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.”
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