Disappointed By Trump, The Alt-Right Seeks A NATO For Nativists

Richard Spencer says it hurt. Not the punch he received last January during an on-camera interview in Washington—that sock-heard-round-the-world, a protester sending Spencer flying, flipping the white nationalist from a force to a farce. The pain from that punch, says Spencer, was superficial. A deeper hurt, a lasting, snow-balling ache, came elsewhere, from the man who helped usher Spencer to prominence, who helped inject white nationalists with a momentum they hadn’t seen in a generation. From the man who coddled white nationalists during a presidential campaign, turning dog-whistles into air-horns, spinning white nationalists into fits of giddiness—promising a hope, and a change, of the kind that would make Bull Connor blush.

The man now in the White House. Donald Trump.

“I do feel, maybe betrayed is too strong a word, because it’s not like Trump signed a contract with the alt-right,” Spencer told Talking Points Memo in May. “I do feel a little bit—I don’t know. God, this is going to make me sound pathetic, but it feels a little bit like getting dumped by your girlfriend. It feels a little like that. It also feels like I can’t trust someone. It’s like someone whom I thought was moving in the right direction makes a strange move to the point where I don’t look at him the same way as I did before.”

It’s not especially difficult to see where Spencer’s coming from. Look at any number of the policy proposals that Trump, then as a candidate huffing and puffing white nationalist rhetoric wherever he could—on Muslims, on immigrants, on returning to an America of the 1950s—has failed to produce. The Muslim ban faltered, undercut by Trump’s team’s own missteps and by the President’s own tweets, with courts continuing to block his attempts to bar those from much of the Middle East. His proposed wall along the Mexican border remains relegated to imagination, stalled out due to funding concerns. Trump even outdid his predecessor Barack Obama when it comes to Syria, unleashing a series of air-strikes against Syrian government targets, unsheathing a continuation of American commitment in the region.

Richard Spencer

Spencer, joined by other leading voices among the American white nationalist community, runs through the list of Trump’s about-faces, swinging between chagrin and condescension. Where Candidate Trump pledged to turn America in on itself, to dismantle the trade and security commitments stabilizing the post-Cold War world, President Trump has left Washington’s international—and globalist—approach largely untouched, Paris Agreement aside. Where Candidate Trump’s campaign drew support from any number of groups keen to return whites to a first-among-equals status the U.S., President Trump has done little to actually roll back any moves toward racial equality.

Or as Spencer puts it, “Trump cucked.”

All of which has left the white nationalists who had been buoyed by Trump’s improbable run in something of a lurch. Their dreams are far closer to fruition than they were just a few months ago: Trump is in the White House. And yet, such victory seems increasingly hollow, increasingly Pyrrhic. A sense of abandonment has crept into the crevasses of America’s white nationalist movement. And a movement that viewed itself as inevitable is, suddenly, rudderless.

To be sure, not all white nationalists have been floored by Trump’s about-face. “It’s the babes in the woods of the alt-right who are sobbing and wringing their hands on Twitter about how that bad man Donald betrayed them and crushed their poor little snowflake spirits, and now they can never love again,” Harold Covington, head of the ethno-state separatist Northwest Front, told TPM. As Covington’s comments illustrate, the fracture that’s split Trump and his white nationalist supporters has, since the election, also raced through white nationalist community, whose firm numbers still remain a question to researchers.

Public spats, ideological inconsistencies, excuses and excommunications—all cascading through a white nationalist contingent that, through last November, had appeared more cohesive than it had in years. It doesn’t exactly help white nationalists’ end-goals when they can’t even agree on a working definition of “white.” To wit, Spencer is married to a woman of Georgian extraction—a heritage that other American white nationalists believe lies beyond the type of “white” acceptable to their movement.

As Trump heaves through his first summer in the White House, a gaping question hangs: Where do America’s white nationalists go from here? Burned by the President, spurned by a Republican leadership that’s still more interested in corporatized, slash-and-burn economic policies, white nationalists are on their heels. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have plans, and platforms, of their own—or that they can’t imagine a movement without a duck-haired demagogue at their lead.

“Why I’m not depressed at all is because I think we played this game as well as we conceivably could have,” Spencer said. “The way I’ve thought about it is like racing. I think it’s called drafting, where basically one car will get behind the other, and it will take advantage of the new aerodynamics, and then it will pass the car. And I think that’s basically what we’ve done with Trump. … If he changes I’ll jump back on the train—I’m not now religiously opposed to Trump—but I seriously doubt he’s going to uncuck himself. But the good thing is that we’ve already advanced to a new level.”

