Richard Bertrand Spencer had just told his guests how inspired he was by their presence when the rising sound of fury outside the dining room’s double doors reached his ears. He knew what it meant.
Spencer stepped into the open hallway and, there, beneath the wooden second-floor railing at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Northwest Washington, more than 30 protesters were marching up the stairway toward him. Several held posters — “No to Racism and Fascism” — and blew whistles. “No Nazis! No KKK! No fascist USA!” they shouted, their voices intensifying as he came into view.
Ten feet from the top of the stairs, a Maggiano’s employee — a black man in a light-blue button-down and red tie — spread his arms wide, blocking the mob from reaching the 100 or so white nationalists who had gathered at the restaurant Friday for a private dinner. Spencer walked behind him and looked down at the activists. Then the man who had coined the term “alt-right” grinned and waved.
For years, Spencer and his followers worked in obscure corners of the Internet to promote pride in white identity and the creation of an “ethno-state” that would banish minorities. Then came the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, whose attacks on undocumented immigrants, Muslims and political correctness deeply resonated with them.
Though Trump denounced the alt-right Tuesday, its adherents had crusaded for him on Twitter before the election and celebrated his victory as a seminal moment for their cause.
They exulted again when Trump announced that his chief White House strategist would be former Breitbart chairman Stephen K. Bannon, who once called his website “the platform for the alt-right.”
And no one is more critical to the alt-right movement than Spencer, its carefully crafted public face. Last weekend, the articulate, highly educated 38-year-old hosted a conference in the nation’s capital that drew nearly 300 white nationalists and at least 50 reporters. But his agenda reaches far beyond any single gathering. Spencer envisions a world in which his ideals are embraced by the mainstream, and he has vowed to keep pushing until that happens.
Spencer, who splits his time between Arlington, Va., and Whitefish, Mont., has reveled in the coverage from traditional news outlets with huge audiences: NBC, NPR, CNN, The Washington Post, the New York Times. He would draw their attention again this week when a video of him at the conference shouting “Hail Trump!” — and the Nazi salutes it elicited — went viral.
But from a distance, almost everything about him appears as innocuous as the term “alt-right” — and that’s by design. Spencer heads a pair of organizations with unremarkable names: the National Policy Institute and Radix Journal. He dresses in three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, gold-coin cuff links and $5,000 Swiss watches, and he sports a swept-over hipster haircut known as a “fashy” (as in fascist). Spencer, who has degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago, dismisses such labels as Nazi, racist and white supremacist, preferring to describe himself as an “identitarian.” Even before Twitter banned him and other white nationalists last week, he seldom trolled his enemies.
But to those who track hate groups, Spencer is dangerous because, when he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t look or sound or act dangerous.
“Richard Spencer’s clean-cut appearance conceals a radical white separatist,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center, which described him as an “academic racist.”
On Friday at Maggiano’s, he remained calm, even when a protester squirted him with a liquid that smelled of rotten eggs. That prompted him to strip down to only his shoes, pants and a gray vest, leaving his shoulders and arms exposed.
Minutes later, the police arrived and the activists, who call themselves anti-fascists, were escorted outside.
“Their whole life,” Spencer would argue later, “is based on hate.”
With the protesters gone, he returned to the private room, which had been reserved under the name “Griffin family reunion.” Inside, former reality-TV star Tila Tequila — who claims she is Adolf Hitler reincarnated — joined two men in the movement in a Sieg Heil salute posted to Twitter. A young blond man who wore a tight shirt and thigh-high shorts in the style of a Nazi youth mingled with a gray-haired, 69-year-old lawyer in a dark suit and tie who once represented the KKK. (On Monday, the restaurant apologized for hosting the gathering, saying it didn’t know anything about the National Policy Institute.)
Spencer spotted a manager and asked him to bring in the Maggiano’s workers who had helped protect them. Soon, eight staff members — six of them people of color who would be exiled from Spencer’s longed-for ethno-state — entered to a standing ovation from the white nationalists.
As the dinner neared its end, and with the TV cameras all downstairs, he explained the schedule for the next day’s conference. Then, as Spencer considered how they should mark its finish, he smiled and offered a joke.
“Let’s party like it’s 1933,” he declared, referencing the year Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor and the Nazis embarked on the creation of their own ethno-state.
Beneath chandeliers and amid dark, wood-paneled walls, the alt-right erupted in cheers.
Spencer, his expression now serious, waited for them to quiet, then spoke once more.
“Let’s party like it’s 2016!” he shouted, raising his bare arms and pumping them in the air as the room roared even louder.
Richard Spencer, says the Southern Poverty Law Center, is “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.”
Richard Spencer, says the Anti-Defamation League, is a “leader in white supremacist circles that envision a ‘new’ right that will openly embrace ‘white racial consciousness.’ ”
Richard Spencer, says a Huffington Post editorial, is “no less skilled at manipulation than Donald Trump.”
