When it was first announced that Richard Spencer, one of the founding fathers of the alt-right, would be giving a talk on April 18 at Auburn University in Alabama, it immediately and quite predictably set off a flurry of threats and counter-threats between the strangely symbiotic camps of America’s fascists and anti-fascists. The website for Antifa (short for anti-fascist) blared that Spencer and his goons were descending on the South, threatening to overrun Auburn with white power combatants armed in “safety gear.” In response, a group calling itself the White Student Union at Auburn, which until recently had been going under the impressively serpentine acronym WAR EAGLE—Whites of the Alt-Right Educating Auburn Gentiles for Liberation and Empowerment—plastered Auburn with warnings that the anti-fascists, in their violent rage, would not distinguish between fascists and innocent freshmen. “We don’t mind if you disagree with us, we just want you to be safe,” a flier said with maternal concern.
In the face of all this, the university informed Spencer that he was not welcome after all, to which Spencer replied that he would come anyway, since Auburn is a public school and First Amendment laws applied. Auburn is a picturesque campus that could be mistaken for a northeastern liberal arts school, the main difference being the conservative bent of Auburn’s students. Even so, Spencer’s brand of nationalism is a bridge too far for most of the student body, and on the morning of the speech many of them were preparing to protest, drawing up signs of “Love Trumps Hate” and “No Fascists at Auburn.”
It is a disorienting time to be in the alt-right. Mere months after seeing its champion ascend to the height of power, the movement is going through a painful and public break-up. The members of the alt-right feel they played a large part in making Donald Trump president, and now he is giving them the cold shoulder. “It certainly feels like a parting of ways,” Spencer told me. “A lot of us feel disillusioned and even burned by Trump. In a sense we thought that the alt-right could be Trump’s brain, but now he has Ivanka, and Jared and Paul Ryan for that. Basically people who aren’t me. You can’t really prepare yourself for what it feels like.”
Like most break-ups, the relationship has been troubled for a while. Many on the alt-right were disappointed in Trump’s rapid embrace of conservative dogma, focusing on heath care and tax cuts rather than building his promised wall on the Mexican border, with his bare hands and a hammer if he had to. Yet the final straw was the 59 missiles Trump fired at a Syrian airbase, which struck the alt-right as 59 daggers in their backs. Trump had not only broken his promise not to engage in any new wars; he was also pissing off Syria’s ally Russia, thereby attacking Vladimir Putin, the alt-right’s favorite strongman. In short, Trump was doing exactly what the alt-right had warned that Hillary Clinton would do.
Betrayed by Trump, the alt-right has been casting about for a new direction. Some, like Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, have been thinking about getting into electoral politics. Spencer has been considering not only fielding hand-picked candidates for elections, but also running himself. “Trump’s domestic policies have been just one lame shit burger after another,” Spencer said. “He’s become a normal president, and we can’t trust him anymore. Still, it presents us with an opening. We can be the vanguard we always wanted to be, and vanguards are powerful.”
To this end, the alt-right has realized that there is only so much that can be achieved through Twitter and other internet forums, long its favorite mode of organizing. There has been a surge of interest in real-world events. Auburn was one of them, meant to drum up support among white voters who might also be disappointed in Trump.
A group of guys had gathered under a tree on the quad, conspicuous in their matching khakis and crisp white polo shirts. They were equipped much like a destitute lawn hockey team that had been forced to settle for whatever protective gear they could scrounge up at Goodwill. Some wore BMX helmets, while others had lacrosse helmets. A few had to make due with surgical facemasks. One had written the words “COMMIE FILTH” on his shirt, though he had miscalculated the space he would need, leaving him with a small “LTH” bunched up illegibly on his right shoulder. I suspected that these were the boys of WAR EAGLE, although they all insisted on being called “Chad” and refused to admit to any sort of affiliation. “I’m Chad,” they said and snickered. “This is my friend Chad, and that’s Chad over there. We’re just concerned dudes. We don’t want commies to start any trouble on campus, and we want to make sure that Spencer gets his First Amendment rights. That guy’s a god dammed hero.”