Inspired by the Black Panthers

To grasp where American white nationalists go from here, it helps to turn inward, toward the interior. Toward Indiana, where Matthew Heimbach, that burly, bearded, twenty-something face of white nationalism’s next generation—that “Little Führer,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center called him—has set up a base camp for those hoping to cleave a whites-only state.

Matthew Hiembach

Ask Heimbach about Trump’s election, and the election’s aftermath, and, contra Spencer, a sudden glee sparks his voice. “Everything really came together better than I could have ever imagined,” Heimbach told TPM. All of the rhetorical catch-alls Heimbach and his Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) have pushed the past few years—about globalism, about minorities, about a supposed conspiracy of the elites—found a home in Trump’s rise. The way Heimbach sees it, a market clearly showed itself ready to soak up the nativism Trump pushed—and supporters’ disappointment in Trump’s transformation into a more traditional Republican means there’s a sudden discontent on which Heimbach and his crew can capitalize.

“Trump has betrayed his campaign promises, which leaves white working class people looking for an alternative,” Heimbach said. “I don’t think folks are returning to politics as usual—they’re not going back to Jeb Bush.” That void—that ache that Spencer cited—has left a sudden vacuum for a polity that supported Candidate Trump, and was wounded by President Trump’s reversion to the mean. And Heimbach has been only too happy formulating ways for his group to pick up the pieces. “[Trump] created great political space for white nationalism,” Heimbach continued. “If every Republican betrays you, you’re not going back to Democrats. It’s basically up to us to properly fill this political void and organize people. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Of course, other white nationalists have highlighted this sudden void; as Covington, who wants to split the Pacific Northwest into an apartheid state, added, “We have learned not to trust democratic politicians, because we will be used and then betrayed at the first convenient moment. The Democrats have been doing it to the blacks and the Republicans have been doing it to us for decades, so this is something we should have known already, but what can I tell you?”

But Covington is of an older cohort, seen by the white nationalists who’d thrilled to Trump as a man, and a movement, whose time has passed. Heimbach, however, has effectively become the face of white nationalism’s freshest, most retrograde faction. There’s a reason he was the “most important white supremacist of 2016,” as ThinkProgress tabbed him. First gaining notoriety as the founder of a White Student Union at Maryland’s Towson University in 2012, Heimbach has attempted to cobble a political structure for his puerile politics. Launching the TWP in 2015, Heimbach envisioned the group as a vehicle for political ambition, for picking up the pieces of the resentful, regressive elements the Republican Party still tries to hold at arm’s-length.

And that’s still the goal, in an abstract sense. But Heimbach’s own flirtations with running for political office, beginning with the Indiana state legislature, are no more. “It’s not about me,” he says. While assorted TWP members may yet run for local elections—including school board spots, which would end, as Heimbach added, with “more power than me running a race I’d probably lose”—Heimbach has reoriented his group, and his followers, toward something a bit more grassroots: toward the communities tossed into disarray by Trump’s unmet promises.

“This is where white nationalism is going, in a community-oriented, community-centered way,” Heimbach says. “Think Hezbollah, or Sinn Fein, or Hamas.” Those are the groups, Heimbach says, that provide the kind of structure he’d like to see TWP embody. It’s a smart play, in a sense; Heimbach’s electoral chances, drenched as he is in anti-Semitic conspiracies and violence-related lawsuits, are negligible. But a group dedicated to local-level organization in the destitute patches of southern Indiana, of northern and eastern Kentucky, of West Virginia may yet find some traction, as evidenced by the surprising turnout in support of the TWP during an April rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, which attracted more than 150 far-right supporters. “There’s a lack of access to healthy food [in these regions], so that’s one program we’re looking into—distributing literature, heirloom seeds, real organic produce for them and their children,” Heimbach said.

As Heimbach explains, those supporters he encounters—and the white working class writ large—“aren’t actually ideologically conservative in a [Ludwig] von Mises way. They don’t mind government spending.” Nor did those who voted for Candidate Trump, who’d pledged a government-led protectionism to return work and industries lost, no matter how fantastical such rhetoric may have been (there’s a reason something like Nazism, Heimbach has said elsewhere, included “socialism” in its name.) “Institutionalized capitalism leaves all communities behind,” Heimbach continues. “Republicans are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but it’s good for us—our people have the ability to be an alternative.”

