How the Alt Right is trying to create a ‘safe space’ for racism on college campuses

    By using the strategies and language of the left, the Alt Right is repackaging white supremacy for a new, more middle-class culture of millennials.

    A murmur began in May around Berkeley and the surrounding Bay Area as posters appeared overnight on the sides of buildings and wrapped on poles. Adorned with images of statues of antiquity, these classical images of European men depicted as gods were intended to light a spark of memory in the mostly white faces that passed by them. With lines like “Let’s become great again” printed on them, the posters were blatant in their calls for European “pride,” clearly connecting romanticized European empires of the past to the populism of Donald Trump today.

    The posters were put up by Identity Europa, one of the lesser-known organizations amid that esoteric constellation of reactionary groups and figures known as the “Alt Right.” They were part of a campaign around the country enticing college-age white people to join a new kind of white nationalist movement. While similar posters emerged elsewhere on the West Coast and Midwest, in central California they pointed toward a public event — one directed specifically toward the tradition of free speech at the University of California at Berkeley.

    Shortly after the posters went up, a brief announcement came from Alt Right leader Richard Spencer and his think-tank, the National Policy Institute. They, along with Identity Europa and other white nationalist organizations, were planning to hold an “Alt Right Safe Space” in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza on May 6. The “safe space” is a play on words for the Alt Right, using the phrase that many leftist-oriented facilities use for a code of conduct that bans oppressive or bigoted behavior. Instead, they intended to make a “safe space” for white racism, the public declaration of which has become unwelcome in most any space. The plan was to show up and publicly proselytize on the problems of multiculturalism and the need for “white identity.”

    Identity Europa founder Nathan Damigo joined Spencer, along with Johnny Monoxide, a podcaster and blogger from the white nationalist blog The Right Stuff, which has become popular in Internet racialist circles (racialist being a term they use, since racist carries a negative connotation) for its internal lingo and open use of racial slurs. Alt Right media outlet Red Ice Creations teamed up with Monoxide to livestream the event, bringing the white nationalist crowd together with their international audience of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine activists and alternative religion proponents.

    While live streaming to their crowd, they came ready to argue. “This guy’s anti-dialogical! He’s anti-white,” yelled Damigo when challenged on the racialist content of his talking points.

    Race and identity

    For decades, both the institutional and radical left in the United States has relied on campus activism as a key part of its organizing base. From the antiwar movement of the 1960s to the development of feminist and queer politics to the growing youth labor and Black Lives Matter movement, colleges have been a center for political encounters and mobilizations. The radicalization of students has often leaned to the left because the left’s challenges to systems of power seem like a perfect fit for people expanding their understanding of the world.

    Amid major shifts in U.S. politics, a space has opened for revolutionary right-wing politics that have not traditionally been accessible to those outside of the most extreme ranks of the white nationalist movement. Today, the Alt Right is repackaging many of the ideas normally associated with neo-Nazis and KKK members into a new, more middle-class culture by using the strategies and language traditionally associated with the left. This means a heavy focus on argumentation and academic legitimacy, as well as targeting campus locations (and millennials) for recruitment.

    Until Hillary Clinton’s August 21 speech, most people had never heard of the Alt Right. However, it is a movement that has been growing for almost a decade in backroom conferences and racially-charged blogs. It is a kind of cultural fascism, one birthed out of the post-war fascist movements of Europe and given character by a culture of Twitter trolls and populist American anger. Yet, when it appears on campus, the Alt Right’s recruiting is hardly different from the Klan’s attempts to openly recruit members by leaving bags of leaflets and candy at people’s doorsteps.

    While the Alt Right Safe Space was put together as a joint effort with several nationalist organizations, Identity Europa emphasizes focusing on the youth most of all. The name and branding of Identity Europa are new, but the organization was started years ago as the National Youth Front.

    Nathan Damigo was an Iraq war veteran going to school at the University of California at Stanislaus when he took over the organization, shifting its ideological orientation from “civic nationalism” to “race realism,” the notion that whites have higher average IQ’s and a smaller propensity for crime than blacks. While Damigo notes that they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to gay members, he said that bi-racial and transgendered people would be turned away.

