“Identitarianism” is a newfangled euphemism for white supremacy. Coined around the start of the 21st century by the intellectual wing — such as it is — of the French far right, it has since been adopted by white nationalists the world over. Last October, I attended a conference in Washington convened by the identitarian movement’s American division, the National Policy Institute (NPI). It was fitting that the gathering would occur on Halloween, as about 150 ghouls filled the ballroom of the National Press Club. The crowd was almost entirely male, many of them (apparently taking advantage of the under-30 registration discount) young. A conspicuous number sported the Hitler Youth–inspired hairdo known as an “undercut,” short on the sides with a long part on top. In between encomia to the recently deceased anti-Semitic newspaper publisher Willis Carto and a recitation of pagan reveries by a white-separatist folk musician, attendees perused bookstalls featuring the conspiracy-mongering American Free Press newspaper and the Holocaust-denying Barnes Review.
What drew me to spend an otherwise pleasant Saturday afternoon among a group of white supremacists was the buzz that Donald Trump’s then-nascent presidential campaign had stirred within the movement. Trump’s politics of resentment thrives on a sort of coded groupthink — namely, white groupthink.
Whether Trump himself, in his heart of hearts, is racist is almost beside the point. Like demagogues throughout history, he is taking advantage of an adverse economic and political situation and playing to the populace’s most sordid fears in furtherance of a lust for power. Conservative intellectuals, who like to think of themselves as immune to groupthink, have been flabbergasted at his rise. That has been all to the amusement of NPI director Richard Spencer, a former editor of The American Conservative whose drift into the fever swamps of racial politics apparently became too much even for Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos to stomach. Although it was months before Trump would cynically dodge questions about former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke’s endorsement of his campaign, the well-coiffed racists at the Press Club were giddy about Trump’s nativist rhetoric and policy proposals; Spencer described him as an “icebreaker” in the discussion of identitarian issues.
Duke, Spencer, and others in the identitarian fold may be moral cretins, but they are not (at least not all) political idiots. Identitarians are right to detect something significant in Trump’s rise: namely, that he has mainstreamed white racial grievance to a point unprecedented in post–Civil Rights Era America. That it has taken this most improbable of figures — a thrice-married, multimillionaire New York real-estate magnate and celebrity television star with an Orthodox Jewish daughter — to achieve what no hooded Klansman or backwoods neo-Nazi could ever have hoped of doing makes his feat all the more astonishing.
Today’s white supremacists sound much like the campus social-justice warriors they claim to despise.
True to their name, identitarians premise their reductive worldview on the exhausted nostrums of identity politics. For all their complaints about “cultural Marxists” and their self-satisfied glee in traducing the prudish dictates of “political correctness,” identitarians neatly mimic the language of their censorious adversaries on the left. Crude expressions of bigotry are generally frowned upon; today’s white supremacists sound much like the campus social-justice warriors they claim to despise, the major difference being their disagreement as to which racial group is most deserving of top-victim status. You need simply substitute “white men” for “African Americans,” “women,” “transgender,” ad infinitum in leftist jeremiads about the plight of “marginalized” peoples and you pretty much have the entirety of identitarian talking points. The language of “oppression” is much the same, regardless of who is complaining about it.
For instance, Spencer compares identitarians to visionaries of other, once-downtrodden social movements that claimed their stake upon a distinct identity. The gay rioters at Stonewall, the determined Zionist pioneers who made the desert bloom — these are the models for his burgeoning white-nationalist undertaking. It is a mark of their fine-honed appreciation for the zeitgeist that identitarians reference Jews and homosexuals — groups not typically looked favorably upon by white supremacists — as their inspiration.
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Sometime Klan lawyer Sam Dickson pressed me on the necessity of a “separate state” for whites: “The blacks could be given Manhattan and we would take Iowa,” he elaborated. Though today’s propagators of racial apartheid might be expected, like their forebears, to frame arguments in terms of their own group’s inherent superiority, Dickson makes his appeal using the traditionally left-wing language of the perpetually put-upon victim: In the America of the not-so-distant future, whites will be an endangered species and a vulnerable class deserving of protection. “White people, as we become a minority, will not be able to live except in a state of severe repression and discrimination,” he complained. Speaking as if he were the chieftain of a vanishing Native American tribe or an earnest nature preservationist, Spencer elaborated: “You can’t get away from the great erasure — that is, this general tendency to delegitimize the white man.”
