Richard Bertrand Spencer had just told his guests how inspired he was by their presence when the rising sound of fury outside the dining room’s double doors reached his ears. He knew what it meant.
Spencer stepped into the open hallway and, there, beneath the wooden second-floor railing at Maggiano’s Little Italy in northwest Washington, more than 30 protesters were marching up the stairway toward him. Several held posters – “No to Racism and Fascism” – and blew whistles. “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA,” they shouted, their voices intensifying as he came into view.
Ten feet from the top of the stairs, a Maggiano’s employee – a black man in a light blue button-down and red tie – spread his arms wide, blocking the mob from reaching the 100 or so white nationalists who had gathered at the restaurant on Friday for a private dinner. Spencer walked behind him and looked down at the activists. Then the man who’d coined the term “alt-right” grinned and waved.
For years, Spencer and his followers worked in obscure corners of the Internet to promote pride in white identity and the creation of an “ethno-state” that would banish minorities. Then came the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, whose attacks on undocumented immigrants, Muslims and political correctness deeply resonated with them. They crusaded for him on Twitter and celebrated his improbable victory as a seminal moment for their cause.
They exulted again when Trump announced that his chief White House strategist would be former Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon, who once called his site “the platform for the alt-right.”
And no one is more critical to the alt-right movement than Spencer, its carefully crafted public face. Last weekend, the articulate, highly educated 38-year-old hosted a conference in the nation’s capital that drew nearly 300 white nationalists and at least 50 reporters. But his agenda reaches far beyond any single weekend gathering. Spencer envisions a world in which his ideals are embraced by the mainstream, and he has vowed to keep pushing until that happens.
Spencer, who splits his time between Arlington, Virginia, and Whitefish, Montana, has reveled in the coverage from traditional news outlets with huge audiences: NBC, NPR, CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times. He would draw their attention again this week when a video of him at the conference shouting “Hail Trump” – and the Nazi salutes it elicited – went viral.But from a distance, almost everything about him appears as innocuous as the term “alt-right” – and that’s by design. Spencer heads a pair of organizations with unremarkable names: the National Policy Institute and Radix Journal. He dresses in three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, gold coin cuff links and $5,000 Swiss watches, and he sports a swept-over hipster haircut known as a “fashy” (as in fascist). Spencer, who has degrees from the universities of Virginia and Chicago, dismisses such labels as Nazi, racist and white supremacist, preferring to describe himself as an “identitarian.” Even before Twitter banned him and other white nationalists last week, he almost never trolled his enemies.
But to those who track hate groups, Spencer is dangerous because, when he wants to, he doesn’t look or sound or act dangerous.
On Friday at Maggiano’s, he remained calm, even when a protester squirted him with a liquid that smelled of rotten eggs. That prompted him to strip to down to only his shoes, pants and a gray vest, which left his shoulders and arms exposed.
Minutes later, the police arrived and the activists, who call themselves anti-fascists, were escorted outside.
“Their whole life,” Spencer would argue later, “is based on hate.”
With the protesters gone, he returned to the private room, which had been reserved under the name “Griffin family reunion.” Inside, former reality TV star Tila Tequila – who claims she is Hitler reincarnated – joined two men in the movement in a sieg heil salute posted to Twitter. A young blond man who wore a tight shirt and thigh-high shorts in the style of a Nazi youth mingled with a gray-haired 69-year-old lawyer in a dark suit and tie who once represented the KKK. (On Monday, the restaurant would apologize for hosting the gathering, saying they didn’t know anything about the cause.)
Spencer spotted a manager and asked him to bring in the Maggiano’s workers who had helped protect them. Soon, eight staff members – six of them people of color who would be exiled from Spencer’s longed-for ethno-state – entered to a standing ovation from the white nationalists.
As the dinner neared its end, and with the TV cameras all downstairs, he explained the schedule for the next day’s conference. Then, as Spencer considered how they should mark its finish, he smiled and offered a joke.
“Let’s party like it’s 1933,” he declared, referencing the year Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor and the Nazis embarked on the creation of their own ethno-state.
Beneath chandeliers and amid dark, wood-paneled walls, the alt-right erupted in cheers.
