Daniel Marans, Huffington Post, March 7, 2016
The gathering on the eighth-floor rotunda of the federal government’s Ronald Reagan Building looked, at first glance, like any other Saturday-evening D.C. cocktail party.
But this was no ordinary affair.
The 50 or so people [Editor’s Note: There were three times this many attendees.] in the room were there for the winter conference of the National Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Arlington, Virginia. On its website, NPI describes itself as a group “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States.”
In NPI’s telling, white Americans are increasingly under siege in their own country, doomed to be a hated minority as people of color grow ever more numerous and politically powerful.
And Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has given the group’s members more hope than ever that help is on the way.
The Fresh Young Face–And Haircut–Of White Nationalism
A solid majority of the formally dressed men at Saturday’s event were sporting a hairdo known as an “undercut,” which consists of a buzz cut on the bottom with longer hair on top, combed across to hang over one of the shaved sides of the head. It’s not a style you see often on the Beltway cocktail party circuit, and as it turned out, it’s a telling feature.
The conference’s ubiquitous undercut hairdo was of a piece with the well-coiffed, respectable face of today’s white nationalist movement. At the same time, it pointed up the communal, almost spiritual, role that the movement plays in the lives of its adherents. Huddled together with drinks in their hands, the attendees with matching undercuts had the appearance of religious cult members standing in formation–or maybe just an especially tight-knit college debate club from a bygone era.
And like any other quasi-spiritual movement, the young, overwhelmingly male white nationalists have their very own charismatic leader in Richard Spencer, NPI’s president.
Spencer was sporting the sharpest undercut in the room, a distinction that has prompted his comrades on the alt right to rename the haircut “the Richard Spencer”–at least, according to Spencer himself.
A tall and preppy graduate of the University of Virginia with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Spencer manages to make even the most extreme white nationalist ideas sound like innocuous talking points. He is also a master of obfuscation and sophistry, evading questions about his real agenda by dismissing policy prescriptions as irrelevant (despite the name of his organization).
“Talking about policy is meaningless until you have a starting point,” Spencer said.
The starting point he has in mind is getting white people to openly embrace their “white” identity, and to organize as a group with common interests. Spencer and his peers maintain that creating an intellectual community of white activists is an essential step toward making America white again.
This has turned out to be an important election cycle for white nationalists. They hope to capitalize on Trump’s rise to advance their agenda.
Trump was the main topic of conversation at Saturday’s event–and a theme of the official speakers’ remarks.
They don’t think Trump shares their belief that people of different races are best kept separate. They don’t even think he’s deliberately trying to appeal to white nationalists. But they believe his nationalist rhetoric, together with an unapologetically tough stance on immigration and non-interventionist foreign policy, creates a space in the national discourse for their ideas.
“Trump has brought an existential quality to politics that wasn’t there before,” Spencer said. “Trump has asked questions like, ‘Are we a nation? Are we going to have a future? Are we a people?’”
“I think Trump has opened up some space just in being–going after P.C., liberal gatekeepers, with just a lot of gusto,” he went on. “Obviously we want to fill that space.”
The white nationalist movement dismisses mainstream conservatism’s fixation on free-market capitalism and the Constitution, regarding them as thin bases for nationhood compared with white, European ancestry.
“I care about identity,” Spencer said. “This is the important stuff.”
There were roughly the same number of people protesting the National Policy Institute’s conference outside the Reagan building as there were people attending it inside.
An ad hoc coalition of activist groups organized the demonstration, among them Code Pink, the International Socialist Organization and Showing Up for Racial Justice.