The National Policy Institute‘s November 19th Conference Become Who We Are 2016 was by most accounts an energized and well-attended event drawing a younger/newer crowd than the usual suspects one might see, for example, at a typical AR gathering. (For a good overview, see Matt Fournoy’s piece at RightOn.)
With the seeming ride to prominence of the alt right on Donald Trump’s coattails, the conference was naturally the subject of far greater attention than in the past. Hostile demonstrations and harassment by the predictable antifa types were more significant than previously and there was far more media presence – all of it (or at least the vast bulk of it) waiting with bated breath for confirmation of its on-going alt-right-as-crypto-fascist meme.
So, when NPI President Richard Spencer ended his closing speech “Hail Trump! Hail our People! Hail Victory!”, the response of a handful of audience members with “Roman” salutes was predictably captured on the cell phone of a reporter for The Atlantic and subsequently publicized across the globe, serving to “confirm”, along with the many print articles on the conference – for example, The NY Time’s Alt-Right Gathering Exults in Trump Election With Nazi-Era Salute – the core neo-Nazism of the alt right (and by implication, of Trump himself).
In apparent response to the ensuing negative coverage Trump did the obvious and reasonable thing and publicly disavowed Spencer and the alt right.
As a result of all of this, Spencer has come in for significant criticism within alt right circles. Vdare weighed in twice – once with Roger Dooghy’s gentle scolding in NPI’s Spencer vs. POLITCO’s Hirsh, Etc.–Why Trump Calls The Media “Dishonest And Corrupt” and once with Peter Brimelow’s sharper but still friendly Juvenile Bravado Undercuts NPI Conference Triumph, And VDARE.com. Other sites varied in the tone and extent of their criticism, with Alternative Right alone presenting four consecutive posts attacking Spencer.
For all the second-guessing which Spencer’s actions (and inactions) justify, there’s an inevitability about the events that makes it hard to criticize the NPI’s President too sharply.
As movements begin to achieve success and visibility they inevitably draw parasites from the fringe-ward zones to their right or left, as the case may be, who want take advantage of the work of their more mainstream cousins to promote themselves. Thus, the left has to contend with the embarrassing antics of Spartacists, black bloc anarchists, etc at its own events. This is something that, like it or not, comes with the territory. (In fact, Trump and co. probably see the NPI in the same terms.)
If the unfortunate moment was the result of a half dozen crazies “seizing the time” to make their demonstration, such things will happen. One can and should work to minimize such occurrences, but they will happen nonetheless.
It is also possible, as some have suggested, that the guilty parties were actually plants, government or otherwise, put there to discredit the NPI and the alt right in general. (It has even been argued that Spencer himself is an example of “controlled opposition“.) This is another thing that the left has argued over for years. How does one really distinguish an agent from an idiot? The short answer is that one usually can’t, so, again, just get used to the presence of such individuals and work to limit the damage they can do.
Most likely, however, the events were the result of an attempt at an edgy provocation which would appeal to the conferences younger, hipper attendees while piquing media interest and increasing exposure – something that unfortunately went a bit farther than it should have.
In recent months Spencer and others in the the alt right movement have received a degree of attention unlike anything they have seen before or probably even dreamed of before 2015 began. The truth is, however, that the this coverage has not come because the alt right is really achieving mainstream status (as Spencer claimed in an interview) or because it has become a powerful mass movement in its own right yet, but because the left and the media think they can use it as a stick to beat the Trump movement and to mobilize their own troops.
Thus, the most insightful piece I’ve seen on the topic so far (at Vox Popoli) reminds us: “It’s not about Richard. It’s about Donald Trump.”
Vox goes on to argue that
“You can’t play the media, the media plays you… The media is not the way to ‘get out your message’. That’s the bait they’ve used to lure in every sucker for 50 years.”(1)
Here, I’m not so sure. It is obviously true that the MSM is not our friend, but at the same time that the press features dissenting ideas, however negatively, it also serves to normalize them. On balance, the exposure – even hostile exposure – given so far has been tremendously useful in moving the NPI and the alt right beyond the internet ghetto.(2)
Going forward, the fact is that the press and the left must find something, or continue to hope that they will, or they will simply drop the Spencer and the alt right as a subject of interest.
Obviously, of course, the alt right should avoid making its enemies’ task so easy. This is where the criticism of Spencer’s performance becomes legitimate. Colin Liddell in Failure at the Gates of Victory? points to the fact that the event included “a nod to the ironic trollish element of the Alt-Right” and argues that Spencer’s presentation and the tone of certain aspects of the conference invited the offending audience members’ response:
… Richard was rather naughty when he used the conference’s aesthetics and his own rhetoric to give obvious sieg heil cues to the audience.
Spencer himself has issued a sort of admission and non-apologetic apology, saying:
We should never allow our enemies to define what we can and cannot joke about….
But the fact remains, there are millions of eyes on us now. And what we do and say have more ramifications than they did before.
…we must demonstrate discipline; this goes for me, as well those who attend public and private events.
Overall, I think that Roman-salute-gate will turn out to be a non-issue in itself and, in fact, well worth the educational experience for those who will choose to learn from it. Let’s hope that Richard Spencer is one of them.(3)
(1) Interestingly, Voxday speculates “I… don’t think [Richard] understands that the media intends for him to become a David Duke figure, a weapon available for deployment against any politician or program that he nominally supports.”
I can see this. Spencer is the perfect symbol for the secret fascist believed to be lurking behind every white face. He’s utterly presentable – charming, good-looking, well-educated and well-spoken – an excellent example of why we all need to be constantly on our guard against the ever-present neo-Nazi menace. Hopefully Spencer will be astute enough to avoid this.
(2) The left has argued endlessly over the role of the media, especially in the 60s and 70s, when it was frequently hostile. We have a tremendous amount to learn from that experience in general. A good place to start as far as the media is concerned is the flawed but still very interesting The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left by one-time SDS president Todd Gitlin.
(3) As part of this Spencer needs to re-consider his association with certain discreditable NS-lite characters. The idea of “no enemies to the right” is a fantasy and sooner or later he will need to choose whether he orients centerward (the Vdare crowd and beyond) or the toward these more disreputable elements further out on the fringe.