That’s Heimbach’s next goal: an alternative, race-based organization, nominally dedicated to communal betterment, providing programs of healthy living and educational achievement, to improving the stock of a population that the federal government has left behind, has pushed backward, has all but forgotten. It’s a model that, in theory, has some merit. And it’s a model that’s familiar to anyone who lived in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s, for whom Bobby Seal and Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver became household names.

“One of our inspirations is the Black Panthers, of course,” Heimbach confirms. “When it comes to the original Black Panthers, or the Nation of Islam, their food pantries, their school in Chicago—these are the things we want to model.”

Public shows of force

Heimbach’s vision of a whites-for-whites social organization is, if you squint, admirable, in the sense that the types of communities Heimbach and his group are targeting are the sorts that have seen spectacular spikes in mortality, and that are drowning in pessimism about America’s future. That is to say, these are the communities where wink-and-nod metaphors about “cultural anxiety” meet actual economic concerns.

But packing paper-bag lunches and distributing tomato seeds is only one branch of where white nationalists are heading—and for those closely following the threads of white nationalists’ next steps, reformulating a Black Panther model for hard-scrabble white communities is far from their most prominent set of plans. And just because Trump’s transformation has stalled white nationalists’ dreams doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t, regroup in the near future. Says JM Berger, a fellow with the International Center for Counter-Terrorism-The Hague and an expert in US far-right extremism, “I think they’re going to lose a lot of momentum in the short term, but there will be opportunities for anyone who can eventually cobble together some sort of coherent ideological platform that people believe might be saleable to the public at large.”

For Mark Pitcavage, who researches anti-government extremism with the Anti-Defamation League, the contours of white nationalists’ next steps have four prominent aspects. Firstly, there’s the approach to American universities—or, more specifically, to the physical campuses themselves. “One of the main avenues that [white nationalists and white supremacists are taking] is this attempt to litter and flier the hell out of college campuses,” Pitcavage says, pointing to the spike in incidents of recruitment posters suddenly peppering American universities over the past few months.

That’s not to say that these white nationalists are hoping to actually enlist college students per se; rather, as Pitcavage notes, the strategy harks back to a broader, general Ku Klux Klan tactic in ginning awareness through subsequent media coverage. “Anything they do on campus is going to cause controversy, and is going to get a ton of attention on both social media and traditional media—and that attention is what they really want, because that gets their message out even further,” he added. “And so they’ve been spending more time and energy on this than at any time in the decades that I’ve been following white supremacists.”

Hiembach with activists from Towson University

But those fliers and posters are, at the end of the day, just pieces of paper. Pitcavage’s second contour, a phenomenon he and his ADL colleagues have begun noticing, stems from what Pitcavage calls the “real world alt-right.” “One of the things we believed was that as the alt-right grew larger and older, there would more of an attempt to move it into the real world,” Pitcavage said. The genesis of the alt-right, after all, was found on message boards like 4chan and Reddit—online enclaves to rage against minorities, against women, against a series of elites supposedly keeping these young men in their basements. It began as something digital, ephemeral.

And then Trump won, bringing the alt-right’s candidate into the White House—bringing the alt-right, in a sense, as close to power as it could ever hope to get. All of which helped convince those in their basements and bedrooms and garage apartments that they, too, could move beyond their screens.

For Pitcavage, these real-world alt-encounters could metastasize in meetings, in events, in rallies—or in violence. Even as the primary campaigns were just heating up, assaults laced with alt-right rhetoric popped up; as early as 2015, those spewing alt-right invective were shooting up Black Lives Matter protesters. But in 2017, attacks and fatalities began piling. In New York, authorities charged white supremacist James Jackson, who followed alt-right fellow travelers on YouTube, with murdering 66-year-old Timothy Caughman, a black man, with a sword. In Kentucky, the suspect in a machete attack targeting non-Republicans regularly posted white nationalist tropes online. In Maryland, the white suspect in the murder of a young black man was a member of “Alt-Reich Nation” on Facebook. “As the alt-right gets more entrenched in the real world … [it’s] likely to produce lone wolves, guys who do these things,” Pitcavage said.

But alt-righters’ real world experiences don’t always have to end in bodies. As Pitcavage points to in the third trend the ADL has observed, white nationalists have felt increasingly comfortable the past few months pushing public threats, public shows of force, in and of themselves. Indeed, there’s been a significant uptick in the public displays of strength among far-right groups over the past few months—many of which have circled directly around Trump’s post-inauguration rallies. “We’ve seen this in Indianapolis, in Minnesota, in Louisiana in recent weeks, and I’m sure it’s happening elsewhere as well, where these hardcore white supremacists are taking part in these rallies, sometimes in full regalia,” Pitcavage related.

