The infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer occupied his fair share of the spotlight at the “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. As the far-right rally turned deadly — with 19 injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer killed when a man rammed a crowd of counterprotesters — Spencer appeared shirtless on a livestream talking about how he was pepper-sprayed. Later, he held a brief press conference. As usual, Spencer had foisted himself into the center of attention.
Quietly attending the rally alongside Spencer, however, was the new executive director of the right-wing leader’s nonprofit, the National Policy Institute. Evan McLaren had seemingly come out of nowhere: a far-right figure of little note, with little more than a history of online postings that espoused his white nationalist beliefs and a trail of older postings revealing the path that brought him to his worldview. In Charlottesville, McLaren didn’t attract the same attention as Spencer, but he was there nonetheless, taunting journalists on social media before the event kicked off, and tweeting out slogans of white pride after its bloody conclusion.
“Brothers and sisters across the alt-right — this is a taste of how it feels to be the tip of the spear entering our civilizational crisis,” McLaren tweeted the day after the Charlottesville bloodshed.
In an interview with The Intercept, McLaren relished the chance to capitalize on the chaos and controversy of the Charlottesville rally. “I’m actually happy to be arriving at somewhat of a crisis moment, because it has given me the opportunity to show that I’m not just here to take a paycheck and play pretend ‘alt-right’ person,” he said.
On July 27, McClaren became executive director at the National Policy Institute, a group that rose to infamy after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election when Spencer led a hall of fellow white supremacists – a title McLaren disputes, at least for himself – in Nazi salutes and chants of “Heil Trump.” McLaren claims the role is largely administrative, but there can be little doubt about his ideological commitments to the white nationalism that underpin it.
His journey to get here was a long one — his first public forays were not explicitly racist — and along the way, McLaren worked as a clerk for a federal judge, at a Social Security disability determination office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and at a district attorney’s office with a record that suggests discriminatory practices.
McLaren’s rise to head of the National Policy Institute, however, seemed unlikely just a few years ago, something he readily admits. He publicly expressed doubt about white nationalism’s role on the right. Over time, he developed the “grammar or vocabulary” to express his white nationalist beliefs, he said.
His intellectual journey is a case study in the evolution of right-wing politics that has coincided with the rise of Trump and the far-right movement that largely backed his presidential run. The growing movement and Trump — as we saw in the aftermath of Charlottesville — remain locked in a flirtation where their energy feeds each other. At the center of this vortex is the “alt-right,” unafraid of public backlash, with nativist, white nationalist, and white supremacist views at its core.
“It’s where the action is,” said George Michael, a professor of criminal justice at Westfield State University, speaking about the new breed of far-right ideologies and actions. “Some people in the libertarian movement who may not have seen any vehicles [in their movement] might have been trafficked to the ‘alternative right.’”
Before his appointment, McLaren garnered little interest from antiracist activists in Pennsylvania. Though he had been in their midst, and even close to political power in the state, Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the founder of One People’s Project, an anti-fascist group that tracks the far-right, said McLaren was not on their radar. “We haven’t really done the research into him yet,” Jenkins said. “Now that he’s the new executive director of NPI, we really want to know who he is.”
Less than a decade ago, McLaren was openly questioning white nationalism’s role in right-wing politics.
“Not everyone needs to be convinced that white nationalism is the Right of the future. I’m certainly not,” McLaren wrote at the beginning of a since-deleted blog post, on right-wing website Taki’s Magazine, from 2008. “White nationalists do not convince as a stable oppositional force for the medium and long term, in spite of the appeal of their intelligent and well-documented broadsides against poisonous doctrines of political correctness.”
McLaren said he was being sincere. “I was being honest when I wrote that,” he said, going on to reflect on the lack of political tools of expression of his paleolibertarian ideology — a socially conservative strand of libertarianism with many adherents who dabble in racist ideas, such as anti-immigrant nativism.
“I just didn’t know a lot about it,” he said of white nationalism. “My political maturity seemed to be happening very quickly. … There was probably still a part of me that was very hesitant to embrace any idea of a racial dialogue outside of the norm we’re used to.”
However, McLaren said race was an underlying concern at the time. It shows in his writing at TakiMag, which has promoted nativism and ultra-nationalism in the past, and where he heralded the rise of so-called Ron Paul Republicans. Paul’s movement was frequently tied to the political fringes. Paul had refused, for example, to return a campaign contribution from an avowed white supremacist who ran the neo-Nazi website, Stormfront. McLaren was no exception. He had high praise for white nationalists even before he identified as one, praising the faction in the deleted blogpost for being “highly educated, civil and civilized, and their commitment to open and respectful debate is amazing.”
McLaren explained his transition from paleolibertarian beliefs to “making real-world contact with a lot of people who were very active in presenting and conceiving ideas for political discussion.” Parsing the movement was, at first, confusing: “I was aware that white nationalism was out there. I was still getting to know people and to know where they stood.”
The real-world contact that turned McLaren to white nationalism took place roughly 10 miles from his home in Pennsylvania.
