Just minutes after white nationalist Richard Spencer finished his speaking engagement at the University of Florida on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times published a report that made clear who had won in the latest overhyped battle of anti-fascists and college students versus professional hate-mongers: “‘You are trying to stifle our free speech,’ white nationalist Richard Spencer tells Florida protesters,” read the headline.
Once again, Spencer, the “leader” of a “movement” that could fit in a phone booth, had managed to stir up a mass panic on a college campus simply by asserting his legal right to speak. And by merely showing up in Gainesville, holding a press conference, and standing on stage while students attempted to drown him out with chants like “Go home, racist, go home,” Spencer had not only garnered weeks of free national publicity, but emerged looking to many like the free-speech champion he claims to be.
“Mission accomplished,” boasted Andrew Anglin at the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website. Everything had gone according to plan: “Libshits freak out, university spends $600,000, we get mad media coverage, we look great in front of a bunch of apes.” Spencer’s site, altright.com, crowed—with little exaggeration—that “Florida was a stunning success for the alt-right.”
This might seem like a strange kind of “success”—a speech that was largely drowned out by campus activists, and which attracted only a tiny group of perhaps two dozen white nationalists, most of whom were chased off campus (and in one case sucker-punched) by counter-demonstrators when they left the event. But Spencer is following the tried-and-true model of far-right provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, recognizing that university campuses and 19-year-old activists are easy marks for the snake-oil salespeople of white nationalism. Book a speech, and voila: University administrators will react with undue alarm, anti-fascist groups will peddle completely unfounded rumors about the terror about to come to town, the mainstream media will hype the proceedings like a heavyweight boxing match, and some well-intentioned and misinformed student activists will resist calls to boycott the event and show up to try and shout down the speaker.
That’s precisely what happened in Gainesville—and that’s why Spencer, though impossibly outnumbered, won the battle. As he marches victoriously toward other schools across the country, the campus resistance ought to learn from the Gainesville students’ mistakes and instead follow the playbook of the anti-Nazi movement in America a half century ago.
Spencer’s speech had been originally scheduled for September; after the August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville turned bloody, University of Florida officials tried to put the kibosh on the event. Because of the way courts have interpreted the First Amendment, they couldn’t. So after the talk was rescheduled for Thursday, the university, the state of Florida, and social-justice activists began planning for the invasion.
Governor Rick Scott declared—this is not, somehow, a joke—a state of emergency in Alachua County, where the university is located, and dedicated some $600,000 in state funds to lock down the campus with more than 1,000 police officers and put National Guard troops on standby. Anarchist social media, most notably the website It’s Going Down, spread rumors (planted by the neo-Nazis themselves) that white nationalists were planning mass mayhem in another college town. Student activists debated how best to “confront” the marauding hordes. “We have to show that Gainesville will fight back,” one declared at a rally earlier this week. The fact that there was basically nothing to fight back against was, as always, lost in the hysteria that Spencer had strategically unleashed.
Spencer reveled in the overreaction. “I’m flattered,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “I am in the same genre as hurricanes and invading armies.” On Tuesday, Spencer gleefully tweeted a photoshopped image of himself as the eye of a storm, barreling toward Florida, with the snarky caption: “BREAKING: Hurricane Ricardo expected to hit Gainesville on Thursday.” Meanwhile, the “liberal media” was doing its part to turn this teacup into a tempest. “University of Florida braces for Richard Spencer,” reported The New York Times. At USA Today, the headlines were even more ominous: “‘It’s basically a powder keg right now’: University of Florida braces for Richard Spencer speech.”
To say that the actual event was anticlimatic and unremarkable is to understate the case considerably. Some 2,500 students protested outside the venue, while a few hundred were allowed (by Spencer’s ragtag band of organizers, who were allowed to screen attendees beforehand) into the auditorium. When the din of protest chants proved too loud for Spencer to speak over, he began fielding questions from students who’d come to engage him rather than shout him down. This was a wise maneuver, because most of the students who stepped up to the microphone were more interested in declaring their own ethnic identities—a rather strange way to counter Spencer’s “identitarian” philosophy—and expressing their loathing of the speaker. For the most part, they were a lousy advertisement for the state of pedagogy at Florida’s flagship institution of higher learning.
One young scholar simply repeated a silly question—“Why are you still here? Why are you still here? Why are you still here?”—while Spencer pointed out that he was “here to speak” and wondered if his questioner could think of anything else to say. A reporter for The Tab, a collegiate website, used her moment to bring up the videotaped punch that an Antifa activist landed on Spencer in January:
Q: I’m Eman. My ethnicity is Egyptian and Puerto Rican. I am a beautiful brown woman here today. My question for you is how did it feel to get punched in the face on camera?
A: It hurt. It hurts when someone punches you in the face.
Q: How bad did it hurt? Like, did you fuck up your jaw?
A: No, not that bad. I was fine actually.
