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White Nationalist Richard Spencer Is Donald Trump’s Most Avid Apprentice

The de facto leader of the alt-right has learned from the master about manipulating the media.

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty

On Tuesday morning, the New York Times editorial board condemned the silence of Donald Trump after a gathering of Trump supporters—charming folk who fancy themselves to be the intellectual vanguard of a rebranded white-supremacist movement—showed off their best Nazi salutes during an anti-Semitic stemwinder on Saturday night by their de facto leader, Richard Spencer.

Trump subsequently, abruptly canceled—via Twitter, of course—a scheduled meeting with editors and writers from the Times. He blamed the paper for demanding new ground rules, which its editors denied they had done. Then the president-elect reversed himself and put the meeting back on his schedule.

Once again, whether by design or disorganization, Trump had members of the media sitting on the edge of their seats—arguably the position in which the president-elect best likes to see them. And it’s a good bet that Richard Spencer was following every turn of the day’s mini-drama. The front man of the “alt-right,” the hipsterish brand name adopted by Spencer for his basket of deplorables, has shown himself to be a remarkably adept student of Trump’s media manipulations.

In its editorial, the Times’s collective voice asked a valid question: Why would the next president take to his keyboard to condemn the cast members of the Broadway show Hamilton for imploring Vice President-elect Mike Pence, during the recent performance he attended, to protect the rights of all Americans and celebrate the country’s diversity—but fail to condemn the hatred spewed by his own alt-right followers at a conference sponsored by Spencer’s National Policy Institute?

For Spencer, the whole episode had to be sweet. If The New York Times and the president-elect were sparring over an NPI event, then his rag-tag movement of 200 politely dressed bigots had clearly made it into big-league media. And they’d done it by following the formula Donald Trump demonstrated during his presidential campaign: not simply by being outrageous, but by being strategic about it—meting out outrageous acts over a 12-hour period, for instance, ensuring an extra day of media attention for one little conference. (Meanwhile, some 3,000 progressives had gathered for a convention that received comparatively little coverage.)

Spencer had not exactly been generous with press credentials to the conference, but he invited reporters to attend a midday press conference during Saturday’s “Become Who We Are” confab. The (relatively) mediagenic white supremacist allowed that he and the man in the glass tower had yet to meet. Not surprisingly, he said he saw the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon to the role of chief strategist to the new president as a big plus. (Bannon, who before he came aboard the Trump campaign was chief executive of Breitbart News, famously boasted to journalist Sarah Posner that Breitbart had become “the platform for the alt-right.”)

“Donald Trump’s campaign was the first step toward identity politics in the United States,” Spencer told about 100 reporters, including me. “I do not think that Donald Trump is alt-right, I don’t think Steve Bannon is alt-right as I would define the term, but I do think that we have a, you could say, a psychic connection or a deeper connection with Donald Trump in a way that we simply do not have with most or all Republicans.”

By Monday, two days later, news stories from the press conference—and the later, less-reported Nazi salutes—were proliferating. A handful of rights-group leaders had called on Trump to denounce the words and behavior of the white supremacists who see Trump as their hero. Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks finally was compelled to respond, or at least to offer this: “Mr. Trump has always denounced these groups and individuals associated with a message of hate,” she said. “Mr. Trump will be a president for all Americans. However, he totally disavows the support of this group, which he does not want or need.”

The president-elect remained silent.

While it is impossible to guess whether Donald Trump and Richard Spencer would actually enjoy each other’s company if they met, this much is clear: They have found each other to be mutually useful.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump and his eldest son, Don Jr., retweeted posts that originated on Twitter accounts associated with white supremacists and the alt-right. (Though Trump never retweeted posts from Spencer’s own account, Don Jr. retweeted a post by Kevin MacDonald, an anti-Semitic psychology professor who was one of the featured speakers at the NPI conference.) He no doubt won some new supporters that way. At the same time, as Hillary Clinton noted in her speech on the alt-right back in August, Trump was effectively amplifying the voices of white supremacists who had few followers by pushing those messages out to his Twitter audience of 11 million.

The explosion of alt-right hatred on Twitter—including the July hounding of actor Leslie Jones, who is African American, by a tweeting horde that followed the baton of Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannapoulos—apparently induced some soul-searching among the platform’s gatekeepers. They banned Yiannapoulos on the eve of the Republican National Convention, at which the Breitbart personality had several scheduled appearances. Continuing the trend, just days before Spencer’s big conference, Twitter suspended his account and those of others who work with him, citing a violation of its rules against hate speech.

Whatever anguish Spencer may have felt at losing his Twitter platform was likely diminished by the media boon his suspension turned out to be, winning him interviews on CBS News and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

At his press conference, he got to play the victim—striking another Trumpian note. Spencer appealed to the assembled journalists to champion the cause of free speech by urging Twitter to reinstate his and other NPI accounts. “Being censored from Twitter in the 21st century is really the equivalent, in many ways, of being censored by a government in times past,” he said. “It is that strong; it is that much of a restriction on our ability to communicate with you.”