    For Damigo and others who trade in white nationalist talking points like “race realism,” the differences between races are significant.

    “Ethnic and racial or religious diversity can actually wreak havoc on a social system, and cause tons of problems,” Damigo said. “I do believe that there are differences between human populations … [T]he distribution of genes that affect behavior and intelligence are already known to not be equally distributed between all populations.”

    Identity Europa then represents a sort of “fraternal organization” where “European-descended” people can meet and network, working their way towards a kind of campus activism that challenges discourse and educational plans embedded with multiculturalism and egalitarianism. Such organizations have a long history on the right, stretching back to the 19th century fencing clubs and fraternities that popularized the pan-German ideas of Georg Schönerer — an immediate influence on Nazism.

    As organizers, however, Identity Europa do not follow the standard playbook for campus activism, which usually involves breaking broad political ideas into organized demands with reachable goals. Instead, they simply want to cultivate a subculture whose constituents will intervene in public discourse, thereby seeding their well-rehearsed talking points about racial inequality, white sovereignty and the return to heteronormative social roles. While Damigo brags about the growth of Identity Europa, it likely does not have membership beyond a few dozen people on campuses around the country at this point. However, there are reports of Identity Europa posters appearing at different places around the country almost weekly.

    Outreach to millennials

    Through its brand of social interruption, Identity Europa intends to foment a revolutionary right-wing culture — precisely the goal shared by Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute. Spencer has been in right-wing politics for years, first joining as an assistant editor at the American Conservative after an article he published on the Duke Lacrosse sexual assault scandal made him a minor star.

    He later went to the controversial Taki’s Magazine, known for giving a voice to the shrinking paleoconservative movement and staffing dissident voices from the right who are regularly accused of racism. As he further cemented himself in this “dissident right” world, he developed the term “Alternative Right” to indicate the different strands that he saw uniting against multiculturalism, equality and American democracy.

    It was in this climate that Spencer founded the website Alternative Right, giving voice to a growing white nationalist movement that built on fascist intellectual traditions in Western Europe and challenged the right-wing connection to the American conservative movement.

    He eventually went on to take over the white nationalist think-tank, the National Policy Institute, or NPI, originally founded by William Regnery, using money inherited from the conservative publishing house, Regnery Publishing. The organization was meant to center on Samuel Francis, a former columnist with the Washington Times who was let go as he shifted further into white nationalism and associated with racialist organizations like American Renaissance and the Council of Conservative Citizens. Spencer took over the organization after Francis’s death, molding it into the intellectual core of the growing Alt Right movement.

    Spencer’s goal has always been the creation of a “meta-political” movement rather than one founded on contemporary political wedge issues. He hopes to draw together ideas like “white identitarianism” — a term used to brand the movement as being about European heritage — and the eugenics-invoking “human biodiversity.” Both are terms fostered by the so-called “European New Right” and its leading ideologues.

    What immediately distinguished Spencer’s role in the white nationalist movement from the older generation was his explicit focus on millennial outreach. For instance, his expensive NPI conferences are dramatically discounted for those under 30, and his new Radix Journal is marketed directly to an Internet culture of disaffected and angry white youths. He was an early proponent of podcasts as a main voice of the movement, a move that has given the Alt Right its conversational tone and made its ideas more accessible.

    With Damigo, Spencer developed the Alt Right Safe Space idea to exploit the projection of free speech on college campuses, despite the movement’s general rejection of human rights.

    “I think it’s symbolic as a way of saying, ‘we’re here,’” Spencer explained.

    Two young Trump supporters, Matt Duffy (left) and Volodymyr Kolychev, at a Portland State University Students for Trump event in April. (WNV / Shane Burley)
    Two young Trump supporters, Matt Duffy (left) and Volodymyr Kolychev, at a Portland State University Students for Trump event in April. (WNV / Shane Burley)

    Identity Europa is discussing doing a mini-tour with Spencer in the fall to East Coast universities, though he would prefer to be invited into an auditorium rather than the front quad. This may be unlikely given the notoriety he has gained, as well as the fact that many of the racial ideas he propounds are considered abhorrent by today’s standards.

