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On March 4, 2018, after following around Richard Spencer and his alt-right entourage for months, Serena Tarr found herself in Michigan for the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas conference, organized by Kyle Bristow, the white nationalist attorney who used to sue colleges that rejected requests for Spencer to speak. But due to public pressure and possibly death threats, Bristow backed out at the last minute, and the “conference” was relocated from Detroit to a house in Ann Arbor.
One group that attended was the Traditionalist Worker Party, a self-styled neo-Nazi organization that has since imploded over a bizarre set of circumstances involving a love triangle within the leadership.
“These are not the suit-and-tie kind of guys,” she explained. “They wear all black, they’ve got an insignia. They were heavily armed with knives on them, weapons.”
Since she met Spencer, Tarr, an associate professor of sociology at Kirkwood Community College, found the white nationalist leader lived up to his reputation as a talkative attention-seeker. But the TWP were not the kind of people you walk up to with a pad of paper, asking for their digits.
Tarr wandered around the party, simply observing. She started conversing with one TWP member.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I told you my name,” she replied.
“No, who are you.”
“I’m a researcher.”
Then he said something strange, Tarr recalls, something along the lines of, “I could smell your flirtation a mile away.”
She laughed. “You think I’m flirting with you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s kind of like when a girl shows up at a party with a skirt that’s too short and she pretends like she wasn’t asking for it.”
“This conversation’s over,” Tarr said. She’d heard a lot of detestable language and ideas in the course of studying alt-right communities, but this was the first time she felt truly unsafe. As she turned to leave the party, people began stirring. The location of the gathering had been compromised, and anti-fascist militants were surrounding the house.
The alt-righters were tying handkerchiefs around their faces and grabbing guns — “they looked like something Rambo would carry,” Tarr said — to chase away the antifa. Tarr went outside to find nails had been scattered all over the driveway, blocking in her car. No violence ensued from the conflict, but it was another couple of hours before she was able to leave.
After nearly a year following the alt-right, Tarr will be sharing stories like this with the public for the first time at the Englert Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 13 for the Witching Hour festival.
Tarr hails from Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Marxist scholar father and mother who studied world systems theory. “I grew up with very leftist, radical politics in the home,” she said.
She received her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and Spanish from Washington State University, where she also earned her master’s, studying fascism and gender. She held a number of positions in academia before arriving at Kirkwood in Iowa City.
Shocked by the election of Donald Trump, she received an endowment to study the female Trump base in Iowa. At the same time, she was following Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute (NPI), who advocate for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and a separation of the races.
NPI was catapulted to fame after a video from their Nov. 19, 2016 annual conference showed Spencer shouting “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” to Roman salutes — more commonly recognized as the Nazi salute — from some in the crowd. This event, as well as the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, prompted Tarr to try and study the alt-right movement more closely.
“A part of it was luck in terms of the access I was able to garner and part of it was grit,” she said.
Many Unite the Right marchers had been doxed — their identities and personal information were published and spread on the internet — resulting in harassment and the loss of jobs, so few alt-righters were willing to risk exposure by discussing their beliefs.
Tarr managed to contact Evan McLaren, then the executive director of NPI, who let her apply to attend their 2017 annual conference. Her application was accepted, and she was instructed to appear at a secret pick-up location in Arlington, Virginia on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. She did.
“A white van pulled up, a guy rolls down his window and asks me my name. I tell him my name, he told me to put my phone in the bag and get in the van. I complied.”
“I can feel every hair on my body, that kind of heightened awareness of my surroundings, all the while I’m trying to sort of seem calm and not say, ‘Oh my God, what the fuck. Did I really just get into a white van with white supremacists?’”
Her fellow passengers were six men and one woman, looking to be in their 20s or 30s.
“I quickly became aware that the normal sort of social rules governing polite conversation don’t apply,” Tarr said. “You can’t ask personal details, so your conversational toolkit is off the table.”
One of men did disclose that he was an elementary school teacher in a poor urban area, with many students of color. “He explained to me his theory about behavior in the classroom and that it directly corresponded with skin color,” she recalled.
The van stopped at a “barn-slash-winery,” Tarr said, in what she later learned was Maryland. Along one wall was an omelet bar, attended by an African-American woman.
