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Friday, December 15, 2017

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonmonthly.

 

White nationalism is real scary, but white nationalism, it turns out, cannot bear too much scrutiny. So much of its power depends on the rest of us not knowing much about the people advancing it.

Case in point is Richard Spencer. The Washington Post called him the poster boy of white nationalism. He coined the term alt-right, celebrated the installment of Steve Bannon in the White House, and founded a so-called think tank to promote white nationalism. He even gave it a respectable sounding name, National Policy Institute.

He’s also the guy who was famously punched in the side of his shaved head during President Trump’s inauguration. A video of the assault went viral. It went by various names, like “Nazi Punching.” I have enthusiastically shared the video with my stamp of approval.

Spencer is an effective spokesman for white nationalism, because he embodies its perceived traits without invoking images of the boogie men of its past. Instead white hoods and robes, he’s clean cut, well dressed, and highly educated. Instead of speaking a twangy local yokel, he’s speaks in a flat authoritative tone akin to CBS News.

His genius is leveraging that appearance to enhance his credibility among the unsuspecting while blasting the moral decay of American civilization. Most importantly, he leverages his appearance to project strength, because strength is the central tenet of white nationalism.

On Twitter last week, he attacked conservatives:

You get the idea.

But all this changes in light of facts. Those facts came to us some weeks ago courtesy of the Center for Investigative Reporting in partnership with Mother Jones. And here are the facts:

Richard Spencer lives on his family’s fortune. That wealth in part comes from owning, for generations, huge tracts of land used in growing cotton. That cotton is subsidized, like many farming operations, to maintain prices by the federal government.

Moreover, Spencer dropped out of graduate school and does not appear to have held down a real job before founding his “think tank.” No one knows where he got the money to found it. The National Policy Institute has lost its tax-exempt status.

What do we make of these facts?

For one thing, it’s hard to maintain the veneer of strength and purity when you are vulnerable to accusations of being a mama’s boy. (His parents are evidently mainstream Republican who dislike their son’s embrace of fascism, but not enough, apparently, to cut him off.)

For another, it’s hard to maintain an image of authenticity as the one true voice of an oppressed white people when your money comes from mommy and daddy, instead of a deep pool of contributors who might nominally represent a truly democratic yearning. White nationalism ends up taking a back seat to his carefully constructed image and in doing so risks revealing Spencer as being a fraud.

He’s vulnerable not only to attacks from the left.

Recall that former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Republicans gained a lot of traction some years ago by framing the country’s future as a choice between “takers and makers.” In Spencer is a man who never had a real job, who failed to complete his education, who lives on his parent’s bank account. He’s the idle rich to the left. He’s a parasite to the right’s captains of industry.

White nationalism remains a threat. I don’t have to explain why. But democracy can survive it as long as democracy has a free press, free speech and the political courage of an informed citizenry.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Newspapers, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.