You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you believe some accounts of the “alt-right” National Policy Institute’s annual symposium held last Friday in Washington D.C. On its surface, the convention appeared to be just another Republican strategizing session. But judging by video of that day, it seemed to be assuring the audience that their dreams of turning the White House into a haven for white supremacy were well within reach. Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, stood in front of a crowd of mostly middle-aged white men and inveighed against the media, which he described as waging a war against Trump’s legitimacy and “the continued existence of white America.”
“America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
As Spencer worked the crowd into a cheering mass of flushed, white faces, a number of people emboldened by his bluster stood up and thrust their right hands into their very best Hitlergruß—the instantly recognizable Nazi salute. From behind his lectern, Spencer raised his arm as well and began to shout “Heil Trump, heil our people, heil victory.”
Depending on who you ask, Spencer’s call for obeisance came in one of two different languages: the English “hail” or the German “heil.” True, the words sound similar. But to give Spencer the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t intentionally invoking the specter of Adolf Hitler is morally irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.
As members of the “alt-right,” a group of (predominantly white) extremist conservatives with well-documented connections to the white supremacy movement, have maneuvered their way closer to the White House (see: recently-tapped Trump advisor Stephen Bannon), there has been a growing trend of pundits and members of the media hesitating to call these people what they are.
Yesterday while discussing Spencer, CNN’s Jim Sciutto and two panelists felt comfortable enough to recount Spencer’s questioning of whether “Jews are people or instead soulless golems,” but stopped short of identifying the man and his rhetoric as neo-Nazi.
“They’re unabashed white supremacists, racists, and anti-Semites,” Sciutto said, visibly uncomfortable. “They stick by those views.”
Let’s get this straight: They are racists, they are Islamophobes, they are bigots, and in the case of Richard Spencer and his supporters, they are neo-Nazis and we have an obligation to identify them as such. Calling them the “alt-right”—a deceptively innocuous term—allows us not to engage with the reality that they’re neo-Nazis in the most literal sense: people dedicated to making old-school Naziism socially acceptable again.
Obviously, Richard Spencer and those like him aren’t exactly like the Nazis you’d find in 1940s Germany. They aren’t scholars of Nazi philosophy. They aren’t wearing SS uniforms (at least in public) and aren’t name-dropping infamous names in Hitler’s inner circle. Bannon and other “alt-right” figures have denied that they’re neo-Nazis or even white nationalists. But they are people comfortable with cherry-picking elements of Nazi symbolism and ideology that serve their own modern-day racist interests.
“Heil Trump, heil our people, heil victory.”- Richard Spencer
When you compare the basic beliefs of the original German Nazi Party to the ideas frequently bandied about by self-identifying members of the “alt-right,” it becomes clear that the two groups’ ideologies are one and the same. Nazis believed in the supremacy of white “Aryan” people whose society was at risk of being tainted by “lesser” people like Jews and gay people. Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Breitbart News, the website formerly headed by Bannon, as an organization pushing the idea that “’white identity’ is under attack through policies prioritizing multiculturalism.”
In a deft, insidious way, Trump’s campaign promises to “make America great again” played into the same sort of racist delusions of grandeur that served as the basis for the German Nazi Party’s actions and acted as a dog whistle for far-right conservatives in 2016.
“That message—‘America great again’ is if you’re a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don’t you?” former President Bill Clinton said earlier this fall. “What it means is I’ll give you an economy you had 50 years ago and I’ll move you back up on the social totem and other people down.”
These are people comfortable with cherry-picking elements of Nazi symbolism and ideology that serve their own modern-day racist interests.
Trump’s refusal to own up to the role of his campaign in normalizing anti-Semitism isn’t surprising considering his distaste for damning facts about himself. But it should serve as a reminder to those encouraging the public to give “Trump a chance” that the establishment isn’t interested in openly claiming ideologies espoused by prominent figures from within the “alt-right” like Bannon.
“The public doesn’t know Steve Bannon,” The Observer argued in a recent editorial. “‘Nazi’ is not a synonym for ‘disagreeable fellow.’”
The Observer is right; “Nazi” shouldn’t be a synonym for someone with whom we simply disagree. But it’s not a huge stretch for a site whose chairman called it the “platform for the alt-right,” an ideology that clearly attracts people invested in Naziism and white nationalism.
Right now, people like Richard Spencer seem like the sort of villainous, deranged racists that could only exist on the furthest fringe of the right. But his full-throated identification with very same “alt-right” that is increasingly being associated with Donald Trump are signs that that could change.