About 150-200 people, mostly young men, were in attendance. Tarr managed to secure eight interviewees during the conference and establish a relationship with the group’s “thought leaders,” including Spencer and McLeran. She was excited.
Her dean at Kirkwood helped fund her trip to the NDI conference, but the bulk of her alt-right study relied on contributions from Tarr’s family, including her parents. Tarr said they believed in the unique opportunity presented by the project.
“I think the idea that these are just sort of run-of-the-mill or your garden-variety racists just isn’t accurate. We need to understand how and why in the 21st century these ideas are still attractive, infectious in a way,” Tarr said. “What’s going on?”
Tarr came in with a pretty thorough understanding of the movement. “Alt-right” is an umbrella term for a range of ideologies — what Tarr calls “a matrix of belief systems.” The points of commonality, as Tarr sees them, are hyper-misogyny, white pride and a sense of victimization or, as Angry White Men author Michael Kimmel labels it, an “aggrieved entitlement.” Some consider whites to be the superior race, others are “identitarians” who believe all groups are equal, but should be separated. The latter would include Identity Evropa, a membership organization responsible for papering college campuses (including the University of Iowa campus) with “It’s OK to be White” flyers.
There are also different alt-right perspectives on JQ, “the Jewish question.”
“Some would be vehemently anti-Semitic,” Tarr explained. “Some people in the alt-right are actually huge admirers of the Jewish population. They would say, ‘They have an ethnostate. We want that.’ ‘They vehemently guard their borders. We admire that.’”
These beliefs — and the harsh racist and sexist language that accompanies them — didn’t surprise Tarr in her interviews. What did surprise her were the demographics of those sharing them. They were college-educated, some at Ivy League schools. A few were well-traveled and spoke several languages. Many grew up in tolerant homes.
She discovered a good percentage of alt-righters and big-pocket donors to the movement are in the tech industry. Tarr can’t explain why guys in tech specifically are attracted to the alt-right, but she speculates a “lack of a good liberal arts education” may contribute. Some of her interviewees complained about the one diversity class they had to take in college. “Maybe we need to make that a more robust requirement,” she posited.
Tarr has identified three distinct pathways most alt-righters take to their beliefs. The first were online communities discussing how to pick-up women, including involuntary celibates (incels), who blame women for denying them sex. The second was libertarianism. The third and most surprising was Bernie Sanders; more than half of her 30 subjects were disillusioned Sanders supporters.
The idea that the alt-right is anti-socialist is a misconception, Tarr says. In fact, she found many alt-righters in Spencer’s circle lean left on progressive issues such as climate change and universal healthcare, but are most concerned with securing progress for white people.
Of course, not all alt-right communities agree.
“There’s a lot of infighting and factionalism,” Tarr said. “These various groups hate each other just as much as they hate minorities.”
Spencer’s posse gathered at “the Loft,” a dirty apartment in old-town Alexandria, Virginia. Guys would crash on the couch. Greg Conte, a doxed Spencer follower, would sleep in a little bed under the stairs. They’d get up late and stay up late. In between, Tarr said, they’d record podcasts, respond to emails, mail out books, get drunk and rant about current events.
“If you can imagine a dystopian fraternity, that’s what it reminded me of,” Tarr said.
One popular discussion topic was the lawsuit plaintiffs from Charlottesville were weighing against Spencer at the time. Spencer’s supporters blamed antifa for the violence at Charlottesville, and law enforcement for not reigning them in. The alt-right were the victims that day, in their own eyes.
Tarr said she blended in well with the furniture. No one ever bothered to ask her about her own beliefs. And because she drew up nondisclosure agreements with her subjects, promising not to reveal their names or identifying information, they felt safe opening up to her. (NDAs are not common in academic studies, Tarr admits, but she said her project is only partially academic, and NDAs are “in the vein” of how an academic review board would approve the use of anonymous, protected sources.)
“The great thing is, I was really the perfect person to go into that world,” she said. “I’m obviously white but I’m a married woman, so in their worldview I’m somebody else’s property. And also in their worldview, I’m not threatening. I’m certainly not superior. So really it amounted to a lot of mansplaining.”