    “It is very hard to find a student who will rent an auditorium or a classroom,”
    Spencer pointed out. “You might get shut down by the administration, but there are ways of doing it so that you can get away with it. The only problem with it is that the students will have to take responsibility for it, and students are not willing to do that at this point. And I totally understand.”

    Spencer has been shut down on campuses before — for example, when invited to speak by far-right campus groups like Youth for Western Civilization, or YWC, on issues like “anti-white discrimination” through affirmative action. YWC was known for riding on issues like immigration and gender rights, bringing radical right speakers like Bay Buchanan to campuses and naming extremist Colorado Congressmen Tom Tancredo as its honorary chairman. The group’s founder, Kevin DeAnna, went on to be a staff person with the evangelical Leadership Institute, which is ironic given that he had converted to a racialized form of Nordic paganism.

    As the Alt Right grows and gains public recognition in this election cycle, it is becoming less and less likely that it will simply go under the radar as just another radical student group. Instead, Spencer and Damigo hope to express their radicalism publicly, and argue for their own space in public discourse.

    Traditional racism

    While Spencer would like to show that the Alt Right is a relatively new ideological and organizational current, both NPI and other organizations in the Alt Right sphere have ties to many of the more traditional racist organizations that are better known among most Americans. The Traditionalist Youth Network, or TradYouth, and its political wing, the Traditionalist Workers Party, have stepped out in front of many of the other Alt Right organizations by targeting working-class and Southern areas with street activism.

    Started by young white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, the project came about after he became a public figure in the Alt Right movement for the Towson University White Student Union. There he began night patrols looking for “black-on-white crime,” something that campus officials say was next to non-existent. With TradYouth he has protested the Conservative Political Action Conference and appearances by anti-racist author Tim Wise. Heimbach has also linked up with racialist organizations around the country such as the Aryan Terror Brigade. He was previously a student activist with YWC and has been interviewed on Richard Spencer’s podcast. His attempts at using the White Student Union model is not necessarily a new one, but it caught on incredibly well when Alt Right outlets like The Daily Shoah pushed the concept, resulting in Facebook pages for more than 30 university White Student Unions popping up in 2015.

    TradYouth’s public rhetoric focuses on what they call “traditionalism,” the idea that white people need to return to socially stratified, racially homogenous societies. The group’s website names the “global Jew” as its primary enemy, and some members advocate the execution of homosexuals in accordance with their version of Orthodox Christianity. A focus on youth membership and campus recruitment has been a strong focus for TradYouth and the organizations that Heimbach ran before it. Heimbach brought Alt Right speakers to Townson University like American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor, who spoke to a packed house on the “perils of diversity.” Through his broad outreach he has created a concerted effort to provide youth recruits an introduction to diverging areas of the Alt Right and traditional white nationalism, including linking up with KKK organizations, neo-Confederate projects, neo-Nazi gangs, and the suit-and-tie crowd that makes up the Alt Right conferences.

    On June 26, the Traditionalist Workers Party made headlines after trying to host an event at the California State Capitol along with SacTown Skinheads and Golden State Skinheads, both violent neo-Nazi organizations that have a long relationship with the populist radical right American Freedom Party. What stood out most among the less than two-dozen participants was their age: the demographic was skewing younger and including college-age participants who would normally not be associated with a tattooed crowd of neo-Nazi skinheads. They were met by an opposition organized by Antifa Sacramento, a direct-action orientated anti-racist organization, and By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, an organization founded to confront fascist organizing, as well as other contemporary issues like immigration reform, abortion access and police violence. The violent clashes that ensued sent over half a dozen anti-racist protesters to the hospital with stab wounds, after a member of the Traditionalist Worker Party pulled out a knife and began attacking the encroaching crowd.

