WASHINGTON – White nationalists from around the country gathered Saturday in downtown Washington to bask in Donald Trump’s victory and celebrate what many proclaimed as a coming-out moment in their mission to turn back multiculturalism and eventually create a whites-only “ethno-state” in North America.
“There’s an energy in this city that I’ve never felt before,” said Gerald Martin, 64, a retired teacher from Dallas who was one of nearly 275 attendees of the annual conference put on by the National Policy Institute, whose president, Richard Spencer, coined the term alt-right and is a vocal proponent of what Spencer refers to as “white identity.”
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” said Martin triumphantly amid the water goblets and white tablecloths at the Ronald Reagan Building as he waited for Spencer to take the stage. “And we just napalmed the s— out of Hillary Clinton and everyone who supports her.”
He and others welcomed media to the gathering and hailed what they called the “mainstreaming” of ideas that were only recently confined to the shadows of the Internet. But they met fierce resistance during their two-day gathering, with protesters disrupting an NPI dinner Friday and crowding the pavement outside the conference Saturday.
“NPI – Today’s KKK,” read one sign in the crowd of about 200 people that security guards kept from entering the Reagan Building as police blocked to traffic. Half of the crowd chanted “We say no to racist hate!” The other half responded, “We don’t want a white state!” A few had red bandannas or black masks covering the lower halves of their faces.
“We have to resist the idea that fascism and a white supremacy organization can be normalized,” said Perry King, 61, a District of Columbia resident and psychotherapist. “We can’t let them be mainstream. That’s what happened with the Nazis. We have to play Whac-A-Mole now and not let them become ‘normal.’ ”
Inside the conference room, attendees dismissed the protesters as “bullies” and claimed the momentum in a culture-war struggle for control of a nation that they believe, in Martin’s words, is “rapidly becoming a Third World country.”
Most in the overwhelmingly male gathering wore dark suits, many with the triangle lapel pin of a California-based European identity group. One man was dressed in camouflage, another wore a pony tail and an opera cloak. Dozens of them also wore what’s known as “fashy” (as in fascist) haircuts – a hipster look that features shaved sides with the hair on top swept across. A blond teenage girl wore a Make America Great Again cap. When Spencer asked for attendees younger than 40 to stand up, at least half in the room rose.
“The alt-right is a youth movement,” said Martin. “They’re really going for it, maybe because they’ve never had a victory like this. All they’ve ever heard is ‘white guilt’ and, lately, ‘white privilege.’ ”
Well more than a dozen journalists – including several from non-U.S. publications – reported on an afternoon news conference, where Spencer announced a number of goals the institute will push for in the coming year. Chief among them: a 50-year ban on all immigration (although Spencer suggested some exceptions should be made for Europeans).
In the wake of Trump’s win, attendance more than doubled from last year’s Washington gathering of the group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center places in the vanguard of “academic racism.” The Institute’s core belief, according to the SPLC, “is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.”
Attendees greeted one another – some had been to previous NPI meetings here and in Europe – with talk of countering “thought terrorism” and promoting “Anglo-Saxon ethno-theology.” They exalted at the recent pronouncements from Trump Tower, particularly the nomination of officials whose views they said aligned with their own: retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, former Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general.
“Jeff Sessions being in charge of enforcing civil rights laws makes me want to sing,” said one participant from Virginia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Maybe the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few in the alt-right expected 2016 to end with their fringe movement becoming a household term and finding sympathy in the highest reaches of government.
“There’s been an awakening,” Spencer said in his opening remarks.
One speaker, British anti-immigration activist Peter Brimelow, noted that although Trump doesn’t identify as a white nationalist or a member of the alt-right, his campaign addressed two issues – immigration and political correctness – that are hugely important to them.
“With those issues, he slaughtered his way to the presidency,” he said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Trump’s biggest contribution to white nationalism may have been prevailing despite being associated with alt-right thinking, according to one NPI attendee, a student at New Jersey’s Kean University who spoke on the condition of anonymity so his friends wouldn’t learn of his racial beliefs.
“The media called him a bigot, a racist, all the leftist smears and he still won,” said this student. “That means they are losing their moral grip on the narrative.”
Like many at the conference, this student acknowledged that he would like to live in a white enclave that mostly excluded minorities (although he applauded Japan’s approach of letting a limited number of Filipino workers in as nurses and laborers). When pressed to explain how that mass segregation could occur without violence, he said many of those of details would have be worked out.
“This is not an empirical science,” he said.
Organizations that monitor hate groups say they have seen an uptick in activity and interest in supremacist sentiment during the campaign and in the weeks since Trump’s surprise win.
“Whether it’s the suit-and-tie Nazis or their blob of supporters online, the bottom line is they feel like this is their time to strike,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Measuring the depth of support is difficult in the Internet era, Segal said. Chapters and membership have been replaced by loose affiliations online, with supporters able to “act” on their beliefs simply by retweeting a racist meme or harassing a journalist.
“Most of the alt-right ideology is not really presented on the ground,” he said. “I’m troubled that any of them would ever feel in any way emboldened.”
Segal sees the key moments coming in the months and years ahead, as the groups and their followers are inevitably disappointed. “They are still very much on the fringe,” he said. “How are they going to react when their ambitions are not fulfilled?”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post. Steve Hendrix, John Woodrow Cox wrote this story. Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.