Well-played, social-justice warrior! To be fair, a few students asked well-informed questions. How, for instance, can America become a white ethnostate by “peaceful” means, as Spencer claims? And one questioner used mockery quite effectively, demanding to know: “Given how ugly all of you guys are, why do you think white people are supreme?” It was the only time Spencer, who fashions himself the Brad Pitt (or maybe Chad Pitt) of white nationalism, was actually fazed during the shoutfest. “I don’t know quite how to respond to that,” he answered stiffly.
The mocking tone got it right; if you’re going to show up to “confront” a loser like Spencer, you shouldn’t do him the favor of taking him seriously—much less inflate the “threat” he represents beyond all proportion. But for the most part, that’s what happened—again—in Gainesville.
Most depressingly of all, some of the students who stepped up to the microphone to ask Spencer questions were clearly under the delusion that this wasn’t just a guy with a decent Twitter following and a so-called “think tank” paid for by his inherited wealth—this was another Adolph Hitler, ready to unleash another Kristallnacht on Gainesville. “I’m not Adolph Hitler,” Spencer told one questioner. “It’s stupid.” Spencer couldn’t help chuckling at another activist who kept referring to the “regime” he leads. Outside the auditorium, a counter-protester told a Daily Beast reporter: “This person wants to come in and kill me, kill me and my family.” The clickbait media and anti-fascist hype machine had done their work. Another right-wing carnival act had been depicted, with an expensive boost from the state of Florida, as an imminent danger to American democracy and the well-being of non-whites.
“All this for one fucking neo-Nazi?” a counter-demonstrator, disappointed by the lack of action, complained as the dust cleared on Thursday afternoon. And that is what it added up to—a virtually shut-down campus, more than a half million in state-funded “security measures,” and weeks of hollering and debating and preparation, all for one fucking neo-Nazi.
The American left wasn’t always so hapless when it came to responding to charlatans like Spencer. The historical figure he most closely resembles, George Lincoln Rockwell, self-proclaimed dictator of the American Nazi Party in the 1960s, was also—at first—a master at garnering publicity that was completely disproportionate to his actual influence. The Nazi “party” had perhaps 200 members at its height, and was just as toothless as Spencer’s National Policy Institute. In an investigation of his movement, the Anti-Defamation League accurately called Rockwell “a nuisance, not a menace,” and characterized him as “a mere pimple on the American body politic.”
After first mounting protests, Jewish groups—Jews and blacks were Rockwell’s prime targets—mostly decided to steer clear of Rockwell’s rallies and speeches, determining that they were only giving him more publicity. Their strategy to “quarantine” Rockwell—denying him the notoriety and furious response that he sought—helped ensure that he remained a marginal figure, more a joke than a menace.
Spencer is smarter (relatively speaking) and less delusional (also relatively speaking) than Rockwell, who seemed genuinely convinced he was on a path to the White House before he was assassinated by an alienated Nazi Party “trooper” in 1967. Rather than sport Nazi uniforms and talk endlessly of “niggers” and “kikes” as Rockwell did, Spencer and his twenty-first-century allies have eschewed the uniforms and swastikas—though Spencer does enjoy a good Nazi salute now and then—and euphemistically labeled themselves “alt-right,” which sounds more cutesy than threatening, and which the media obligingly went gaga over. But the number of Spencer’s true believers is only marginally greater, at best. Aside from the once-in-a-generation convergence of white nationalists in Charlottesville for Unite the Right—which the media falsely and routinely credits Spencer with “organizing”—Spencer has never been able to draw a crowd, if you don’t count counter-demonstrators and reporters.
It’s profoundly misleading to call Spencer the “leader” of anything. Yes, he’s allied with white-nationalist leaders, like Matthew Heimbach of the National Socialist Movement and Eli Mosley of Identity Evropa, who joined him on stage in Gainesville. And yes, his think tank’s national conference in January drew perhaps 200 attendees—who were led in a “Hail Trump” Nazi salute by Spencer, generating a thousand more headlines. But the alt-right was always fractured and squabbling, and in the aftermath of Charlottesville, it’s basically ceased to be a thing at all. The small threat of disruption and violence that Spencer might once have posed, by appearing on a college campus, is now virtually non-existent.
Before Spencer exited the stage on Thursday in Gainesville, he extended a “large thank you” to the shouters who came out, and the university and state officials who made a mountain out of his molehill. “I’m glad the world saw this,” he said. Naturally, he plans to step up the pace of his campus tour. His next targets, he said in a livestream broadcast later on Thursday, are Penn State and the universities of Michigan and Cincinnati. Chances are, he’ll be able to replicate on those campuses—and many more—the same propaganda victory handed to him by the University of Florida.
In the social media age, where reality takes a backseat to propaganda, the chances of organizing a campus “quarantine” against Spencer are nil. The best we can hope for is that students and administrators take heed of the uproar-over-nothing in Gainesville—and take a cue from the woman who posed the “you’re all so ugly” question. There is a valid argument that the kind of pernicious evil Spencer represents needs to be confronted and “answered” in some way when he comes to town. But the proper approach is not to inflate his importance; it’s to treat him as the mere pimple he is.