Ten years ago, for the first time, a constellation of social conservative organizations gathered in Washington for the Values Voter Summit. The event's name was a bit of an in-joke — "values voters," identified for the first (and only) time in the 2004 election exit poll, went solidly for President George W. Bush. After the election, panicked liberals identified social conservatives as the greatest threat to their own values, dubbing them "Christofascists," mocking red states as "Jesusland," and reading books with titles like "Kingdom Coming," "Rapture Ready" and "Republican Gomorrah."
The Values Voter Summit met again this weekend, but just one mile away, this year's boogeyman was having a coming-out party of its own. Three leaders of the "alt-right," Richard Spencer, Peter Brimelow and Jared Taylor, held a lengthy news conference to unveil a hip logo (based on Spencer's "synthwave nostalgia") and field questions about what buzzed-about "racialists" really wanted from American politics.
There's no equivalency between the two groups. Taylor and Spencer, like many on the alt-right, believe in the relative superiority of different races; social conservatives believe that adherence to traditional Judeo-Christian values would bring about harmony. As the Daily Beast's Betsy Woodruff prodded Spencer into admitting, the "utopian" alt-right state would include European whites but no Jews.
"Does anyone in this room really think that differences between pygmies, Danes and Australian aborigines are just social constructs?" Taylor asked at one point. "Really? This idea is so stupid that only very intelligent people could believe it."
The only commonality between either event, and either movement, is that progressives see them as threats. They once identified social conservatives as their most potent opponent; they've since beaten them repeatedly in courts and even some ballot initiatives. The alt-right, in its attempt to turn the Republican Party into a vehicle for white nationalism, is for the moment much more worrying.
The alt-right is happier to talk. Friday's alt-right presser was clouded by secrecy. It had been booked for the National Press Club, but when negative attention started to build, the club backed out. That forced the organizers to open a sort of media speak-easy, telling reporters to head to the Old Ebbitt Grill and look for a man in "a charcoal suit and brown tie," who could direct them to the backup location. (A side effect of his professional dress: He kept getting interrupted by tourists looking for directions.)
Yet when they got inside the downtown Washington hotel where Spencer, Brimelow and Taylor would speak, reporters could ask whatever they wanted. That was on brand; alt-right figures write and talk constantly and make themselves available to the media. They also seem totally uninterested in dissembling — the more shocking and blunt the answer, the better.
The Values Voter Summit was extremely open to press — any outlet could apply for credentials and accost people in the hallways for interviews. But there were secured escape routes for speakers who did not want to meet the press, and at the start of the weekend, the Family Research Council's honey-voice emcee Gil Mertz joked that the media were "so nice" to social conservatives that they deserved a warm welcome. Breakout sessions, and a few panels, grappled with how to frame messages for the media and the skeptical public.
The alt-right doesn't have a political strategy yet. The Friday news conference was loose, with no real agenda apart from clearing up who represented the alt-right (no one person, said Spencer) and what the alt-right believes. Highly aware of their toxicity, the alt-right's leaders support Donald Trump but admit that his attitude and elevation of the issues of race and immigration are more important — in the short term — than what he says from week to week. The closest thing to a political ground game on the alt-right has come in the form of clumsy robo-calls from California's William Johnson.
It goes without saying that social conservatives are running ahead of that. This year's conference offered refined ways to become politically active, from pushing churches to engage in more political activity, to using apps (chiefly 2ndvote, a sponsor) that revealed where a company's campaign donations went, to repeated calls to knock on doors for the Trump ticket.
The alt-right isn't into American exceptionalism. At the Values Voter Summit, this year and every year, politicos and activists hark back to the founding faith of America's revolutionaries. Hardly an hour can go by without a nod to John Winthrop's "city upon on a hill" quote, as handed down (and slightly altered) by Ronald Reagan.
For the alt-right, America is more at risk because it is less providential. "We question America's founding myth," Spencer explained. "If you look at the Declaration of Independence, it's not just the notion of 'all men are created equal' that I would object to. It's also this notion that states come into being as entities for people to defend their inalienable rights. I find that to be total hokum, nonsense. That's not how any state, including the United States, came into being."
Brimelow used his briefer remarks to speculate about a balkanized American future, where some states — led by the Pacific Northwest — would declare the experiment over. "I think it will break up," he said. "In some ways, that's the best we can hope for."
Both movements are embracing Trump for what he'd destroy. Plenty of reporters came to the Values Voter Summit looking for fissures between the Republican nominee and evangelicals. Those fissures were visible but largely patched over by the immediacy of the election. Trump, said a member of the "Duck Dynasty" cast, was "evolving in the right direction." Former senator Rick Santorum, the 2012 favorite of social conservative voters, celebrated how the left and media — and the Republican establishment — did not understand Trump's populism.
Downtown, the alt-right troika praised Trump not because he was adopting new beliefs, but because he had found and defeated the right enemies.
"I don't think our support of Trump is about policy, at the end of the day — it's about style," Spencer said. "We live in a fragmented, decaying society. We live in a society of moral degeneracy. We're going to fight our way out it, and sometimes that means using the tools at hand. It's going to mean unleashing a little chaos."