Spencer very much likes play-acting the role of a rogue intellectual, bumptiously describing himself on Twitter as an “international thought criminal.” When asked why the identitarian movement is gaining new followers, he replied that “people are being red-pilled by life, they’re being red-pilled by reality.” This reference to the 1999 blockbuster science-fiction film The Matrix — wherein our hero can choose to take either a blue pill, representing the “ignorance of illusion” that is the fabricated reality of the Matrix-generated world, or a red pill, allowing him a painful but gutsy escape from its imperceptible yet omnipresent cage — is a pet analogy among the rising generation of pop-culture-savvy white supremacists. They are some of the most vocal figures in the larger “alt right” (“alternative right”) movement, which loathes mainstream conservatism for its alleged selling out to the “establishment.” It was in the darker recesses of the alt right’s online message boards and social-media accounts that the now-ubiquitous epithet “cuckservative” — an amalgamation of “cuckold” and “conservative,” hurled at any male right-of-center writer or activist who doesn’t prostrate himself before the altar of Trump — was devised.
According to Spencer, the past several years have witnessed a steady deterioration in American race relations, visible in everything from the growing assertiveness of organizations such as Black Lives Matter to increasing ethnic diversity in television-show casts to a newly emboldened and hypersensitive campus Left. This accumulated set of trends, Spencer says, constitutes the “red pill” of reality that more and more whites are beginning to swallow. Whereas mainstream culture and politics have dismissed the cultural concerns of racially conscious whites, Donald Trump sympathetically addresses their anxieties.
I didn’t think much about NPI at the time, viewing its followers — and their preferred presidential candidate — as little more than oddities in the great theater of American politics. By the time the organization reconvened four months later, in early March, however, a great upheaval was under way. This time I found myself in a far tonier setting, in a room atop the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C. The better digs were emblematic of the group’s upbeat fortunes. Just a week before, Trump had offered his KKK feint, and the candidate’s newfound popularity among identitarians had become the subject of mainstream-media interest. While last time it was only colleagues from the Huffington Post and Daily Beast who shared my curiosity about this seemingly marginal group, this time there was an NBC reporter with a camera. Like the title of its Halloween conference, “Become Who We Are” (an explicit appeal for whites to take the red pill and embrace, in Spencer’s words, “racial realness”), the name of NPI’s latest confab, “Identity Politics,” brazenly aped leftist language. Trump, the program boasted, is someone who has “taken celebrity culture and turned it into nationalism.” (As proof that God has a sense of humor, the conclave took place across the street from a hotel hosting the Black Entertainment Television Awards.)
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Holding a drink and standing by himself was Bill Regnery, a co-founder of NPI and the black sheep of the Regnery publishing clan. A mildly enthusiastic Trump voter, he bemoaned the conservative movement for having “too much involvement with the mechanics of the old America, the Constitution, bromides . . .” Asked to elaborate, Regnery replied that “the Brits have done pretty well without a constitution and maybe this country would do well without a Constitution.”
I was rather surprised by this open disrespect for America’s founding document, especially from someone to the right of Genghis Khan.
I was rather surprised by this open disrespect for America’s founding document, especially from someone to the right of Genghis Khan. But it turns out that the Constitution is largely unloved, if not outright disdained, among identitarians, who despise it primarily for extolling the virtues of egalitarianism. Writing on the website of Spencer’s Radix journal, a contributor denigrates the Constitution as a “primitive article of antiquity” that “will not solve the problems we face in the 21st century.” Proposing that “cuckservatives” who speak reverently of the Constitution be denigrated as “paper worshippers,” “vellum supremacists,” and “parchment fetishists,” he argues that the object of their admiration “has ceased to be a vehicle for progress and has instead devolved into a major obstacle to our future.”
It’s ironic that self-identified right-wingers would proclaim the obsolescence of the Constitution as a “vehicle for progress,” since that’s precisely the way many liberals see its role in American society. Spencer, “fresh from a Russian-television” interview, let it rip when I asked what distinguishes him and his movement from the conservatives with whom he used to associate. “I’m more interested in identity . . . than they are in protecting capitalism or adhering to the Constitution or whatever gobbledygook conservatives believe,” he explained. “Conservatives have been damaging to the world” and “are fundamentally boring. I really want something that is more dynamic, about our identity.” Spencer relishes the rise of a new conservative movement because — and it was at this point in his disquisition that he became most visibly excited — he’s “tired of a bunch of boring fatsos talking about how much they love the Constitution,” the word “boring” dripping from his lips with especial scorn.