White nationalists, of course, sprinkled Trump’s campaign rallies—including one in which Heimbach was memorably caught shoving a protester, frothing as he went. But as erstwhile Trump supporters have flaked off the past few months, these white nationalists “are per capita a greater percentage than they were before,” Pitcavage says, and are now “exploiting and trying to take advantage of these Trump rallies.”

One of the groups Pitcavage cites is called the American Guard, a group formalized only in February. While the American Guard may not be an explicitly white nationalist group—they haven’t called for breaking off any kind of ethno-state, for instance—their members carry plenty of white supremacist jargon, ranging from “RAHOWA” (“Racial Holy War”) tattoos to a logo swiped from Know-Nothing nativism. (Much of the American Guard’s official rhetoric echoes Heimbach, noting that by “building better communities we can build a better America.”) According to an ADL report on the American Guard, the group, founded by white supremacist Brien James, has been popping up at, among other things, a recent rally in Indiana in support of Trump, with the Facebook page of the American Guard’s Indiana chapter now emblazoned with a giant Trump flag.

For Joshua Nolan, who heads up the American Guard’s Minnesota chapter, the impetus for the group was straightforward. “Over the years, we have watched the extreme left basically take to the streets,” Nolan said, pointing to the “billions of dollars in property damage” accrued over the years. Now, the American Guard—members with shields, members walking and blocking together—can be “almost like a deterrence. … We can be a show of force.” Thus far, there’s been little bloodshed at the American Guard’s appearances at post-inauguration Trump rallies. But that trend doesn’t necessarily have to hold, especially when the American Guard faces down contingents who, as Nolan says, “have always been kind of our enemies.”

Which circles directly to Pitcavage’s fourth point about where white nationalism may be heading—or, more accurately, about who they may be heading against. “Another thing that we predicted once we got over the surprise of Trump being elected was that we were going to see a rise in far-left activity in the United States—and that has certainly manifested itself, and that’s probably going to increase even further.”

As Pitcavage adds, antifas “are far-left and anarchist groups that basically form and exist for the purposes of directly, and usually physically, trying to confront white supremacists.” Of course, it’s not simply white supremacists these antifas target. Look at the recent outbreak in Portland, Oregon, for instance. Not only did antifa-related violence result in rampant property damage during a recent protest—“punk fascists,” The Oregonian called them—but, in a potentially darker development, anonymous far-left threats forced a parade through one of Portland’s few polyglot neighborhoods to shut down completely. The target of these anonymous threats? The Republican Party of Multnomah County. “You have seen how much power we have downtown and that the police cannot stop us from shutting down roads so please consider your decision wisely,” one of the threats, sent via email, read. The far-right proceeded to organize a protest against the shut-down—a protest that was attended by Jeremy Christian, the white supremacist suspect behind the recent, heinous killings on a Portland light-rail.

Few think the political violence in Portland will recede—especially after Portland police blamed antifa forces for instigating violence at a June “free speech” rally in the city. “Antifas have increased and now they’re causing more problems, because they were reacting to white supremacists and Donald Trump and so forth,” Pitcavage said. “Now, white supremacists are reacting to the antifas—and they have been turning into heroes anyone who was perceived as standing up to the antifas.” Or as Covington added, “We can expect bloodshed. The so-called ‘antifas’ are carrying guns now.”

A Trump supporter holds an American flag while an anti-fascist group marches into the park during a free speech rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, California (AP Images)

And the further we reach into the Trump era, the less likely any of these tensions can be diffused through dialog, or fade on their own. “I could never see us actually sitting down and saying, ‘Hey, let’s sit down and talk’—although I guess I’ve never tried,” Nolan says. “But there’s not really any talking to them. And I’m sure they’d say the same about us. But I wish we could talk about how we could actually be countrymen again. I really don’t give a shit if you’re liberal—I’d much rather be friends with these people. But that’s not the case. And I think it has the potential for more serious things.”

Nolan spins off into history, talking about fascism’s rise in the 1930s, about how the far-right consolidated its support against a bevy of far-left threats. About how a fringe can build upon a fringe, circling upward, spiraling into the type of carnage that soaked the Second World War—and about how easy it is to see something like that happening in the none-too-distant future. “I don’t want to see the right become so radicalized that they could kill,” Nolan says, voice growing quiet. “I don’t want to see that—but that’s kind of the way it’s becoming.”

