WASHINGTON -- 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 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.
“I think it is important to dream, and you can look into the past for inspiration or you can think about the future," Spencer said. “But I don’t know how history is going to unfold. All I know is, we need identity no matter what happens.”
Although Spencer claimed on Saturday that his ideal scenarios are so theoretical they're hardly worth spelling out, he's been more forthcoming in the past. Spencer told Vice in 2013 that his dream was “an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence."
Spencer has also expressed an openness to the idea of some kind of nonviolent ethnic cleansing. “To
Other interim policies that Spencer and many NPI members support resemble standard conservative positions, albeit with race more explicitly in the foreground. They want to deport all undocumented immigrants, for example, and eliminate affirmative action in university admission and hiring for black and Latino people.
They also advocate a non-interventionist foreign policy, something they believe Trump supports as well.
Leveraging Trump To Build A Movement
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.
Multiple conference attendees, including Spencer, told The Huffington Post either that they had either already voted for Trump in their state’s primary or that they planned to do so.
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.”
A spokeswoman for Trump did not reply to HuffPost's questions about his support among white nationalists.
Trump has brought an existential quality to politics that wasn’t there before. Richard Spencer, National Policy Institute
The NPI conference took place the same day that this year's Conservative Political Action Conference ended, but Spencer said he would have only gone to CPAC in order to “troll” them.
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."
He even mocked conservatives for clinging to unpopular economic ideas such as privatizing Social Security and Medicare, which he said “none of these people voting Republican really want.”
Spencer wants white nationalists to follow the mainstream conservatives’ movement-building playbook, however, beginning with William F. Buckley’s founding of National Review in 1955.
“Conservatives, to their credit, really did create a rather synthetic movement in the 1950s that wasn’t there before,” he said. “We want to create a movement with ideas and institutions -- many institutions, many different people.”
Indeed, it was unclear if there was one uniform ideology shared by everyone at Saturday's conference, aside from a sense that whites will soon be a beleaguered minority in need of representation. Almost all of the attendees who spoke to HuffPost refused to give their last names, out of fear that it could jeopardize their reputation or professional standing.
One such attendee, Karl, attempted to describe why white nationalists feel vulnerable.
“We live in essentially a soft tyranny," he said. "The government is not gonna come kick our doors down for attending something like this, but you have social pressure and the Internet and people who will try to get you fired."
Richard, a private security worker and military veteran from Virginia, said he believes white people and people of color can live amicably together if people of color stop making whites apologize for “past transgressions.”
He rejected the idea that there are still a number of institutional barriers to racial equality, for example in the criminal justice system.
“I think people can and should get along," he said. "But I think they would get along better if they all, number one, stopped being so sensitive about everything."
The Jews Are The Real Enemies
The white nationalists share Trump's penchant for trafficking in conspiracy theories, but they indulge in a brand of anti-Jewish prejudice that Trump himself has not exhibited.
One of the speakers scheduled at the NPI event was Kevin MacDonald, a former psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, who's notorious for his incendiary ideas about Jewish people. MacDonald has argued that Jews are “genetically driven to destroy Western societies” by promoting liberal immigration policies as part of their “group evolutionary strategy,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of Saturday's attendees made comments about Jewish people, and about their supposed role in efforts to undermine white nationalism, that would have sounded familiar to anyone with knowledge of MacDonald's work.
“Do [Jews] present a challenge to us?” Richard said. “I would say yes, because they overwhelmingly support liberal causes.”
It is something Jews have done throughout history, Richard argued, and it's one reason they've so often clashed with the communities around them.
Jews “were basically advocating war against Germany before the war actually started,” he said.
Richard added that the Jews’ actions in Germany did not warrant genocide. But he's not certain that a genocide actually occurred.
If the Holocaust “really happened, then of course it wasn’t justified,” he said. “If it happened differently than what the story we’ve been told [is], then I think that needs to be let out.”
A man who gave his name as Jake later elaborated on why Jews are not white, and why, in his view, they present a fundamental problem for the white nationalist cause.
“The main people who are stunting white interests are Jewish people,” Jake said. “Every time a white nationalist, or group that claims to represent the interests of white Americans, appears, it is destroyed by groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, and those are Jewish groups.” (The SPLC is an Alabama-based anti-racist nonprofit that does not identify as a Jewish organization in any way.)
The main people who are stunting white interests are Jewish people. Jake, white nationalist
Jews support multiculturalism, Jake said, because they are not racially white, and therefore feel threatened by white identity.
