
“Romance novels about cubicle-dwelling boring computer programmers don’t sell very well. Romance novels about cowboys and vikings seem to be very popular. We might want to look at something like that and see if that tells us something about human nature.”
MacDonald, the academic, had been drafted onto the panel. He also chipped in.
“This is textbook stuff,” MacDonald said. “Women are attracted to wealth and power.”
The term “alt-right” was coined by Spencer, and refers to an American movement. But it was clear that the success of the movement had begun to interest people from elsewhere.
Three men from a Dutch group called Erkenbrand, which they said was inspired by the movement, had come to the US specifically for the conference.
“It’s about preserving the nationality of our country,” said one of them, who gave his name as Bas. “It’s coming to a point where in 50 years, ethnically Dutch will be a minority.”
Matthew Tait, a former member of the British National party, a far-right political party that peaked in 2009, when it won two seats in European parliament, was also in attendance. He said he had formed “alt-right London” in August. The group has around 25 members.
“I’ve got people coming along who have never been involved in any politics before, never been involved in any political party, but they have become red-pilled,” Tait said, a reference to the 1999 film, The Matrix, on the idea of taking a pill and recognising reality.
“A lot of that comes from the shared language we have with Americans. It’s a lot of the American websites – it’s from VDare, American Renaissance [two popular ‘alt-right’ websites] and to even Alex Jones, they’ve come into contact with out-of-the-box thinking.”
Like Spencer, Tait, 31, was well-dressed, in a sharp suit and a white open-necked shirt.
Well-spoken and porcine, he seemed harmless enough until he started talking about how “you can’t really be English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh unless you are broadly genetically from that place”. He told me that his test for Britishness would be to “use your eyes”, and talked about how British people of Indian and Pakistani heritage – even third generation Brits – would ideally self-deport “to be with their own people”.
Outside the conference, the anti-fascist activists were protesting almost exactly the kind of thing Tait was saying. The demonstration continued for most of the day, blocking the main entrance to the Reagan building.
The presence of the protesters meant that most of the conference attendees chose to spend a designated two-hour break inside the building, instead of exploring the National Mall or walking over towards the White House.
It gave me the opportunity to chat to some of the conference-goers. A 26-year-old man named JP started telling me about the culture of the movement.
“There are three categories of clothing,” he said.
“There’s ‘fascie’. That’s like a portmanteau of the word fascist but used to describe a look – like a really dark suit.
“You’ve got the heritage look, tweed, cable knit, corduroy pants. The kind of stuff you see Nigel Farage walking around in. Then there’s retro 1980s: bomber jacket, acid-wash jeans.”
I’d noticed the number of people with undercuts at the conference – the short back and sides, long on top hairstyle popular with people from Brooklyn and actors from the television show Peaky Blinders. It’s called a fascie, JP said.
JP, who was wearing a purple suit, a grey turtleneck, and Wolverine boots that his cousin bought him for his birthday, had travelled to the conference from Connecticut.
He’d told his parents he was going to media event for millennials – he’s a media production student – and as we walked outside the convention hall to get some air he told me he was uncomfortable with having lied.
“I feel like a piece of shit,” JP said.
“It’s difficult sometimes because my family doesn’t like it when I talk about politics. And it’s sad for me because I know it makes them uncomfortable, but at the same time it almost feels like I’m coming out of the closet in the way.
“In fact that’s what it feels like for a lot of millennials. They feel like they can’t be who they are.”
A lot of people at the conference talked to me about about “evolutionary psychology”: the idea that human behavior has been shaped by natural selection. They almost always used this idea to draw parallels between race and intelligence.
JP gave an example.
“Different ethnic groups are more likely to have higher IQs than each other,” he said.
“Let’s say that you live in an area where it snows a lot – well, your ancestors have to figure out how to deal with the snow. Which means they have to figure out how to store food and for how long, how much salt do they have to put in with the meat. All these things that caused their brain to go: ‘OK, how do I …’
“Whereas if, let’s say, you live in a jungle environment where there’s food literally everywhere and there’s only two weather conditions, rainy and sunny, then your brain doesn’t need to really go: ‘Oh, I got to think about how to do stuff.’”
This was one of the many times at the NPI conference where I was being told so many offensive things I felt as if I was being lampooned. But time after time I heard variations on the same themes JP or Tait had talked about.
At the conference’s evening drinks reception, I was chatting to a smartly dressed man in his mid-40s. Like many at the conference, he didn’t want to be named. When he realized I was British, he told me the UK was “infested with blacks”. He then said people from Africa were at a “different level of evolutionary development” and that non-white people were of “inferior stock”.
The man was more openly racist than others at the conference – he actually used the term “racist” to refer to himself – but his comments were essentially the same as what JP had said.
And it wasn’t as if the racism was only coming from casual attendees.
Bill Regnery, the founder of the National Policy Institute and a man who looks like a less pleasant version of Ron Paul, came over to me at one point near the entrance to the convention center and grabbed my arm. He said he thought the “alt-right” was “fucking brilliant”, then started talking about how “Pakis” – a racial slur for people from Pakistan – were ruining the UK.
Reeling from that, I walked into the area where people were eating dinner just in time to see around 20 men – some wearing Make America Great Again hats – leap from their seats and give the Nazi salute to a speaker.
One of the men wearing a hat, called Mack, walked past and me and I asked what the salute was about.
“The whole thing is we have jokes that offend the outside and we laugh,” he said.
While Mack and I were talking, MacDonald, the former professor, was giving his speech on America and Jewish consciousness. He’d started off his speech by saying: “Tonight I want to talk about Jews,” which had got a big laugh from the crowd.
I asked Mack, 30, if he believed in the Holocaust. A couple of people I’d spoken to earlier had expressed doubts.
“I’m not sure, I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “If it did happen, that’s a terrible thing. I don’t agree with genocide.
“But I mean, if it happened it’s a very practical, I mean an uber-practical, kind of thing to say: ‘If it is people among a people who, let’s say, are destroying Germany because of x, y, z, then let’s root them all out and destroy them as people completely.’
“That’s pretty practical. But it doesn’t mean that it’s a moral thing. It’s not admirable. I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
There didn’t seem to be a consistent theme in why people at the conference wanted a majority-white America. The people I spoke to didn’t even have that much in common, beyond being racist and angry and confused.
JP said his family were all Democrats. He’d become interested in the “alt-right” through the internet. A man who wanted to be identified as “an attendee” said he became a white nationalist after his father-in-law drove him through a predominantly black neighborhood in a large city.
Others cited suspect academics, whose work is circulated by “alt-right” publications, to suggest that different races were better kept apart.
The movement is sometimes presented as a sort of blue-collar rejection of establishment politicians and the status quo.
But this wasn’t a gathering of a forgotten white working class, who had lost manufacturing jobs or been left behind by globalization. The majority of attendees were in their 20s or 30s, and everyone I spoke to either had a job or was in school.
This was essentially a gathering of racists. Racists who have found a movement that echoes their views and gives them a place to vent their anger.
In a different time, it might have been better to ignore these people entirely. There have always been angry, confused, racist men.
But this particular group of angry, confused, racist men now have a president who was elected, in part, by speaking their language. In Bannon, they will have one of the icons of their movement stationed in the White House, advising that president.
With Spencer and the rest of the “alt-right” hoping to capitalize on those connections, dismissing this movement would be a mistake.
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