“You are yelling at a dissident intellectual!”
So Richard Spencer shouted multiple times at his hostile audience in Gainesville.
It’s an awkward way to describe oneself, but Spencer––a graduate degree-holding think tank head whose security cost Florida $600,000 from fear of riots––might look like someone who fits the bill.
That appearance is deceiving. Richard Spencer is not a dissident intellectual.
He has only prejudice, in its most brute, unsophisticated form. The only thing separating him from other trolls is a three piece-suit and broader familiarity with continental philosophy.
During his failed event on October 19th, Spencer tried to hold a Q&A session. One student asked Spencer, whose main political goal is the creation of an exclusively white ethno-state, what standards he would use to decide who is or isn’t white.
Spencer laughed, “We always get this one.”
He handed the microphone to Mike Enoch, a white supremacist podcaster. Enoch’s answer was to refuse the question, accusing the student of asking it in bad faith. The student insisted on hearing an answer from Spencer, who then answered a different part of her question while remaining completely silent on who counts as “white.”
It makes sense that they would “always get this one.”
Libertarians should be able to explain what constitutes a rights violation. Communists should be able to explain who falls within the Proletariat. These can be difficult distinctions, but they matter––because they’re at the heart of those philosophies.
So too should this student’s question matter to Spencer and Enoch. The line between white and nonwhite is the foundation of their professed beliefs.
Listening to the way the Alt-Right talks to themselves helps make sense of why they might avoid a question like that. In a podcast discussion between Spencer and Enoch, they mock libertarians as “autistic.” In context, the point behind this use of “autistic” as an insult is that working for logical rigor in your beliefs is ridiculous. They have learned to live with contradiction, and feel no reason to answer basic questions like “who is white?”
At one point, students’ chants moved to “Let’s go Gators, let’s go.” As part of his ongoing meltdown, Spencer mocked their attachment to “sportsball.” This is not the first time Spencer has sneered at sports. At Auburn, a student had brought up in a Q&A that the cultural attachments of southern whites are often decidedly multiracial, giving college football as an example. Spencer immediately denounced college football for that very reason, as it, in his view, distracted from more basic identities.
Understanding why Spencer views whiteness as more fundamental than “sportsball” requires understanding where he gets his ideas about identity.
To the extent that Spencer has any intellectual grounding, it comes from Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt, politics is always about a conflict between one’s friends and enemies. A “friend” in this context means those you would die fighting to defend, an “enemy” means those you would die fighting to destroy. These identities are often formed through contrast with one another. Addressing the fact that political conflicts are often framed in terms of abstract values rather than mere tribalism, Schmitt says this is just propaganda. He further holds that political conflict of this kind is inescapable, because they give us meaning.
Spencer’s Schmittian background, then, does more to explain why his ideas are not intellectual than it does to show how they are. Beneath everything, there is only conflict for Spencer – not a conflict of abstract ideas about justice, but between groups of people. As he sees it, that conflict cannot be resolved. It can only be won or lost. Everything else is strategy.
Spencer’s whole philosophy, then, is a kind of “sportsball.” His political goals are not about advancing a view of justice, they are about scoring touchdowns. Arguments aren’t assessed for truth, they’re assessed by how well they move the ball forward.
Part of the alt-right’s success, compared to other white supremacist movements, is in their ability to look like they’re engaged in good faith discourse. People lower their guard and don’t see these agents of deception for what they are.
This is why many people support violence against white supremacist speech and assembly. Ideological racism works like a disease, and we must stop it by any means necessary. The problem with this view is that violence strengthens the disease instead of containing it.
On the field of ideas, the alt-right can only succeed to the extent that they can advance prejudice without being too obvious. The field of violence has different rules, where being wrong is no disadvantage. In the chaos of that violence, concrete information about what happened is harder to obtain. People still want believe something, though, so they use knee-jerk prejudices to fill the gaps.
Good strategy should aim at finding ways to show Spencer for what he is. Large, united, public rejections every time they attempt to assemble help to do this. It shows that they are not being taken seriously as just another idea worthy of consideration.
Spencer is not only willing but yearning for massive state violence to be used against millions of nonwhites––eager for them to be uprooted and thrown thousands of miles from home. That this would have disastrous consequences even for the remaining whites doesn’t faze him. They would be deprived of countless loved ones, along with the economic benefits that come from an open society. Appealing to that won’t help because he doesn’t care about what’s good for whites as individuals. He cares only about whites as a group––a group he can’t even define.
If Florida is any indication, Spencer will soon become the next Fred Phelps, the late patriarch of the viciously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, with giant counter-protests popping up everywhere he goes. Those counter-protests will reaffirm that no matter what other disagreements we have with each other, we reject him and his movement. He will not be able to reverse the liberalization he fears.
Jason Lee Byas is a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org). He is also a PhD student in Philosophy, living sometimes in Champaign, IL and sometimes Norman, OK.