Spencer is often asked whether he can identify a moment in his life that led him to disdain African Americans, Jews and other minorities, but he always struggles to answer the question.
“I think a lot of people want to figure that out. Like, you know, what happened?” he said. “Nothing.”
Born to a wealthy family, he grew up in Dallas, where he played football and baseball at a nationally renowned private school for boys. Spencer studied English literature and music at U-Va. and earned a master’s in the humanities at the University of Chicago. He left a Duke University doctoral program in 2007 to write for right-wing publications, a career that helped crystallize his political and racial ideologies.
Somewhere deep down, Spencer said, he has always had these beliefs. But the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, in which white members of the team were falsely accused of raping a black woman, made an impression, as did the writings of Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who lives in Northern Virginia.
And what do his parents think?
“They think I’m crazy,” he said.
His mother did not respond to a voice mail, and his father, an ophthalmologist, declined to give an interview, saying in a text message that he was “very concerned that anything I might say could in any way be used to smear Richard.”
“Richard is my son,” he wrote, “and as such I only wish to give him positive support whether I personally agree with him on all political issues or not.”
His relationship with his father is strained, said Spencer, who is also separated from his wife, Nina, a Russian-born writer with whom he has a young daughter. Nina Spencer could not be reached for comment.
“What I’m doing is hard,” he said. “It can have a toll on a relationship.”
An extensive profile in Mother Jones revealed that Spencer had previously dated an Asian American woman, and he acknowledged that some of his comrades would probably find that “terrible.”
Last week, he said that he would not date a nonwhite woman again and that he still wants interracial relationships barred.
That belief is core to the alt-right’s most radical goal: an all-white country.
“We need an ethno-state,” he said in a 2013 speech, “so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family and feel safe and secure.”
He ended his address by invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream.”
Last week, Spencer was reluctant to discuss how that dream would be achieved.
How, he was asked, in a nation with more than 100 million blacks, Asians and Latinos, could a whites-only territory be created without overwhelming violence?
Over chocolate croissants and an Americano coffee at a Corner Bakery Cafe, he avoided the question, discussing Nietzsche, communism’s origins, history’s unpredictability.
Then, at last, he offered an answer.
“Look, maybe it will be horribly bloody and terrible,” he said. “That’s a possibility with everything.”
Two days before the conference, while in mid-thought about the president-elect’s chief strategist, Spencer walked out of an Arlington Starbucks as his Lyft car pulled to the curb. The driver, who had a thick Turkish accent, popped the sedan’s trunk and loaded his luggage.
Spencer likes to describe Stephen K. Bannon as “alt-light,” not quite committed to the movement’s most radical objectives but receptive to some of the broader philosophies.
“He’s open,” said Spencer, who didn’t know then that five days later Trump would disavow the alt-right and insist that Bannon shared none of its views.
“It’s not a group I want to energize,” Trump told the New York Times.
As the car sped along the Potomac River toward Washington, Spencer talked of the movement’s next target: colleges. He plans to speak at Texas A&M and the University of Michigan in the coming weeks and is convinced that the alt-right will appeal to students weary of politically correct campus cultures.
“I think there’s going to be a huge crowd,” he said. “The world is changing.”
He pulled his phone from his pocket. Giddy, he played a video taken at Michigan, where more than 100 students were filmed chanting “No alt-right! No KKK! No racist USA!”
He played it again.
“We’re getting under their skin,” he said. “I take a sadistic pleasure in that.”
The Lyft arrived at a downtown hotel where Spencer had booked a room for the conference. He asked the driver to wait while he dropped off his bags.
And what did the Muslim immigrant, unaware that he was chauffeuring a leading white nationalist, think of the United States?
Much better than Turkey, the driver said in halting English. He beamed as he explained that his family had come here eight months earlier, just in time for the birth of his new baby — officially an American citizen.
He was proud of that.
“Human rights,” he said. “It’s good.”
Spencer, of course, would expel Muslims from his ethno-state. And most women, he said as he was being driven from the hotel to his next appointment, would return to their traditional role of bearing children.
His attitude toward women and minorities made his admiration for Tila Tequila, the Nazi-loving Vietnamese American, surprising. Would he allow her in the ethno-state?
“There are always exceptions, I guess,” an amused Spencer would say later. “I’m a generous guy.”
As the Lyft car neared its final destination, Spencer got a call from a supporter who had a logistical question about the conference.
“I’ve got to run,” he said as the car stopped. “I’m going on CBS News, if you can believe it.”
Face strained, Spencer paced his 10th-floor hotel room later that night.
“I’m 90 percent sure they’re going to cancel,” he said into his cellphone. “Yeah, 99 percent.”
He had originally booked the dinner for conference attendees for Friday night at the Hamilton, but the anti-fascist activists had learned of their plan and threatened to protest at the restaurant.
