In the fall of 2014, a spate of national headlines put Whitefish residents on edge. A dapper, mid-thirties resident named Richard Spencer had been involved in a verbal altercation with a Republican foreign policy expert while the two shared a chairlift at Big Mountain. The Daily Beast published an account under the headline, "A Racist's Crazy Ski Resort Smackdown." Spencer, who had quietly operated a white nationalist think tank from the tourist town since 2010, was the racist. The chairlift incident came to light shortly after Spencer was banned from Hungary for trying to host a conference in Budapest. With the controversies casting a shadow on Whitefish, several dozen residents showed up to a meeting of a local chapter of the Montana Human Rights Network known as Love Lives Here. The group found itself confronting an uncomfortable question, chairperson Will Randall says: "What do you do when a white supremacist sets up shop in your town?"
Love Lives Here wanted to show the world that Spencer didn't reflect the community's values and to ensure that Whitefish remained a welcoming place for non-white people, Randall says. The group urged city leaders to pass a no-hate ordinance that would forbid organizations like Spencer's, the innocuously named National Policy Institute, from operating inside city limits. Spencer decried the effort as an assault on free speech, and the city opted instead for a nondiscrimination resolution.
Today, Spencer is poised to finally move out of Whitefish—but on terms no one except maybe Spencer himself could have imagined just two years ago. Spencer now finds himself on the verge of becoming a nationwide household name as a key spokesman for an extremist movement that is seizing on Donald Trump's presidential victory to push its way into mainstream politics. In the last month alone, Spencer has been featured in the pages of Mother Jones, pictured on camera for the BBC and interviewed on National Public Radio.
"He's our rock star," says longtime Kalispell white nationalist April Gaede. "He's a good-looking, well-educated young guy who has the means to travel and put on conferences and do a lot of these things that those of us in the working class haven't been able to do before."
Spencer moved to Whitefish, where his mother lives, around the same time the Flathead Valley was garnering national attention as a hub for white supremacy. Some, like Gaede, were pushing the idea of creating a whites-only "little Europe" in the area, but Spencer's ambitions always transcended Montana. Unlike the other "garden variety neo-Nazis," as Randall calls them, Spencer didn't try to recruit locally. He kept a low profile in Whitefish while spreading an intellectualized version of white nationalism—he fancies it "identitarianism"—online. "He was a few levels above them, thinking nationally or globally," Randall says.
- photo courtesy of National Policy Institute
- Richard Spencer, of Whitefish, is reportedly looking to relocate his white-nationalist think tank to Washington, D.C., now that Donald Trump is president-elect.
It was Spencer who coined the term "alt-right" that now describes the president-elect's most virulent supporters, and as the Trump train rolls toward to the White House, Spencer is looking to punch his own ticket to D.C. as well. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed this month that Spencer plans to capitalize on Trump's election by relocating NPI inside the beltway so he can operate near the nation's policy makers. (Spencer did not respond to the Indy's requests for comment.)
In a sense, he's already arrived. On Nov. 18 and 19, Spencer hosted his largest conference yet inside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington D.C. The event drew more than 200 white nationalists to discuss the future of the alt-right in Trump's America. For the first time, the conference also attracted major media outlets, who "swarmed" Spencer at the event, Politico reported.
Rob Freeman, a friend of Gaede's, traveled to the NPI conference from his home in Connecticut. He credits Spencer with rebranding white nationalism as a respectable ideology, "where we don't antagonize people in our community, where we don't do stupid shit."
Freeman spoke with the Indy by phone just after Spencer had finished a press conference, where Freeman says Spencer "laughed off" characterizations from the "hostile mass media." Freeman described the conference generally as a polite "suit and tie" affair and a "big family reunion." He then stepped onto the street, explaining that protesters—"the dirties," he calls them—were stationed on the sidewalk.
The newfound attention to Spencer's ideas disappoints Love Lives Here co-founder Ina Albert, who declined to comment for this story, explaining that she didn't want to "give him more ink." As Spencer's platform grows, it's not just local activists who find themselves flummoxed. This month, Twitter suspended the accounts of Spencer and other alt-right leaders who have been using social media to build their audience. Civil rights protesters staking out the NPI conference tried to disrupt a restaurant where Spencer and other attendees were dining. As Randall sees it, the conundrum caused by Spencer is only growing: What do you do when a white nationalist tries to set up shop in the nation's capital?
"He's not Whitefish's problem anymore," Randall says. "He's the whole country's problem."