With the future of his national college tour mired in litigation, white nationalist Richard Spencer is increasingly isolated.
Over the weekend, Spencer’s longtime friend and legal champion Kyle Bristow abruptly announced he was quitting politics and cutting ties with his Michigan-based foundation, which branded itself as the “sword and shield” of the white nationalist alt-right. Other ideological allies have criticized Spencer to the press or gone quiet. He’s cut off from key funding sources. And the violent acts that his supporters have committed before and after his college events have given fodder to schools trying to block Spencer’s appearances on the grounds that his events endanger their communities.
Even Spencer is acknowledging that things are rocky, telling TPM in a Monday phone call: “We’re just in a transitionary stage.”
Spencer is credited with coining the term “alt-right” to describe the loosely affiliated mass of mostly young white men with white nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic views who rose to national prominence during the 2016 election.
Speaking to TPM, Spencer called Bristow’s departure a “setback,” adding: “I obviously wish he had not done it, particularly at this time, but I do understand him and I support him.”
“The opposition recognizes that I’m not going anywhere so they’re trying to harass and threaten the people around me,” Spencer said.
That conversation came hours before Spencer’s chaotic appearance at Michigan State University. Prolonged litigation with the university, which Bristow fought on Spencer’s behalf, resulted in a mediation agreement that required Spencer to schedule his speech over spring break, at the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, a farmyard barn a mile off of campus. A number of neo-Nazis and anti-fascist activists were arrested outside the venue after violent clashes with each other and with police dressed in riot gear.
Inside the building, however, the mood was sedate. Under 50 people turned out to listen to Spencer’s remarks about the need to create a white ethno-state and repatriate immigrants back to their native countries.
In the speech, Spencer acknowledged his disappointment that the alt-right has not recovered from the backlash over last August’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed. Though he described the event as “one for the history books,” he also called it “a bit of a disaster,” noting that the “blowback against us was tremendous.”
Spencer lamented the mass expulsion of white nationalists from social media and online payment platforms in the weeks after Charlottesville. “I have a very hard time raising money online,” he said.
His future appearances are mired in legal wrangling. Penn State University, the University of Cincinnati, and Ohio State University have all refused to host Spencer, leading Bristow to bring litigation on Spencer’s behalf in all three cases.
But over the weekend, Bristow suddenly jumped ship. He announced that he was no longer involved in those lawsuits, and was resigning as the director of the Foundation for the Marketplace of Free Ideas (FMI), a nonprofit that championed alt-right defendants. Bristow deleted his public Twitter account, which had featured a profile photo of him and Spencer smoking cigars.
Bristow, who did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment, was very active in the seeds of what became the alt-right movement. As president of Michigan State’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom back in 2006, he tried to organize a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” and invited white nationalist Jared Taylor to give a talk on campus. (The YAF’s current chairman Grant Stobl told TPM that Bristow’s chapter was not authorized and that the group “prohibits racists”).
Though his racist views were well-documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other publications, Bristow’s abrupt resignation came after a series of articles in the Detroit Free Press about his college activism and FMI’s controversial ideas.
“This is a definite blow to the progress of the alt-right especially as it attempts to recruit young members on college campuses,” SPLC senior investigative reporter Ryan Lenz told TPM of Bristow’s departure from the movement.
Reached by phone Monday, attorney Jason L. Van Dyke, who was listed as FMI’s Director of Legal Advocacy, told TPM he had in fact resigned from the group last October “because frankly I did not approve of its involvement with Richard Spencer.”*
Van Dyke has in the past represented groups with ties to white supremacists and has tweeted death threats and racist epithets online.
The SPLC’s Lenz told TPM that “we’ll see in the coming weeks if FMI is a paper tiger or if the infrastructure to protect white nationalist speakers in this country that Bristow has established will hold up.”
For now, a replacement has stepped in. Ohio-based James Kolenich, who according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, believes that the white race must save itself from Jews, immigrants, and minorities, has taken over for Bristow in two of the school suits, which are currently in discovery.**
In an email to TPM, Kolenich mentioned three times that he only took up the cases for the fee and said that he did not know Spencer or Bristow.
“I have never spoken to or otherwise communicated with Richard Spencer,” Kolenich added. “Mr. Spencer is not, and never has been, a client if [sic] my law practice.”
Spencer, for his part, did not even seem aware that Kolenich was now advocating on his behalf.
“This new lawyer, I’ve never spoken with him so once this is over and I’m able to catch my breath I’ll certainly talk to him and see if we want to begin a relationship,” Spencer told TPM on Monday.
Spencer leaves Michigan with at least one supporter facing felony charges and no scheduled events on the horizon.
* This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version which described Van Dyke as a white nationalist.
** This sentence has been corrected to make clear that Kolenich has taken over for Bristow in two of the lawsuits against universities that refused to host Spencer, not all three.