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How a white nationalist leader wants to go mainstream with his racist movement

December 14, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
With the election of Donald Trump, racist groups of all stripes are hoping their message will be more widely accepted. But will they actually go mainstream? The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia sits down with Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called “alt-right” -- a mix of white nationalism, neo-Nazi beliefs and hard-edged populism -- who has energized a tiny group of passionate followers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: White nationalist groups say that Donald Trump’s electoral victory was also a win for their brand of white identity politics.

A man named Richard Spencer has helped to shape this racist ideology. He has gained notoriety in recent weeks for statements that most find abhorrent, but that have increased his following.

The “NewsHour”‘s P.J. Tobia has the story.

P.J. TOBIA: Richard Spencer wants to redefine what it means to be American. He’s credited with coining the phrase “alt-right,” adding an intellectual veneer to a racist movement based on a mix of white nationalism, neo-Nazi beliefs and hard-edged populism.

RICHARD SPENCER, National Policy Institute: This country does belong to white people, culturally, politically, socially, everything. We define what America is.

P.J. TOBIA: Last week, he spoke at Texas A&M University.

RICHARD SPENCER: Look at the history of multiracial nations. It’s a history of conflict. It’s a history of distrust.

P.J. TOBIA: Tempers quickly flared inside the auditorium, while, outside, protesters denounced his message of white identity politics and confronted his supporters. The demonstrators tried to storm the meeting room, but were pushed back by police.

During the presidential campaign, Spencer and his followers were a small, but vocal pillar of support for Donald Trump, mostly active online, targeting those critical of the Republican nominee with ugly, sometimes anti-Semitic attacks.

Media profiles of Spencer followed, focusing on his privileged upbringing, education at elite institutions and sartorial choices. Then came this event in November celebrating Donald Trump’s election victory in downtown Washington, D.C.

RICHARD SPENCER: America was, until this past generation, a white country.

P.J. TOBIA: It was a forum for the National Policy Institute, a kind of white nationalist think tank Spencer runs. His keynote address ended with Nazi salutes.

RICHARD SPENCER: Hail Trump. Hail our people. Hail victory.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

P.J. TOBIA: The Holocaust Museum, Anti-Defamation League and others denounced the speech as an anti-Semitic attack. Spencer says his racist provocations are purposeful.

RICHARD SPENCER: The alt-right has come a long way. Donald Trump as a — you know, as a first step toward identity politics has a come a long way. It was a time to be a little outlandish, and so that’s why I did that applause line, which was a bit naughty.

P.J. TOBIA: A bit naughty? I mean, we’re talking about — people are “sieg heiling.” We’re talking about an ideology that hundreds of thousands of Americans died to extinguish. And it’s a bit of fun?

RICHARD SPENCER: Right.

Whenever anyone says that I care about my people, I care about my identity, I want to expand and deepen my identity, the first thing you always hear — and it’s become a joke — is, ah, Adolf Hitler, ah, the Ku Klux Klan, ah, the Southern Confederacy.

It’s these boogeymen that are thrown at any legitimate and genuine movement for identity. And I think at some level people want to throw them back in the face of their attackers.

P.J. TOBIA: When a journalist writes something that your guys don’t like, you know, it’s a picture of her superimposed in an oven. I mean, you could see the concern there.

RICHARD SPENCER: It’s pixels and words.

P.J. TOBIA: And a swastika is just an image. But it’s not just an image, man. I think you know that. I’m positive that you know that. I think you’re just trolling.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD SPENCER: I’m not a very good troll. No, look, I — there is a line to be crossed, and to a point where I won’t defend anyone, and that is any kind of imminent, real, physical threat of violence.

P.J. TOBIA: Despite Spencer’s privileged upbringing and lifestyle, his are a politics of victimhood.

RICHARD SPENCER: If you were born in 1978, like I was, or 1988 or to ’98, you have experienced being a minority. You have experienced, let’s say, undergraduate life, where you have gone through some white guilt indoctrination.

You have experienced trying to get a job at a major corporation, where you know that their hiring is geared almost totally towards not hiring you.

P.J. TOBIA: Those who know white nationalism best say that Spencer’s message, newly packaged for millennials in sharp suits and clever memes, are in fact a very old product.

FRANK MEEINK, Author, “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead”: At the heart and at the core of the alt-right, no matter what they say, it’s all about race.

P.J. TOBIA: Frank Meeink is former neo-Nazi from South Philly. As a youth, he hosted a cable access show called “The Reich.” By age 18, he was doing hard time for kidnapping and torture, but left the movement shortly after getting out of prison.

FRANK MEEINK: Every bit of it is about race. It all comes from that. And if you look deeper, it comes from fear, fear that the white race is losing this country, fear that — the Mexicans coming in. It’s all about fear. They’re losing something.

P.J. TOBIA: He says this sense of loss has always been a part of the radical right.

FRANK MEEINK: I always hear the same arguments: Well, they have BET. Why can’t we have white entertainment television?

Well, all of television is white entertainment television. So it’s like this — they’re getting something that I’m not, and everything’s being taken away from me.

P.J. TOBIA: Meeink now coaches youth hockey to steer kids in the right direction. He says, if Spencer does have influence in a Trump administration, he’d use it to roll back affirmative action and diversity programs. And Meeink doesn’t believe that Spencer’s Nazi arm salutes are merely ironic.

FRANK MEEINK: It’s not a joke when there’s people whose family members were killed in the Holocaust because of people doing that arm salute, because of people mindlessly just following their hatred and their bigotry and knowing that it doesn’t piss off liberals. What it does is, it scares human beings who care about humanity.

P.J. TOBIA: And despite all his high-minded talk of theory and history, sometimes, when challenged, Richard Spencer resorts to basic insults.

RICHARD SPENCER: She’s dancing. Perhaps she will lose some weight.

P.J. TOBIA: Spencer’s dream is an all-white nation. In the near term, he wants to set up an office for his National Policy Institute, currently run from his home. The institute was established in 2005 with funds from William Regnery II and others.

They hold press conferences, publish studies, a journal and white nationalist blog posts. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the institute and others like it academic racist organizations.

RICHARD SPENCER: Now we have a place at the table. So, that is a major achievement. A lot of that has to do with Trump, obviously.

And what I want to do is to start to influence culture more directly, start to influence policy more directly, start to influence society more directly. That’s going to involve professionalization. That is building real institutions here in the real world.

P.J. TOBIA: The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story. Nonetheless, Spencer thinks America is ready for his message.

RICHARD SPENCER: The alt-right has gone from a movement that wasn’t connected to the mainstream to a movement that’s now really connected to the mainstream.

P.J. TOBIA: Richard Spencer has energized a tiny group of passionate followers.

MAN: It’s about reawakening people of America, and get white people to stand up for their roots and to quit being put down by things like Black Lives Matter.

P.J. TOBIA: With the election of Donald Trump, racist groups of all stripes are hoping their message will be more widely accepted, but the protests that greeted Spencer and his followers at Texas A&M are proof that mainstream may be a bridge too far for white nationalism.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m P.J. Tobia in College Station, Texas.

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