Heimbach showed up, too. Mike Enoch, founder of the alt-right website The Right Stuff, had asked him to bring down a few members of his neo-fascist party to serve as protection in case there was trouble at Spencer’s speech. Heimbach brought nine guys, many of them carrying heavy, wooden shields emblazoned with the Traditionalist Worker Party’s white logo, a four-pronged pitchfork inside a cog. Heimbach and Spencer are as much rivals as allies—the two had made plans to meet in Washington, D.C., during Trump’s inauguration, but Spencer snubbed him—but Heimbach disliked Antifa more. He figured it would be a good way to not only bury the hatchet, but also show that his party was to be counted on when it mattered.
Everyone was a little on edge after a big fight between fascists and Antifa in Berkeley the night before that left several people injured. The fight between fascists and Antifa is decades old. The two groups feed off each other to rally morale and sympathy. Lately, the alt-right has been able to use this feud as a tool to get supporters away from their computer screens and into the real world. “Right now, it seems that organizing to neutralize the Antifas is a big attraction and I hope it continues,” Brad Griffin, who runs the popular alt-right Twitter feed and blog Occidental Dissent, told me. “Once it hits critical mass, more people will come to real world events. It won’t stay corked up online in the long term. It isn’t as fun.”
Heimbach brought his guys over to the Chads, where a group of onlookers had gathered. “What is it that you want?” a young woman asked the Chad with the “COMMIE FILTH” t-shirt. “I want Jesus and I don’t want Commie Filth,” Chad retorted. “What’s so hard to understand about that?”
Her question was a good one, though. The alt-right’s platform had been deeply intertwined with Trump’s platform, and now that they were splitting up it was hard to figure out whose stuff belonged to whom. When Trump unveiled a budget that would disproportionately hurt many of the white working class people who voted for him, I asked Heimbach if he was disappointed. Heimbach explained that he basically didn’t care about anything Trump said or did, so long as he built the wall and kept the country out of war. Now that he had bombed Syria and was vacillating on the wall, the alt-right was scrambling to reclaim the anti-war, closed-borders mantle.
A screaming match ensued in the quad between a protester and one of the Chads. “You’re supporting rape!” she shouted into into his lacrosse helmet. “What you’re saying is that you’re basically supporting rape!” The Chad, not to be outdone, accused her of loving Sharia law. Antifa showed up, then quickly left. All of them were wearing some kind of armor and facemasks, and the police, citing a law against concealed faces in public, made them unmask, prompting them to leave with promises to come back later.
The girl and the Chad in the lacrosse helmet were still arguing, now surrounded by people filming the showdown on their cellphones. In the extreme right’s war, no weapon is more powerful than the meme, and a few hours later the showdown would be posted online with captions that proved ... whatever it was the poster wanted to prove. “I don’t know why you’re a libertarian. Libertarianism is dead, man,” one of the Chads said to a kid in the crowd. “There is no center anymore. Just be a nationalist already.”
“How can you say that?” the girl implored. “American is the land of the free!” Chad shook his head, seemingly unable to fathom how someone could be that naïve. “America is the rape and AIDS capital of the world,” he said.
When he found out that Auburn was trying to prevent him from speaking, Spencer, along with Cameron Padgett, a soft-spoken Georgian who had been the one to invite Spencer, quickly sued. Padgett and Spencer, along with Mike Enoch, enlisted the services of Sam Dickson, an attorney with ties to several far-right groups including the KKK. They argued that public safety concerns weren’t enough to override the First Amendment. They won, a federal judge intervened, and so the speech was reinstated to one of the campus halls.
Shortly before Spencer was to begin speaking, Heimbach and his guys took seats along the aisle, prepared to jump out in case someone tried to storm the stage. “Just as an FYI,” Heimbach said. “If anyone tries anything, just deck them with your shields. Also, if we’re going to chant, remember that our chants come in threes. No tapering off after two.” He turned to me. “Did you hear I’m suing Trump?” he asked.
Heimbach had been particularly disgusted by Trump’s attack on Syria. As a proud Russian Orthodox he was enraged by the betrayal. He was also a co-defendant with Trump in a lawsuit brought by a Black Lives Matter activist who alleged that Heimbach shoved her at a Trump rally and that Trump had incited the violence. Now Heimbach wanted nothing to do with his co-defendant, going so far as to sue him for directing supporters to remove protesters from his rallies. “Impeach the bastard,” Heimbach said. “It just proves that if you want anything done you have to do it yourself.”