    “The goal today was to shut down the Nazi’s recruitment rally, and I want to congratulate everyone who came out today because we succeeded in doing that,” Yvette Felarca, a national organizer for BAMN, told reporters the day of the confrontation, while covering a bloody head injury with a bandage. Felarca, a Berkeley Unified School District middle school teacher, has since been suspended from her teaching post while community members, students and the teacher’s union stand by her side.

    While the Traditionalist Workers Party attempted to claim victory, they have not been able to hold similar events, and they had to cancel their trip to the Republican National Convention after concerns that they would be a security threat. This has shifted the conversation in many venues, where Alt Right speakers are often seen as too much of a risk for violence. In August, for example, the National Press Club canceled the Alt Right Press Conference held by Richard Spencer.

    Make America white again

    Donald Trump has moved from the fringes of the GOP to the frontlines of a new type of U.S. conservatism based on support in rural areas largely populated by the white working class and poor. That core has found strange bedfellows in a campus movement of people like Damigo and Spencer — affiliates of the Alt Right who are taking a vocal lead in Internet discourse and snarky campus confrontations.

    The Alt Right, itself, prizes anonymity. Commentators on popular blogs, podcasts and message boards often use ironic avatars to hide themselves from retribution at home or at work. By embracing elements of the Alt Right along with xenophobia, economic populism, and rapprochement with Putin, however, Donald Trump normalizes their neo-fascist ideology, enabling them to step out of the shadows and into the popular political discourse by identifying as “Donald Trump Republicans.”

    In the years before Donald Trump, there were few groups that walked the line between beltway conservative politics and the far right. One such group is Students for Liberty, a libertarian student group that has slid toward the Alt Right since Trump’s candidacy and is currently organizing a national conference to discuss the subject of anarchism and its potential for facilitating a left-right convergence. Since Trump’s campaign grew to prominence, however, similar groups have emerged in numbers. Chaired by Campbell University sophomore Ryan Fournier, the national student group Students for Trump came on the scene in an attempt to link up right-wing students with a viable presidential candidate. With 29,000 followers on Twitter and 59,000 on Instagram, Students for Trump takes on the roll of a larger, more legitimate YWC, stealing much of the “hip” appearance that libertarian campus groups had only a couple of years ago.

    While much of the group toes the mainstream GOP line, sharing social media posts by Sean Hannity and Fox News, there is a significant amount of crossover into the Alt Right. In particular, Alt Right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, who calls Trump “daddy,” seems popular, getting shares from student leaders in the youth Trump campaign. Portland State University’s Students for Trump chapter has become possibly the most notorious.

    In May, while Spencer and Damigo plotted out their Safe Space advance, Students for Trump went to battle with multicultural campus groups like the Portland State University’s Student Union. The PSU Student Union challenged the racialist rhetoric of PSU Students for Trump by bringing almost 10 times the number of Trump supporters to an event, overwhelming the discussion with examples of Trump’s racist policies and the problematic behavior of PSU Students for Trump members. With the conversation dominated by counter-protesters, Trump students were put on the defensive, and after words were exchanged the Trump students eventually gave up and left.

    Portland State University’s Student Union challenged PSU Students for Trump at an April event where the latter were backed by Infowars and local militias. (WNV / Shane Burley)
    Portland State University’s Student Union challenged PSU Students for Trump at an April event where the latter were backed by Infowars and local militias. (WNV / Shane Burley)

    In response, Students for Trump opened up left-wing organizers to a slew of hateful online trolling from the Alt Right, and disrupted a Student Union demonstration against the arming of campus police while waving a banner reading, “Thug Lives Don’t Matter.” With a show of support from conspiracy theory magnate Alex Jones and his website Infowars, they confronted many anti-racist counter protesters in April in a heated clash of voices. The confrontational style found generous online support, as Students for Trump continued to resort directly to Alt Right memes on their social media accounts, regularly posting skewed race and crime statistics, as well as quotes from prominent neo-Nazis.

    Recently, Identity Europa posters showed up on the PSU campus, indicating that the Alt Right students are attempting to make their presence a permanent one.