A global party for white people

Free meals, street brawls, political terror—white nationalists’ domestic directions are as diffuse as they are divergent. But there’s an additional component that takes the entire conception of white nationalism and flips it on itself, inverting it, negating it. It is, in a sense, a nationalism globalized, or a globalism nationalized, available to majority-white countries from Canada to Croatia, the United States to the United Kingdom. A trans-Atlantic league of white nationalists, swapping tactics, building networks and alliances and cross-border contingents to return whites to the primacy white nationalists feel they deserve.

This is Spencer’s new project. Bruised by Trump, deflated by far-right losses in the Netherlands, in Austria, and in France, Spencer is envisioning something grander—a sort of NATO for nativists, if you will. “I think in terms of a truly nationalist party, we’ve hit this cement ceiling in the sense that most bourgeois people are not going to go along with a real identitarianism,” Spencer says, describing his feelings following Marine Le Pen’s May loss in France. “They fear change. They believe in the myths of the 20th century, or the myths of the 21st century, and I just feel like that’s hit its limit.” Spencer unspools a quick run-down of post-war European politics to highlight his point, noting that “at no point have Euro-right parties ever achieved sustainable power”—save, perhaps, for Viktor Orban’s Hungary, but even Orban hasn’t fully broken with the strained traditions of Western liberalism. As Spencer tweeted following the second round of the French election, “We need to open ourselves up to different, supra-national models. A European political party? A global political party for White people?”

But if these ethno-state, xenophobic parties—the National Fronts, the Jobbiks, the AfDs of the world—have already topped out, what comes next? Conferences and conclaves? Multi-country, multi-stop tours? An international gallery of white nationalists parachuting in to support local elections for far-right comrades elsewhere?

Spencer’s not sure; he’s only just come to the conclusion that national constraints have impeded the world he’d want. But he espies something of a model in one of the white nationalists’ favorite whipping posts: the European Union. “I’ve always had an admiration for the EU, even when I recognize its serious problems,” Spencer said. “And I recognize that the people currently running it are just as bad as any leftists in the United States. But I never want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And that’s a big problem—you need to throw out the bathwater, and the baby might actually be something wonderful. I think basically the structure of the European Union is correct—I think the content is incorrect.”

For American white nationalists, of course, nodding to an EU-type model smacks of something approaching heresy—or it would have, up until a few months ago. “There’s definitely an anti-Europeanism [among white nationalists],” Spencer adds. “But I do think it’s the future. And once we’ve tried a model for 50 years and it doesn’t work, there just needs to be something else.”

And Spencer may yet be on to something. After all, Breitbart is trying to extend its European tendrils—including to Hungary, which has rapidly become something of a beacon for Western white nationalists—while Spencer’s own alt-right website just unveiled its first European branch, coming in Swedish. (The announcement came, fittingly, via a meme featuring Batman villain Bane, an alt-right staple.)

Moreover, there’s been no shortage of efforts from external, non-American actors in trying to bridge the trans-Atlantic white nationalist divide over the past few years—emanating especially from those close to the Kremlin, who have organized white supremacist conferences, sponsored far-right parties, and helped Russia become, as Spencer has said, the “most powerful white power in the world.” Little surprise, then, that Heimbach—who himself has referred to Moscow as an “axis for nationalists”—will be making his first visit to Russia in a few months, coming off of his own networking tours of Europe’s far-right.

That, though, is a future that’s not yet come: a dark reflection of the European Union’s promise, of a post-war comity that, until recently, seemed like it would last for decades. Yes, white nationalists may have seen Le Pen’s defeat, or the election results in the Netherlands and Austria, as a blow to their dreams of a nascent nativism. And yes, for those still backing the liberal world order, 2016—with Trump, with Brexit—may yet have simply been the shock the system required.

But white nationalists—here, there, everywhere—aren’t through, and aren’t going away anytime soon. And they’re planning, and plotting, for what comes next. “We know the American empire will inevitably come to pieces, just like the Soviet Union, just like Rome, just like the Byzantines,” Heimbach says, describing his plans to host leaders of Europe’s far-right in the U.S. this fall. “We have to confront our enemies where they are,” adds Spencer. “I feel like the whole movement was ultimately energized by 2016—and it’s not going away.”

(Left to right) Roma’s supporters show a banner reading “Got mit uns” (God with us) during the Italian top league soccer match between Roma and Livorno at Rome’s Olympic stadium, Jan 29 2006 (AP Images). A White Lives Matter protest and march is held in Margate, Kent, England. Oct 2016 (AP Images)