Tarr did become mentally and emotionally exhausted by the work, especially near the end of a six-day stint, the longest consecutive amount of time she spent with the alt-right.
“I got in an Uber to go back to the Loft, and the driver’s like, ‘How’s it going?’ and I’m like, ‘Good… not good.’ I literally started crying and he pulled the Uber over, got in the back seat and gave me a hug. I still text with him back and forth now. He was kind of an angel.”
“He sent me this text [that night] that said, ‘What you’re doing matters. What you’re doing matters to me and it matters to my babies.’ And that was — yeah.”
Though Spencer was often concerned with the optics of his movement, Tarr was audience to plenty of the leader’s quirks: his cluttered, disorganized bedroom; a hotel room “party” he hosted with 18- and 19-year-old fans; his liberal girlfriend who, through a mix of cognitive dissonance and lack of faith in her boyfriend’s effectiveness, Tarr theorizes, tolerates Spencer’s racist rhetoric; his bodyguard, who wears a Velcro-on tie and carries a nightstick disguised as an umbrella.
Despite his “Hail Trump!” chant in 2016, Tarr said Spencer is not a big supporter of the president.
“Spencer’s entourage would say Trump’s not their guy,” she said. “He was effective in moving what they would call the Overton window [public discourse] so we can have conversations about building a wall and immigration reform and policies. But he’s really just Bush Jr. 2.0, more of the same: more neo-liberal policies, more tax cuts, more giveaways to billionaires, more foreign wars.”
They may talk a big game, but she thinks the movement is too disorganized and underground to take any major action.
“Do I think they’re plotting an effective take-down of the government? Probably not. Surely they can incite interpersonal violence,” she said. “I think we could look at systemic racism as far more problematic and violent.”
“Frankly, I’m far more fearful of what the alt-right would call the ‘alt-lite.’ They’re getting shit done.”
The alt-lite is another broad term for conservatives who may oppose the “identity politics” also criticized by the alt-right, but who reject being labelled as racists or misogynists (“At least [the alt-right] own their shit, to some extent,” Tarr said.) Steve Bannon and Mike Cernovich are often considered alt-lite, as are the instigators of Gamergate and Pizzagate. They are far more complimentary of the Trump administration than Spencer’s ilk.
Tarr attended the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines on Sept. 14, featuring conservatives who would fit the alt-lite label. She said the attendees were “jubilant” about the passing of Iowa’s fetal heartbeat bill earlier this year, the harshest abortion restrictions in the nation.
“One of the speakers at the Family Leadership Summit, he said, ‘President Trump is like a bull in his own china shop. He can break as much of it as he wants,’” Tarr recalled.
Tarr plans to turn her notes and interview transcripts into a book, or some form of writing. She continues to stay in contact with Spencer and a handful of subjects. Since she began her work, Tarr has seen drastic changes in the alt-right movement: Spencer holds fewer events (and when he does, the counter protests can be overwhelming — Tarr says she was almost hit by an antifa protester during a riot in Michigan after one of Spencer’s talks), many groups have dissolved and the fear of being doxed has pushed alt-righters underground.
“As a public movement it’s on its death throes,” Tarr said. “If it were 1980, for sure, don’t give Richard Spencer a microphone. But the reality is they have a platform and people who are subscribing to these ideas or are attracted to these ideas aren’t hearing it for the first time at a college campus, they come to it through the internet. I don’t think we can afford to put our heads in the sand and say we’re not going to engage.”
“[The alt-right] came from very fertile social ground. It’s far more normalized than I think many of us want to recognize.”
In the near future, Tarr also hopes to interview advocates of the fetal heartbeat bill, and facilitate in-person dialogues between people who disagree. One event she held in D.C., featuring blues singer and anti-hate activist Daryl Davis and one of her alt-right interviewees, led the latter to leave the movement.
“[She] said that she sat there that night ashamed to be a member of the alt-right,” Tarr said. “That felt like a victory. She’s actively cut all ties to the alt-right. She literally moved. And that was having a conversation with people of color and people who didn’t believe what she thought she believed.”
Emma McClatchey was surprised to hear Pepe the Frog is no longer cool in alt-right circles. The OK hand gesture is, according to Tarr, the new cool white supremacist symbol. A version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 251.