    Similarly, University of Michigan students formed Students Against Trump right as Alt Right posters began showing up on campus declaring that “Euro-Americans” were scared of their heritage. Using the Alt Right logo that Richard Spencer recently unveiled at an Alt Right press conference, they hope to plaster Alt Right branding over the traditional racist arguments used by neo-Nazis and KKK organizations.

    As Nazi-affiliated groups like the Traditionalist Workers Party feel that they have the cultural cache to hold public rallies, a militant antifascist movement also grows in ranks.

    “These groups basically come to campus to pick a fight with the student body,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of the anti-fascist organization One People’s Project. Jenkins has been traveling around the country for over a decade, challenging Alt Right and white nationalist events and leaders and often shutting down their conferences before they even begin. According to Jenkins, successful tactics used against the Alt Right include pressuring school administration, exposing sympathetic students and mounting a large direct confrontation.

    “With Richard Spencer coming in here to disrupt the regular function of campus, the school needs to be aware of that,” he said. “The school needs to take some measures against it.”

    Jenkins helped organize a pressure campaign that had hotels pull the contracts of the Alt Right racialist American Renaissance conference in 2010 and 2011, appealing to support from the community and anti-racist leaders.

    While the Alt Right is fighting for a platform, many on college campuses are taking the example of groups like the One People’s Project and are rallying community pressure to disallow Alt Right speakers regular access to collegiate forums. At DePaul University, Alt Right commentator and Gays for Trump founder Milo Yiannopoulos was brought by the College Republicans. Ahead of this, a petition began circulating, largely stemming out of the Black Student Union work, to push DePaul to do more about hate speech on campus. Protesters disrupted the event by getting on stage and preventing him from speaking, functionally ending it. The college later canceled Yiannopoulos’s second scheduled speech, citing his provocative rhetoric as the reason. Protesters later attempted to disrupt a debate-watching party where Trump student supporters had congregated to root for their candidate.

    Much of the work the Black Student Union has done at DePaul echoes the broad-based anti-racist work happening on campuses around the country, where organizations are confronting incidents of racism on campus that may get overlooked. A wave of this kind of action was sparked by the protests happening at the University of Missouri where the campus group Concerned Student 1950, named for the year that integration began at the university, put pressure on the president to resign after failing to address incidents of white supremacist intimidation. This has helped to present a model that is now confronting the growth of the Alt Right in campus settings, where the work to confront those groups is done in tandem with the larger goals of challenging systemic racism and violence. Movements like TAMU Anti-Racism at Texas A&M are following suit to pressure the administration to include explicitly anti-racist curriculum and to create penalties for racist discourse being seen from Alt Right organizations.

    When it comes to the crossover potential of the Donald Trump campaign, the reaction has been largely the same. After shutting down a Trump rally in Chicago on March 11, the intensity of demonstrations against Trump appearances have only escalated — from Albuquerque to San Jose to San Diego. In Portland, Oregon, Trump canceled two separate events in May and June, respectively, as venues proved difficult to find and the threat of protests loomed. In a recent appearance at the Xfinity Arena in Everett, Washington, Trump presented a kinder, gentler version of his law-and-order stance, insisting that people of color in the United States should support him before launching into his usual anti-immigration and economic-populist screeds. Speculation that he was entering into the general election on a more moderate platform dissipated, however, when he exchanged harsh words with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, over the proposed extension of the U.S. border wall.

    On campuses there has essentially been a shift in conservative politics, with groups like the University of Connecticut’s Campus Republicans refusing to endorse Trump after saying he has empowered the voice of the Alt Right.

    Confrontations looming

    Even with growing opposition, the Alt Right is bringing in an unprecedented number of young converts for white nationalist organizations. From David Duke to Holocaust denier David Irving and many others, numerous notorious white nationalists got their start in college, so this new tendency remains worrying to anti-racists. Furthermore, the Trump campaign has energized the Alt Right at lightning speed, leaving many on the left puzzling over how to build movements with the capacity to confront these groups as they surface.

