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Richard Spencer: Tricky rhetorician with airs of intellectualism (©XTasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

For the past two years, I’ve been tracking the resurgence of white nationalism in America. I’ve watched a new generation of white nationalists emerge — many under the banner of the “alt-Right” — with new tactics and new ambitions to bring white nationalism out of the shadows and into the mainstream. And they’re succeeding. Recent events in Charlottesville were just an eye-catching glimpse of this. At a deep level, white nationalism in America is on the rise.

Trump aside, there’s been no shortage of rhetorical condemnation of this growing movement and those behind it. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer denounced “all that hate stands for” and challenged President Trump to “specifically [condemn] alt-Right action in Charlottesville”. Republican leaders have been similarly forthright. House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced the white nationalists who assembled in Charlottesville as “vile” and “repugnant”, while his counterpart in the Senate Mitch McConnell said the “hate and bigotry” espoused by the march’s participants “does not reflect American values.”

But there’s been little in the way of serious counter-argument to the white nationalist narrative. No one from the political elite has really deigned to take it on, point by point. The “mainstream media” have been similarly reluctant to grasp the nettle. Many journalists have simply sounded, or echoed, a note of moral alarm without seriously tackling the substance of the white nationalist message. In other cases, they’ve presented white nationalism as a kind of weird, alien spectacle — reflecting but not challenging its positions, in a manner that is detached and almost voyeuristic.

None of this should be surprising. There’s probably a perception that white nationalism neither needs nor deserves serious intellectual challenge. Maybe there’s a worry that to engage with it argumentatively is to confer upon it some degree of legitimacy. But this is to underestimate both its increasing sway in America and the power of some of its more artful arguments.

Like all subcultural, internet-fuelled movements, contemporary American white nationalism has no formal leadership. But much of its resurgent drive has come from one man — a Wasp-ish yuppie from Texas called Richard Spencer. In the company of other white nationalists, Spencer is an almost demonic force — a self-styled Nietzschean who seems to delight in transgressing every liberal precept that he can alight upon. He has described the mainstream media as the “Lügenpresse” (“the lying Press”) — a deliberate allusion to Nazi jargon — and denies the doctrine of equal rights. He has spoken of his “dream” of a “white ethno-state” and says his mission is to bring about an “awakening” of identity among “whites”. “To be white,” he says, “is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward . . . For us, it is conquer or die.” It all sounds like standard, unreconstructed fascism — and it is. But Spencer is a trickier opponent than he might seem. He’s a silver-tongued rhetorician with airs of intellectualism. He cites political philosophers from Machiavelli to Fukuyama, cultivating the image of a man who has escaped the intellectual conventions of his time. His mode is artistic, ironic, postmodern. (His original ambition was to be an avante-garde theatre director.) The Nazi stuff, he says, is “ironic exuberance” — a deliberate attempt to trigger permanently outraged liberals. It’s a tawdry and disingenuous excuse, but it feeds into an image designed to appeal to rebellious millennials and hipsters — that of the transgressive free-thinker who isn’t afraid to joke around with the most serious of subjects.

Perhaps this is why, in the days after Charlottesville, Steve Bannon — then Chief Strategist in Trump’s White House — described America’s white nationalists as “clowns”. Spencer was one of the celebrity speakers at the event along with various other oddities and hangers-on with strange pseudonyms like “Baked Alaska” and “Augustus Invictus”. But Bannon’s description — along with the monosyllabic rebukes of senators and congressmen — greatly underestimates the challenge that these “clowns” pose. Spencer and his fellow activists are on a drive to detoxify white nationalism and make it appear normal and wholesome.
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David Ashton
November 8th, 2017
5:11 PM
Laura, you have hit the nail on the head. We are witnessing the domination of western academia and politics by the pseudo-egalitarian "race-gender-class" ideology launched by Herbert Marcuse and his camp followers in the USA. James Burnham saw it coming and Patrick Buchanan has recorded some of its malign consequences. Defamation and repression have replaced discussion and research.

LauraM
October 14th, 2017
2:10 PM
Please tell us how to celebrate Western Civ, which was developed by white people, without celebrating white people. How do we square that circle?? In fact, celebrating Western Civ is routinely tarnished as "racism" and "white supremacy" in respectable media and intellectual circles -- and that's the problem in a nutshell.

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