'Alt-right' leader: Don't decry us Trump

Group is unhappy with Trump's disavowal, but its members say he is only 'saving face'

Mr Richard Spencer is the face of the “alt-right”, labelled as a white supremacist movement by bodies such as the Soufan Group. On Sunday, he took part in a party at a Washington DC restaurant, which drew outrage over its participants’ actions
Mr Richard Spencer is the face of the “alt-right”, labelled as a white supremacist movement by bodies such as the Soufan Group. On Sunday, he took part in a party at a Washington DC restaurant, which drew outrage over its participants’ actions that were widely condemned as neo-Nazi. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

President-elect Donald Trump should not be hasty in denouncing the white nationalist "alt-right" group, its self-styled leader Richard Spencer has said.

"The alt-right is coming out of the multiracial and multicultural reality of today," he said in an earlier phone interview with The Straits Times. Mr Trump's election was "ultimately about white people voting for him".

The 38-year-old founder of the Virginia-based National Policy Institute, which advocates white nationalism, has ignited a storm of outrage in the United States over his cry of "Hail Trump!" at a party for some 200 people at a Washington DC restaurant on Sunday. Some responded with stiff-armed Nazi-style salutes.

That elicited a condemnation from President-Elect Donald Trump. But Mr Spencer remains enthusiastic about the rise of the real estate tycoon. 

"There is a lived experience of white people becoming minorities in our own country, and that is going to give birth to things like the alt-right and things like the Trump campaign.

"I think Donald Trump is the first step towards identity politics. I don't think Donald Trump is alt-right… but I do think he's different than all the conservatives in my lifetime. He is sounding this clarion call of identity politics," he told The Straits Times.

"Both Trump and the alt-right are riding the same wave. There is a wave of discontent, a wave of angst, a wave of fear, and a wave of hope for something different. We are both symptoms of this big social movement. The alt-right has been the sort of edgy vanguard to the Trump movement and we projected on to Trump a lot of our hopes and dreams."

Mr Spencer coined the term "alt-right". The movement is a loose one, largely based online, and thus cloaked in anonymity. It has been around since 2008 and was originally about breaking free of mainstream conservatism, and began gaining traction online last year in the run-up to this year's presidential election.

"The alt-right has been able to successfully brand itself as an edgy and fun and ironic movement that takes pleasure in needling both liberals and conservatives," Professor George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, who is researching a book on the movement, told the Washington Post this month.

On Wednesday, the Soufan Group, a consultancy focusing on security and intelligence issues wrote in an e-mail bulletin : "In terms of extremism, the 'alt-right' movement's call for the establishment of a 'white nation' - achieved through the 'respectful' removal of minorities - makes it a white supremacist movement."

It warned: "The public resurgence of the white supremacist movement presents domestic stability and security concerns reminiscent of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Through the movement's rebranding efforts, however, the 'alt-right' - a movement that incorporates ideologies long considered antithetical to democratic ideals - has forged its way into the national dialogue."

Earlier this month, Mr  Ben Shapiro, a former editor of the website Breitbart News where the alt-right movement found a voice, told the website Vox.com: "The alt-right are people like Richard Spencer who think that… European ethnicity is the dominant force behind Western culture and Western civilisation biologically.

"They truly believe that multi-ethnic democracies cannot succeed."

Until recently, Breitbart was run by Mr Stephen Bannon, Mr Trump's pick for his chief strategist and senior advisor. The US President-Elect has not overtly supported the alt-right, but his anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric seemed to press the buttons the movement believed in, and it greeted his appointment of Mr Bannon with enthusiasm.

Mr Spencer acknowledged that the alt-right's vision ran counter to the idea of a diverse US, and there was potential for conflict.

He claimed conflict had already started - but blamed the Black Lives Matter movement which emerged in recent years in response to police killings of African Americans.

He also acknowledged "some commonalities" with the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi party of 1930s Germany - but denied that the alt-right was a neo-Nazi movement.

On Sunday, Mr Spencer ended the Washington party at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant - which apologised for allowing it by saying it had been unaware of the event's nature - by telling the crowd over a microphone that "we willed Donald Trump into office".

"We made this dream our reality," he said. "For us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again!"  

Then raising his glass he shouted: "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!" And amid cheers, several in the audience flashed Nazi-style salutes. "Hail victory" is a direct translation of the Nazi salute "Sieg Heil".

Video of the event triggered a storm of concern and condemnation. But Mr Spencer claimed it was done in "irony and exuberance".

Mr Trump's disavowal of the alt-right has triggered consternation on white nationalist online forums where users regularly invoke Adolf Hitler and other figures from the fascist Nazi Party of 1930s Germany. Comments posted on Tuesday included one from a user called "Uberfrau" who said: "Most rational people on the alt-right know that he (Trump)… is only saving face so he does not lose more centrist supporters."

The Associated Press quoted Mr Spencer saying that Mr Trump should not be hasty in denouncing the "alt-right" - but that he understood "where he's coming from politically and practically".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline ''Alt-right' leader: Don't decry us Trump'. Subscribe