“We think we’ve found the mole,” he continued.
Strewn about the floor and dresser were empty plastic bags and bowls left over from District Taco, founded by a Mexican immigrant who also would be excluded from the ethno-state.
Spencer hung up and walked to the window, stopping inches short as he stared across the street. “Ugh,” he muttered, sounding shaken — nothing like the composed, focused leader his followers were so drawn to.
Jared Taylor, his mentor and the founder of American Renaissance magazine, called to urge him not to relent.
“It took us years to climb back from the humiliation of being canceled,” Taylor reminded him, referring to a 2010 conference he was forced to abort.
Spencer ping-ponged between electrical outlets near the window and the coffee maker, charging his phone as he talked.
Another call: “It’s absolute madness.” Another: “If we keep having emergencies, I can’t do this conference.” Another: “My stress level is through the roof.”
Canceling the dinner, Spencer thought, was their best option.
“This went off like a dream last year,” he said, aware of how much had changed in the past 12 months.
He took a call from a fact-checker at Mother Jones, then another call from the Hamilton.
“I understand,” he said. “Are you going to refund me?”
His anger at the activists swelled. “They’re trying to ruin a celebration,” he said, “that was just for us.”
He heard from Bill Regnery, the bow-tie-wearing 75-year-old best known for the right-wing publishing house that bears his family name. Regnery had an idea.
“The restaurant at the Trump?” said Spencer, who on their next call advised Regnery to drop it.
“We’re just going to have to accept a little bit of a defeat here,” he argued.
More calls. He opened a half-bottle of J. Lohr cabernet and poured himself a glass. Then Regnery got back to him. The Trump International Hotel, it appeared, could accommodate them.
Spencer listened intently.
“You’re basically taking my attitude,” he said, suddenly confident and defiant again. “Refuse to lose.”
He and a compatriot walked to the hotel, where Spencer had celebrated Trump’s victory on election night amid chants of “USA!” Beneath a Swarovski crystal chandelier in the atrium, Spencer signed a contract for the dinner. Then a woman with the hotel escorted him to a private, high-ceilinged room with white columns and wood floors.
“The Lincoln Library,” she said, which meant that white nationalism’s most fervent supporters would be gathering in a room dedicated to the Great Emancipator.
The next morning, though, Spencer said he learned that the room had been double-booked.
The Trump canceled, and the alt-right would have to settle for Maggiano’s.
On Saturday, Spencer stood at the back of the ballroom at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center as the white-clothed tables began to pack with his devotees. He moved his lips in silence, rehearsing each line of his welcome. In his hands, he held a notebook.
“We are the establishment,” he’d written in cursive on the page.
He wore a fitted gray suit and smelled of Cologne Russe, his preferred scent because it mimics a version once made for the Russian royal family.
He had long prepared for the conference, which he viewed as historic in the alt-right’s ascension. To succeed, Spencer knew, he could not simply rouse the zealous white nationalists. He was also determined to thrust his message deeper into the mainstream.
So as the clock ticked past 10 a.m., he strode to the stage, gripped the microphone and rubbed his forehead, feigning a headache.
“It’s just the winning,” he said, borrowing a regular Trump line. “It’s too much winning.”
Onlookers laughed and clapped. Less than four hours later, Spencer welcomed representatives of the world’s major media publications to a news conference.
“As you can see, the alt-right is growing, the alt-right is real and the alt-right exists in the real world,” he said, before thanking the attending reporters for taking his movement seriously — for trying to understand it. He asked them, politely, to stand up for free speech and denounce Twitter for banning him and others. He shushed his own brethren when they booed journalists asking confrontational questions.
He talked of identitarianism, NATO’s shortcomings, Trump’s staff appointments, authors who have influenced him, the alt-right’s appeal to women and his proposed 50-year moratorium on immigration (with some exceptions for white Europeans).
“I think this was a highly productive discussion,” he said at the end. “Let’s do it again, but now it is time for you to go home and it’s time for us to enjoy the rest of the conference.”
Most of the journalists did leave, but a few stayed, and in the back of the room, a camera sending a live feed to an alt-right website continued to record. Well after dark, Spencer took the stage a final time — and sounded different.
After a single minute, he referred to the media as the “lügenpresse,” a Nazi-era term meaning “lying press.”
“We willed Donald Trump into office,” he asserted. “We made this dream our reality.”
His tone deliberate and his eyes serious, he railed against journalists, leftists and minorities, until at last he came to the subject of his people.
“For us,” he said, “it is conquer or die.”
Spencer’s voice rose as the speech neared its end.
“For us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again!” he shouted. “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”
He raised his glass and, in video caught on camera by the Atlantic, the heart of the alt-right stood and cheered — and a number of them offered their leader the Nazi salute.
And from the stage, Spencer looked at his followers, smiled and applauded.
Ben Terris and Julie Tate contributed to this report.