“I was very attracted to the writings that were published by Paul Gottfried on LewRockwell.com,” McLaren said. An antiwar and anti-state outlet, LewRockwell.com is grounded in “anarcho-capitalism.” Gottfried, a paleoconservative, is a famed critic of neoconservatives in the Republican Party, but allowed ideologies further to the right to creep into the community he was building with the website. “He wasn’t pointing to anything racial, but he also wasn’t rushing to take race off the table,” McLaren recalled.
In 2008, McLaren drove to Gottfried’s office in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. He arrived as Gottfried was forming the H.L. Mencken Club, named for the early 20th century “free-thinker” and cultural critic who was said to hold racist and anti-Semitic views. It was through his involvement in the club that McLaren met Richard Spencer and other white nationalist leaders, such as Jared Taylor.
Spencer was editing TakiMag when McLaren began blogging there, but left in 2009 to start AltRight.com, a site best known for the name that would attempt to rebrand the far right. Spencer and McLaren never lost contact, McLaren said: “I would coordinate activity with him or meet up with him. I was definitely still affiliated with the movement, at least privately.”
As he nurtured these relationships, McLaren turned to white nationalist ideologues based in Europe for their thoughts. According to his Goodreads account, McLaren read books by Pierre Krebs, founder of the Thule-Seminar, a far-right German party whose name references the Thule Society, an organization that aided the rise of the Nazi Party, and another volume called “North American New Right,” a journal compiled by North Americans currently living in Budapest who sought to rebuke multiculturalism and push racial purity.
Then, McLaren’s online trail went cold. With his white nationalist views largely in place, McLaren pursued a different path: civil servant.
The Cumberland County district attorney has recently engaged in allegedly discriminatory practices.
McLaren took up a position clerking for the Bureau of Disability Determination in Harrisburg in 2009. He left that clerking position and began pursuing a law degree at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law in 2014. McLaren said he felt a need to “professionalize” himself.
Then he got a job working for the county. According to his LinkedIn profile, McLaren’s employment history shows a yearlong job as a law clerk at the Republican District Attorney David Freed’s office in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, which ended in April. The links between McLaren and the DA’s office were first reported by Injustice Today, a publication of the Fair Punishment Project.
Freed said McLaren held no power at the office. “McLaren assisted with legal research and summary (minor) offenses in traffic court,” Freed told The Intercept. “McLaren had no discretionary role in this office, he simply performed tasks as assigned.”
McLaren responded that he didn’t think Freed knew him. “He’s a good DA, and he strikes me as a nice guy,” McLaren said.
Freed added that the district attorney’s office will improve its vetting procedures for hiring interns. “Prior to this experience, we have not looked too closely at social media backgrounds of interns (as opposed to paid clerks), as long as they are in good standing with their law school,” he said. “That has changed.”
The Cumberland County district attorney, however, has recently engaged in allegedly discriminatory practices. An American Civil Liberties Union-Pennsylvania report from 2015 found that the office “ranks as one of the most aggressive forfeiters in the state,” taking in more than $400,000 in two years from civil asset forfeiture, a process whereby law enforcement seizes property from individuals alleged — not charged or convicted — to have committed crimes. The ACLU-Pennsylvania report also found that African-Americans are 18 times more likely to be the target of forfeiture than other races.
Shortly before leaving the district attorney’s office, he took up a short-lived position in local politics, serving as treasurer of Cumberland County’s Young Republicans.
“Evan McLaren is not associated with our Young Republicans,” said Kaytee Moyer, the chair of the GOP group. “We started a chapter, he showed up at a meeting, and volunteered to be the treasurer, but then quickly stepped down.” She said he was only with the organization for a month, beginning in March.
McLaren said he left because he thought he was going to work for another federal judge, so activism in electoral politics would have been inappropriate. But he said that the local GOP had sought him out. While Trump’s candidacy had encouraged him to participate in the GOP, McLaren said he never held Republicans in high regard: “I think they’re failed leaders.”
Tomorrow I assume my role as Executive Director of the National Policy Institute. Thanks @RichardBSpencer and the NPI board. Hail victory!
— Evan McLaren (@EvanMcLaren) July 27, 2017
In May, McLaren started a Twitter account. Within a few days, he was defending Varg Vikernes, a Norwegian white nationalist who started out as a black metal musician convicted of murder, in 1994. “Varg Vikernes Did Nothing Wrong,” McLaren tweeted. McLaren said the tweet was an attempt to be “provocative, at some level.”
Jenkins, of One People’s Project, said that many on the far right, including McLaren, are thinking short-term, encouraged by a political moment of Trump in the White House.
White supremacists, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, were encouraged by Trump laying blame across the political spectrum and offering praise for some of the bigoted rally-goers. “You had some very bad people in that group,” Trump said of the far-right demonstrators. “But you also had people who were very fine people — on both sides.” McLaren responded to Trump’s press conference by retweeting a veritable who’s who of white nationalist and far-right figures thanking the president for his even-handedness.
But that support might only last as long as Trump’s presidency, Jenkins said. “The long term is that all of this attention and support, allegedly from the White House, is fleeting,” he said. “A lot of folks coming out of their shells now are going to find that they can’t go back in again.”
McLaren said he isn’t worried about going back inside his shell. His movement is winning, he claims, and the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. “There’s obviously an energy out there that has manifested itself,” he said. “And it’s not going to subside based on what Trump does and doesn’t do.”