Spencer, his expression now serious, waited for them to quiet, then spoke once more.
“Let’s party like it’s 2016,” he shouted and raised his bare arms, pumping them in the air as the room roared even louder.
“Richard Spencer,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center, is “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.”
“Richard Spencer,” says the Anti-Defamation League, is a “leader in white supremacist circles that envision a ‘new’ right that will openly embrace ‘white racial consciousness.'”
“Richard Spencer,” says a Huffington Post editorial, is “no less skilled at manipulation than Donald Trump.”
Spencer is often asked if he can identify a moment in his life that led him to disdain African-Americans, Jews and other minorities, but he always struggles to answer the question.
“I think a lot of people want to figure that out, like, you know, what happened?” he said. “Nothing.”
Born to a wealthy family, he grew up in Dallas, where he played football and baseball at a nationally renowned private boys’ school. Spencer studied English literature and music at Virginia and earned a master’s in the humanities at Chicago. He left a Duke University doctoral program in 2007 to write for right-wing publications, a career that helped crystallize his political and racial ideologies.
Somewhere deep down, Spencer said, he’s always had these beliefs. But the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, in which white members of the team were falsely accused of raping a black woman, made an impression, as did the writings of Jared Taylor, a prominent white nationalist who lives in northern Virginia.
And what do his parents think?
“They think I’m crazy,” he said.
His mother did not respond to a voicemail, and his father, an ophthalmologist, declined to give an interview, explaining in a text message that he was “very concerned that anything I might say could in any way be used to smear Richard. Richard is my son and as such I only wish to give him positive support whether I personally agree with him on all political issues or not.”
His relationship with his father is strained, said Spencer, who’s also separated from his wife, Nina, a Russian-born writer with whom he has a young daughter. Nina Spencer couldn’t be reached for comment.
“What I’m doing is hard,” he said. “It can have a toll on a relationship.”
An extensive profile in Mother Jones revealed that Spencer had previously dated an Asian American woman, and he acknowledged that some of his comrades would probably find that “terrible.”
Last week, he said he wouldn’t date a non-white woman again and that he still wants interracial relationships barred.
That belief is core to the alt-right’s most radical goal: An all-white country.
“We need an ethno-state,” he said in a 2013 speech, “so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family, and feel safe and secure.
He ended his address by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream.”
Last week, Spencer was reluctant to discuss how that dream would be achieved.
How, he was asked, in a nation with more than 102 million blacks, Asians and Latinos, could a whites-only territory be created without overwhelming violence?
Over chocolate croissants and an Americano coffee at a Corner Bakery Cafe, he avoided the question, discussing Nietzsche, communism’s origins, history’s unpredictabililty.
Then, at last, he offered an answer.
“Look, maybe it will be horribly bloody and terrible,” he said. “That’s a possibility with everything.”
Two days before the conference, while in mid-thought about the president-elect’s chief strategist, Spencer walked out of an Arlington Starbucks as his Lyft car pulled to the curb. The driver, who had a thick Turkish accent, popped the sedan’s trunk and loaded his luggage.
Spencer likes to describe Stephen Bannon as “alt-light,” not quite committed to the movement’s most radical objectives but receptive to some of the broader philosophies.
“He’s open,” Spencer explained.
As the car sped alongside the Potomac River toward Washington, he talked of the movement’s next target: Colleges. He plans to speak at both Texas A&M and the University of Michigan in the coming weeks and is convinced that the alt-right will appeal to students weary of politically correct campus cultures.
“I think there’s going to be a huge crowd,” he said. “The world is changing.”
He pulled his phone from his pocket. Grinning and giddy, he played a video taken at Michigan, where more than 100 students were filmed chanting: “No alt-right, no KKK, no racist USA.”
He played it again.
“We’re getting under their skin,” he said. “I take a sadistic pleasure in that.”
The Lyft arrived at a downtown hotel where Spencer had booked a room for the conference. He asked the driver to wait while he dropped off his bags.
And what did the Muslim immigrant, unaware that he was chauffeuring a leading white nationalist, think of the United States?
Much better than Turkey, the driver said in halting English. He beamed as he explained that his family had come here eight months earlier, just in time for the birth of his new baby – officially an American citizen.