    Some of the largest neo-Nazi organizations in the country, such as the National Alliance, started as youth movements trying to pick people out of the chaotic campus atmosphere of the 1960s. More recently, organizations like the Pacifica Forum at the University of Oregon have tried to use wedge issues and conspiracy theories to manipulate left-wing discourse, a move that created brief windows for Holocaust denial at major universities. However, on campuses today, the process of confronting such activism means creating organizing strategies to confront a far-right campus culture not seen since the 1960s heyday of Young Americans for Freedom, a parafascist youth group created by mob lawyer and Tump associate Roy Cohn, among others.

    A Trump supporter at an April PSU Students for Trump event. (WNV / Shane Burley)
    A Trump supporter at an April PSU Students for Trump event. (WNV / Shane Burley)

    At the same time, there is an additional challenge of tactical adaptation, since groups like Identity Europa and Portland State’s Students for Trump are relatively new to the United States and may have more in common with a European model of small, inter-related political organizations known as “far right groupuscules,” rather than conventional U.S. campus organizations.

    The most notorious example of such groupuscules is the Sorbonne Law School’s Groupe Union Défense, or GUD, which emerged in 1968 to engage in revolutionary, ultranationalist propaganda campaigns while violently combating left-wing groups on campus and forming larger political networks like the Troisième Voie (Third Way). Significantly, Troisième Voie’s pioneering efforts in “entryism,” the attempted infiltration and sabotage of left-wing groups, remains a key strategy for the Alt Right. One of Troisième Voie’s founders, Christian Bouchet, would go on to found groupuscules like Nouvelle Resistance, which joined with the GUD to form Unité Radicale. After a member of Unité Radicale attempted to assassinate French President Jacques Chirac, the group split up with several of its members forming the fascist group, Bloc Identitaire, from which Identity Europa draws much of its ideology. Bouchet has since become a leading member of the populist radical right party, National Front, which was also created in part by the GUD, while the leading identitarian ideologue, Guillaume Faye, has pioneered relations between the Alt Right and the European fascist movement at conferences chaired by Richard Spencer.

    What Damigo hopes for with Identity Europa is that instead of successful organizing campaigns, it will develop a right-wing culture that will later manifest socially. The trajectory of groupuscules like the GUD shows that a political organization does not need to have many members to make a huge impact on international politics.

    “The change has to come in people’s minds first,” said Spencer, channeling Faye’s favoring of culture over tangible gains. “Social and political change has to take place in the mind before it takes place in reality.”

    Trump has been such a boon to Spencer’s organizing because the campaign is forcing his white base to identify as “working class white people” rather than members of a broader, multi-racial and cross-class conservative social grouping. The Alt Right thrives on this identitarian fracture between white people and a multicultural society that is actively making strides to undo racism, sexism and heteronormativity. That is why Spencer wants to double down on educated millennials, who he sees as possibly further insulating this “white culture” from both academic criticism and street-level opposition.

    “[They come to college campuses for] the same reason all recruiters come to college campuses: for political outreach,” said Chip Berlet, a researcher who tracks neo-fascist movements. “It’s a place where you have people who are open to new ideas generally, and it’s also a place where there’s a reluctance on the part of the administration to do anything about people who are recruiting on campus.”

    While the left has dominated college campuses for decades, a certain shift will have to take place to counter this identitarian right-wing culture that the Alt Right hopes to foment. For the left, this means not only confronting the appearances of fascist politics in its shape-shifting form, but also focusing on exactly where these fascist politics exist, both under the surface and embedded deeply within U.S. culture.

    Recent Stories

    • Feature

    Inside the underground network supporting asylum seekers in Scotland

    March 17, 2023

    A movement led by people with lived experience of the U.K. immigration system has sprung up to fight for more humane treatment and housing for refugees.

    • Long Read

    Louisville’s multiracial tenant union is at the forefront of a growing national movement

    March 10, 2023

    Despite the South’s challenging political geography, Black and white tenants are transforming Louisville and setting the pace for the wider movement.

    • Analysis

    We need a climate movement that addresses the trauma of fighting for a burning planet

    March 3, 2023

    To build an impactful climate justice movement able to face the challenges ahead, we must first build cultures that care for the people doing the work.