John, another attendee, argued that it was in Jews’ nature to be “subversive” as a survival strategy. As he and other attendees spoke, an African-America
“Basically Jews, as outsiders in society, in order to become any part of it, to exploit it in any way, had to work in subversive ways, which is why they have a high verbal IQ," John said. "This is why you’ll find that Jews have this kind of behavior wherever they go."
Mike, an attendee from Massachusetts, said that the willingness of Jewish neoconservatives to abandon the Republican Party if Trump is the nominee is more evidence that Jews put their own interests ahead of the country’s.
“It’s a good example of Jews basically backstabbing an entire portion of the political spectrum with their own perceived interests,” Mike said.
Neoconservatives’ support for foreign policy interventions, including the Iraq War, is driven by their loyalty to Israel, Mike and his friends argued.
I asked whether it was possible that Jewish neoconservatives, like non-Jewish neoconservatives, simply support those policies because they believe they're what's best for the country.
They chuckled at my suggestion.
“Are you Jewish?” Jake interjected.
“I actually happen to be," I said, "but I’m here as a reporter."
Jake then confronted me with what he said is the hypocrisy of Jews promoting multicultural acceptance in the United States and other Western countries, even as they insist on having an explicitly ethno-religious state of their own in Israel.
“The only reason it is not brought up is because people are scared and because the Jews own the mainstream media,” Jake said.
“They are opposed to us having our own Israel, a state that is for us exclusively,” Karl added.
Talk turned to Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News’ parent company and who argued last year that only "proven" Christian refugees should be allowed into the U.S.
“Rupert Murdoch pretends not to be Jewish,” Mike said.
“If he’s not, he’s a shabbos goy,” Karl said. “He’s just so Zionist. He’s part of the billionaire class.”
A shabbos goy is a gentile who does things for a Jewish person on Saturdays that are prohibited on the Sabbath. Karl appeared to be using the term to describe non-Jewish sellouts who are beholden to Jews.
Karl argued that Trump is the rare billionaire who is neither Jewish nor beholden to Jewish people.
Trump has indeed rankled some of Israel's Republican supporters by saying he would pursue a role as a "neutral" broker between Israel and the Palestinians. He also told the Republican Jewish Coalition in December that he didn't expect them to back him, "because I don't want your money."
Trump would likely bridle at the open anti-Semitism of these supporters, however. His daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism in 2009 and raises her two children in an observant Jewish home.
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign also did not respond to a request for comment on how Trump feels about supporters saying anti-Jewish things.
Spencer, for his part, concedes that Jews are not monolithic, though it's not clear whether he thinks they are capable of being part of the white race.
"I agree there is a great deal of Jewish assimilation," he said. "I don’t want to get into a [discussion of] 'who is white.'”
Evan Thomas, a student from Michigan, offered his own perspective.
“Jews tend to be involved in all levels of society,” Thomas said. “There are Jews who are leftists, there are Jews who agree with us, there are Jews who are Zionist. There are Jews who are doctors and apolitical.”
Besieged By Protesters
One of the disadvantages of lacking a formal affiliation with the Trump campaign is that the white nationalists cannot dispense with protesters as easily as the crowds and security personnel at his rallies.
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.
The protesters were holding enormous puppets of the three conference speakers: Spencer, MacDonald and Paul “Ramzpaul” Ramsey, a white nationalist video blogger.
The demonstrators also yelled “KKK” and “Nazis” at people entering the building.
“It is not OK to have these hate groups at all, but especially meeting in a federal building supported by taxpayer dollars,” said Madeleine Poor, one of the protesters.
Ciaran Lithgow also came out to protest racism.
“White identity groups are almost inherently racist,” she said. “While of course white people have culture and they have their own specific cultures and traditions, making a group that claims white people are superior -- and they do claim that white people are superior, ethnically and DNA-wise -- that’s inherently racist.”
The white nationalists inside the building seemed to regard the protesters as stooges for the forces trying to silence their movement. They assumed the demonstrators lacked any real understanding of the white nationalist cause.
“You have the anti-fascist mob downstairs,” Karl said. “Why are they there? What are we doing that’s so threatening to them?”
“They don’t realize they are the shock troops for the establishment,” Mike said.
The presence of the protesters also added to the conference attendees’ sense of victimhood.
“There are lot of wicked people -- a hundred of them downstairs -- who would love to see us lose jobs or probably come harm our families, our parents,” Karl said.