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Given the grand political projects mankind has wreaked upon humanity in the last century, perhaps one of the best things that could be said for conservatives is that they’re “boring,” preferring steady, gradual compromise to rapid, sweeping change. It is telling that Spencer considers this word a slur. In his short treatise “The Doctrine of Fascism,” Benito Mussolini used the word “action” nearly 20 times; Fascism, he wrote, is a spiritual force that “dwells in the heart of the man of action.” Surveying this ideology’s destructive legacy, Umberto Eco once listed “the cult of action for action’s sake” as one of 14 key elements constituting what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism,” the reactionary philosophy broadly encompassing Mussolini’s National Fascist party and German National Socialism. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection,” Eco observed. If there’s one thing fascists are not, it’s “boring.”
This penchant for action — for not being “boring” — and for radically refashioning society is but one of the many areas where the hard Left and the hard Right converge. Listening to Spencer and his acolytes bemoan the docility of the mainstream American Right, one realizes why they hold conservatives in such contempt. Identitarians are reactionary revolutionaries: fascists. To the extent that they have one, their protectionist economic agenda seems to be socialism for a select group of people — in other words, National Socialism. Identitarians sometimes sound like hard leftists who have exchanged multiculturalism for white supremacy. Spencer’s entire political program is based upon a flimsy sense of “white identity” — the sort of imagined community that cannot exist except in the minds of racists — which he speaks of in reverential, almost mystical tones. “White identity is part of an historical experience. . . . It’s genetic, a spirit.”
For all their talk about the accomplishments of European civilization, however, identitarians do not concern themselves much with the great figures of the West, whether Plato or Shakespeare, Goethe or Locke (never mind Freud, Einstein, Spinoza, or the countless other Jews who played a vital part in the advent of Western civilization). Nor are they particularly interested in propagating classical Western ideas such as individualism, liberty, or rationalism. The intellectual achievements of the Western Enlightenment tradition go practically unmentioned among identitarians, whose tenuous identification with “the West” boils down to something as nebulous and immaterial as skin color. In a moody promotional video that’s part Scientology recruitment film, part Mein Kampf, and part motivational poster from a shrink’s office, Spencer inveighs against “abstractions and buzzwords” such as “democracy and freedom.” “A nation based on freedom is just another place to go shopping,” he says dismissively. “It’s a country for everyone, and thus a country for no one. A country in which we ourselves have become strangers.”
Identitarians wholeheartedly reject the Enlightenment, as did fascists and Communists before them.
Conservatives, and, more broadly, all those who define themselves as liberals in the classical sense of the term, venerate the Western European tradition for its values and ideals, not for the race of the people who propagated them. Indeed, the great thing about the Western canon, what makes it truly unique and worth passing on, is that anyone can embrace it. For me, the loftiest expression of this sentiment remains a speech delivered in 1990 by V. S. Naipaul, fittingly entitled “Our Universal Civilization.” A Trinidadian-born citizen of Great Britain who is of Indian and Nepalese extraction, Naipaul is one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world, and the sort of cosmopolitan figure unique to that world. The West, he said, “is an elastic idea; it fits all men. . . . So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
Read their manifestos, listen to their speeches, attend their conferences, and you won’t hear much, if anything, from the identitarians about these ideals. That’s because they wholeheartedly reject the Enlightenment, as did fascists and Communists before them.
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Perhaps it was inevitable that, in a society that validates minority identity politics and the aggressive tactics of its practitioners, a political movement based upon white resentment would arise. Like all reactionary movements, the one Trump has mobilized (in general) and identitarianism (in particular) are by definition reactions to something — in this case, multiculturalism and political correctness gone awry. Trump “is standing up for the people who are tired of being told the divisions in American society are all their fault,” Molly Ball, an Atlantic staff writer who has covered Trump across the country, observes. This is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to America; ethno-nationalism is ascendant once again across Europe.
Needless to say, black people in America have faced tremendous legal, societal, and institutional racism in a way that white people never have, which makes not only the solutions offered by identitarians misguided and dangerous, but their grievances fundamentally phony. Attributing the entire Western tradition to the skin color of its progenitors and substituting racial consciousness for universal values also goes a way in explaining why identitarians are so giddy about Trump’s dictator-friendly foreign policy. The “Trump–Putin understanding,” Spencer told me, forwards “a vision of a white world that is not at war,” the sort of entente that, retroactively, would amount to “a cancellation of the 20th century.” According to Spencer, that tens of millions of white people killed one another on the European continent in the two greatest bloodbaths of human history was all a giant misunderstanding. If only the Soviets and the Germans and the French and the Poles and the Jews (well, maybe not the Jews) had recognized their common skin color, neither of the two world wars would have happened.