Spencer took the stage with a buoyant “Oh yeah!” that seemed to catch the audience off guard. As fashion-conscious as ever, he was wearing a blue suit, but this time he theatrically took his jacket off and, in a metaphor lost on no one, rolled up his sleeves.
I later learned it was a new persona he was trying out. No longer content to be an intellectual force on the fringe right, the break-up with Trump was pushing him to become a retail politician. “That wasn’t the intellectual Spencer that sits and writes stuff,” he told me after the speech. “The movement needs an enigmatic, badass leader. Sometimes my role needs to be a bit of the entertainer.”
Fractured and scattershot as the movement is, he believes it is beginning to coalesce around him. He was inspired by a notorious conference in Washington, at which the audience was captured on video giving Nazi salutes to a grinning Spencer. At Auburn he was building on this momentum, creating a public figure out of the vacuum that Trump had left.
Spencer slinked across the stage, switching it up from earnest to serious to incredulous when he talked about sexual identity. “I’m a woman this week. Now I’m a tranny, now I’m gay. Buy this, buy that. This is what’s known as the End of History.” He ranted about consumerism and football, about how they were filling a gaping hole where our white identity used to be. He railed against the manufactured guilt produced by the Holocaust and Jim Crow, proclaiming that it was holding whites back from being heroes and reentering history. The front rows were filled with Chads and other supporters. The rest of the hall, the overwhelming majority, ranged from skeptical to outraged. Spencer’s shtick is a mix of history lesson, political science lecture, motivational speaking, and pure trolling. “There is something explicitly white in challenging someone to a fair fight,” he mused. Someone in the back said, “Tell that to the colonies,” but Spencer didn’t hear him.
The exact extent of the alt-right’s impact on the 2016 election remains unclear. But if the divorce between Trump and the alt-right holds in the 2020 election, then we will get a better picture of its influence. In the minds of Spencer, Heimbach, and many others in the alt-right, Trump was a mere trial balloon for their ideas. Now that the world has seen the power of populism and ethno-nationalism, they are ready to take their act solo. “We need to have the intelligence to know when to dump Trump,” Spencer told me. “He might still be able to redeem himself, but it’s hard to see how. Once you’ve gone down the path of cuckery, it’s almost impossible to come back.”
“Our values, and the ones that helped get Trump elected, can’t be compromised on,” said Heimbach. “Nationalism is basically faith, family, and folk, and you can’t just do 50 percent of that. It’s everything or nothing. Trump is a spectacular failure, but getting him elected proved that people are ready for nationalism.”
The alt-right’s biggest fear is that they will become like the Tea Party. Once the Tea Party established itself as a grassroots force, it was for the most part sucked into the superstructure of the GOP. This terrifies every single member of the alt-right. “We’re not going to go back now,” says Spencer. “And we’re only getting more radical and more loud. The only difference is that we have a presence now. Trump allowed us to reach a new plateau and that is a great thing.” This weekend Heimbach will hold a rally with many other alt-right groups in Pikeville, Kentucky. He said it might be one of the largest far-right gatherings in the country in years. “Nobody could have predicted this four years ago,” he said. “The far-right is finally coming together and it’s a beautiful thing.” Antifa has said it will be there.
The crowd of protesters had swelled during Spencer’s speech. Heimbach and his people formed a tight phalanx as they pushed their way through the crowds. They made it past the police barricade and found themselves alone, surrounded by screaming protesters. A scuffle broke out, and Heimbach, thinking one of his boys was in trouble, charged in. One of his followers, Scott, charged after him, waving his shield and screaming, “Sieg Heil!” The scuffle turned out to be nothing and the nationalists were soon on the move again. The crowd followed. Suddenly people were running. It was hard to tell who started running first, but in an instant Heimbach and his guys were sprinting across the campus lawn with hundreds of students bolting after them. Soon the crowd swallowed them up. A herd of Chads were waylaid and punched before cops broke it off. Heimbach and his crew managed to lose their pursuers and lay low in an alley. The crowd chased down every Chad and fascist it could find, literally running them out of town.
The next day I met Mike Enoch at the airport. He had not heard of the chase until I told him. “Weird,” he said. “They should have just come with us. We had a police escort.”