Throughout the proceedings, conducted in the same ballroom in the Ronald Reagan Building where his larger celebration of whiteness took place, Spencer demonstrated his skills as a polemical entertainer. He came off, by turns, as affable, prickly, charming, abrasive, and borderline abusive. Dressed in a nicely tailored grey three-piece suit, the 38-year-old looked a bit like the junior partner in a 1950s legal drama, his sandy hair close-cropped but for the bit on top (in the style of the white nationalist “undercut”). His blue eyes were penetrating, his smile broad and quick. On the stage, studies in contrast, sat three pale men who looked to be in their 60s: Peter Brimelow of VDARE, Jared Taylor of American Renaissance and MacDonald, the anti-Semitic academic. The old vanguard of academic racism.

The new model, Spencer, used polite and sanitized language to define his “white identity” movement, answering questions at length. But he also employed the Trump trick of demeaning reporters whose questions he found irritating. One such moment came when Adrian Florido of NPR’s “Code Switch” podcast, citing the linguistic term “pejoration” (the process by which certain expressions become socially unacceptable), asked whether “alt-right” was simply a race-neutral term for what used to be called white supremacy.

“I think your question is: ‘I don’t like you, and so maybe I shouldn’t talk to you,’” Spencer replied. “I don’t understand really what you’re saying, and I think we’ve actually answered this about 10 times. ... I think identity matters; I like the term ‘identitarian;’ it certainly hasn’t caught on as well as ‘alt-right’. ... I mean, the whole point is that this is a movement of consciousness and identity for European people in the 21st century. That’s what it is. If you don’t like it, you can talk about linguistics.”

When Alex Emmons of The Intercept asked him to respond to the fears experienced by non-white people in response to Trump’s election, Spencer said, “You’re just kinda like not engaging with reality.”

Another reporter reminded Spencer of his remark to Rolling Stone that women ultimately long to be “taken by a strong man,” and asked him to comment on his quote in the context of Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” quip on the leaked video from Access Hollywood. Spencer predictably doubled down, citing Trump’s wealth and success as evidence of his attractiveness. MacDonald piped up at this point: There was evolutionary evidence to back up Spencer’s claim, he said.

Because the presser took place in the same room as the NPI’s “Be Who We Are” proceedings, it came with a ready-made audience of raucous back-benchers, loudly applauding their leader at the podium and occasionally shouting at reporters. There was no missing the resemblance to the so-called press conferences conducted by Trump at his various resorts during the Republican primary campaign.

When I asked Spencer if there was consensus among alt-right constituencies on the first thing Trump should do upon taking office, the rabble erupted: “The wall! Build the wall!”

“I guess I don’t have to answer that,” Spencer said, laughing, adding that the new president should get right to work on his foreign-policy priorities—like withdrawing from NATO, and making friends with Russia.

For the enterprising daily journalist, the press conference alone offered plenty of material for a meaty news report. Only a handful of reporters stayed behind to witness Spencer’s most spectacular performance, at the end of the night. It was a star turn that earned him a spot on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times web edition, in a report describing the virulently anti-Semitic speech with which he closed the conference, complete with the use of Nazi propaganda terms in German, such as “lügenpresse” (lying press). A film crew from The Atlantic captured footage showing members of the audience leaping to their feet to give the Nazi salute, as Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” (The saluters are shown only from the back, in keeping with Spencer’s rule forbidding the filming of conference-goers’ faces—a necessary measure, he said, because of the risks to their lives and livelihoods people took in order to participate.)

Spencer proved he had learned his Trump media-manipulation lessons well. His double shot of “earned media” from the NPI conference called to mind how the Trump campaign, back on August 31, confounded the press by conducting a genial photo-op for the candidate in Mexico City in a joint appearance with Enrique Peña Nieto, president of the country Trump had promised to wall off—only to see the candidate turn around and hold a rally in Phoenix later that evening filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and tropes. If the first event was a big news story designed for the media and elites, the second guaranteed a juicy morning read for the masses.

It could be argued that with his several hundred conference-goers, and no big budget, Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute pose little real threat to anybody. Yet Spencer’s prowess at manipulating reporters into covering him, into giving him airtime, allows him to enter into the body politic the most toxic of tropes and ideas about non-whites, and about women. And those tropes and ideas can find a hold in the minds of those who harbor such resentments, but have only expressed them in a more garden-variety sort of a way—picking fights with “politically correct” relatives at the Thanksgiving table, say, or looking the other way when a fellow human being is targeted (even cheering hate crimes on).

For reporters and editors, the challenge posed by the likes of Richard Spencer is how to cover his movement responsibly, without feeding it. However small in numbers its ranks really are, the alt-right’s exploitation by the Trump campaign during the presidential race renders it significant.

Another reminder came late afternoon on Tuesday. Trump had indeed ultimately met with The New York Times, and journalists who’d been in the room started tweeting the president-elect’s detailed utterances on various topics, including the alt-right, and Richard Spencer’s white supremacist conference.

“I condemn them,” Trump reportedly said. “I condemn and disavow.”

Perhaps this once, the attention paid by journalists to hateful attention-seekers was not misplaced.