Which brings us to Trump and his reintroduction of a baleful phenomenon long absent in American politics: violence. The United States has hardly been immune to the ravages of men who prefer to settle disputes not in representative chambers but by brawling in the streets. From the Founding Fathers (who fought a war against the world’s mightiest empire) through the era of political dueling to the anti–Vietnam War protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, violence has been a recurring feature of American political life. But for the better part of the past half century, we have thankfully been spared its depredations.
Like our basic notions of decorum, civility, common sense, and much else that makes America great, the laudable facility for restraining one’s pugnacious impulses in the clash of political differences has been thrown out the window in this campaign season by the utterly debased personage of Trump. For months, the Republican front-runner has directly encouraged individual acts of violence at his rallies and refused to condemn supporters who act upon his urgings. “I’d like to punch him in the face” was a typical Trump remark about a protester, groups of which now inevitably appear at his public events. After a number of Bernie Sanders supporters crashed a Trump rally in Chicago, Trump threatened via Twitter: “Be careful, Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!” Thanks to Trump and the left-wing agitators that his aggressive rhetoric deliberately incites, the great tradition of the American town-hall political meeting has begun to resemble rowdier sessions of the Ukrainian parliament.
For those who previously dismissed the threat Trump poses to basic American values and our peaceful way of life, the extent to which he is playing with fire became indubitably clear on March 16. That was the day Trump announced that his thuggish backers might direct their ire not at Sanders-supporting hippies or Black Lives Matter activists, but fellow Republicans. Asked what might happen at this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland if he does not win the number of delegates necessary to secure nomination on the first ballot, Trump implicitly threatened carnage.
“I think you’d have riots,” said the man who, in discussion of his foreign-policy views, has described himself as “the most militaristic person” in the GOP field. “I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people. . . . I think you’d have problems like you’ve never seen before. I think bad things would happen.” This is the bravado of the racketeering Mafioso kingpin: Nice political convention you’ve got there; shame if something bad were to happen to it.
The Trump movement’s tactics of violent intimidation are the logical extension of Trump’s personality.
The Trump movement’s tactics of violent intimidation are the logical extension of Trump’s personality, even if, as with all cowards, it’s others who execute his pugnacious fantasies. And it should hardly surprise us that people who view the Constitution as a bothersome hindrance in their quest to divide America into racial bantustans, and who denigrate those who revere our nation’s founding document as “boring,” would find so much to like in the campaign of Donald Trump. They, like Trump, seem to prefer a society ungoverned by laws, tradition, or the accumulated wisdom of the human experience. Feigned erudition and wonkishness aside, identitarians are, at the end of the day, thugs. And thugs are easily susceptible to the lure of the crowd.
In researching his searing 1990 sociological study-cum-memoir of British soccer hooliganism, Among the Thugs, Bill Buford immersed himself in this riotous and debauched milieu. After spending time with partisans of a particular club, he compiled a list of their “likes,” which ranged from “lager in pint glasses” and “lager in two-liter bottles” to “the Queen” and “goals.” At its essence, however, the determinant value of the hooligan is tribe. “That was the most important item: they liked themselves, them and their mates,” Buford writes.
Understandably, this atavistic and clannish attitude lent its bearers to recruitment by the National Front, a fascist party that enjoyed its heyday in the late 1970s. “They understood something about the workings of the crowd: they respected it,” Buford wrote of the Front’s leaders. “They knew that its potential — its rare, raw, uncontrollable power — was in all of us, even if it was so persistently elusive.” Trump is certainly not the first figure in American politics to summon the awesome powers of the crowd (Barack Obama did a fine job of that in 2008). But he is the first demagogue to do so in at least a generation. Watching Trump’s rallies and listening to the rhetoric of his supporters with increasing unease, I recall Buford’s ruminations on the 1989 Hillsborough soccer tragedy, when 96 people were crushed to death in a stadium stampede. The carnage, Buford wrote, was “relentlessly logical, even overdue.”
– Mr. Kirchick is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a correspondent for the Daily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet magazine. His first book, The End of Europe, will be published by Yale University Press this fall.