Loyalists of the self-described white nationalist, alt-right movement from around the country gathered in D.C. Saturday afternoon, enthused by the election of Donald Trump and optimistic that their controversial, offensive views such as calling for a white, ethnocentric state were on the rise throughout the country.
"The alt-right is here, the alt-right is not going anywhere, the alt-right is going to change the world," Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist think tank the National Policy Institute (NPI) promised at a press conference.
About 300 people — split nearly evenly between conference attendees and protesters of the conference outside — were on hand at the downtown D.C. event.
Spencer told journalists that he doesn't believe Trump himself is alt-right, the term he coined that's come to embody white supremacist, anti-Semitic and sexist ideas. But it was clear that his surprise election has given the once fringe movement a jolt, and on Saturday they were eager to take a victory lap. Spencer called Trump's campaign "the first step towards identity politics in the United States."
Spencer also restricted journalists from taking photos of the crowd inside the building to prevent the identification of attendees without their permission.
Before Trump, Spencer said, the alt-right was like a "head without a body," but then Trump came along and his campaign became "kind of a body without a head." He described the alt-right as having a "psychic connection" with Trump in way they don't have with other Republicans, and expressed hope that, "moving forward, the alt-right can, as an intellectual vanguard, complete Trump."
One of their chief policy proposals they hope to push through is a 50-year immigration freeze, with a preference given to European immigrants coming into the U.S. Spencer told NPR's Kelly McEvers in an interview Thursday that their ultimate goal was "a safe space effectively for Europeans," arguing for a return to the white origins of the country and protecting the white race.
Spencer on Trump's picks for cabinet, senior strategist
The alt-right movement has gained attention and support throughout Trump's election and particularly through his appointment of Steve Bannon, the former head of alt-right-friendly Breitbart News, to be a senior strategist in the West Wing.
Spencer, however, argued that Bannon wasn't fully representative of the alt-right movement either, but that it's "very hopeful for me that Bannon is at least open to these things."
Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter on Friday, "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist."
Spencer was highly complimentary of Trump's first cabinet picks, particularly choosing Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Sessions is well-known for his hard-line immigration stances, and has had his own past controversy over race when he was voted down to be a federal judge in 1986 over remarks he'd made about the NAACP and allegedly called a white civil rights lawyer "a disgrace to his race."
He said that while Sessions was not alt-right necessarily, his views on immigration — and a belief that he may not fully enforce some civil rights protections — were encouraging to Spencer.
"The fact that he is going to be at such a high level is a wonderful thing. What Jeff Sessions is not going to do, in terms of not prosecuting federal diversity and fair housing, I think is just as powerful as what he might do," he said.
Spencer had praise for Trump's pick of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser, calling him an "independent thinker" who wasn't aligned with the neoconservative movement, who the alt-right sees as too interventionist. In that same vein, Spencer said he would oppose former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton if he were selected to be secretary of state, criticizing him as too hawkish. He said the group was encouraged by Trump's foreign policy, particularly the way he praised Russia throughout the campaign and his skepticism for the U.S. commitment to NATO.
Saturday's tense atmosphere
There were well more than 150 conference attendees — mostly young, white males dressed in suits — at just the afternoon press conference at the Ronald Reagan Building, sitting behind journalists, often heckling or booing questions. NPI said more than 250 people had registered for the conference. Some donned the signature Trump hat emblazoned with his slogan "Make America Great Again." When asked what the biggest Trump priority should be, there were loud cheers of "build that wall," reminiscent of Trump's massive rallies.
Outside the atmosphere was very tense, reflective of the mood of the country in the nearly two weeks since the election.
Around 1 p.m., just before the press conference began inside, a large crowd of the protesters began marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, coming from the new Trump Hotel toward the White House, which Trump will occupy come January, turning onto 14th Street Northwest outside the Reagan Building. They chanted "fascists we will shut you down" and "love trumps hate." Some signs read "alt-wrong" and "white nationalism is un-American." The confrontation got tense at several points, with protesters with bandannas covering their faces surrounding some apparent conference attendees, shouting "f--k off Nazis." A man's head was bloodied, according to WUSA, and NBC Washington reported police detained at least two people.
The NPI is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Spencer and other alt-right leaders recently had their Twitter accounts suspended, something he decried as an assault on the First Amendment.
Several said they were longtime attendees of the conference, and that there was definitely a new energy injected into their movement after Trump's victory.
Matt Forney of Chicago had attended past alt-right conferences, and said there was now an "infusion of new energy" and a lot of new faces who found out about the movement through groups on the internet and were encouraged by Trump's election.
"It was more like a cocktail party among old friends," Forney said of previous gatherings. "Now, it's like we're the vanguard of a new movement. People are happy and ready to change the world."
Evan Thomas of Michigan said that alt-right in a way was a misnomer, and he preferred the moniker "identitarian." He said that could encompass all sorts of people — as long as they were white.
"Identitarianism speaks to an understanding that, by nature, man is a creature of tribe," Thomas said.
And while Trump had certainly energized white voters, he cautioned that unless immigration of any kind were ceased, Trump's reelection in 2020 would be an uphill battle.
"He's got to act very tough, very quickly to reverse the demographic decline of European-Americans very swiftly. The coalition that brought him to the White House, he's got to keep that going and strengthen it, otherwise he will be a one-term president," Thomas said.
Greg Dixon contributed.