Richard Spencer isn’t having fun anymore. In a lengthy YouTube video posted on Sunday, the white nationalist announced that he would be suspending upcoming public speaking engagements and halting his controversial “college tour.” He said of his rallies, “When they become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun.”
“I really hate to say this, and I definitely hesitate to say this,” said the poster boy of the so-called alt-right. “Antifa is winning to the extent that they’re willing to go further than anyone else, in the sense that they will do things in terms of just violence, intimidating, and general nastiness.” He stated that the willingness of far-left activists to use any means necessary in attempts to shut down his speeches has left the far right “up the creek without a paddle.”
Spencer’s announcement came a week after he gave a scarcely attended speech at Michigan State University. The appearance drew antifa protesters that clashed with Spencer’s far-right supporters, landing 20 people under arrest — nearly all from the antifa contingent.
Spencer’s statement, celebrated by antifa groups and supporters across social media, offers a sharp rebuttal to the glut of claims that antifa practices serve as a gift to the far right. Antifa, which is short for anti-fascist, is not a group or an organization, but a set of political practices aimed at expunging neo-Nazi, white nationalist, and adjacent groups from public spaces on and offline. While these practices, which include but are not limited to physical confrontations, have been deployed against fascists since the early 20th century, President Donald Trump’s election and the resurgence of overt white supremacy brought antifa opposition to the fore. Where white nationalists gather — from Berkeley to Boston to Charlottesville — antifa has been there with the intent to disrupt those gatherings.
A cottage industry of panicked media commentary has dedicated itself to decrying the threats that antifa and its “no-platforming” stance pose to free speech. Suffice to say, this all-too-prevalent media position is deeply flawed. The aspect of those criticisms that is relevant for our purposes here is the claim that antifa action is not effective. Critics even claim that antifa’s approach is counterproductive, giving oxygen to the attention-grabbing white supremacist fire it would extinguish. Noam Chomsky was far from alone in calling antifa “a major gift” to the far right. Instead, critics argue that the best way to defeat the far right was to debate them, to shed light on the paucity of their arguments, to reason white supremacy away.
Spencer’s latest message suggests the very opposite. “The idea of a college tour was going into the belly of the beast — going into academic, Marxist-controlled territory — and giving a speech that introduces that basic ideas of identitarianism and the ‘alt-right,’” he said in his video, emphasizing the use of “public-facing” events to spread and normalize the “alt-right” message. Anyone who has watched Spencer and his ilk in public debates with liberals on the question of race should see how the belief that his violent white supremacy can be reasoned away is flawed. He sticks to his guns about the necessity of a white “ethno-state,” and his liberal interlocutors call him a monstrous racist. The result is that anti-racists agree with the liberals and racists agree with Spencer. The effect, as both sides hold to their arguments, is mere entrenchment of an intolerable status quo — or, worse yet, closet racists decide Spencer’s arguments license them to come out publicly, too.
The antifa strategy aims to create material, felt consequences for neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups, and those who would organize with them.
Instead of this deteriorating stalemate, the antifa strategy aims to create material, felt consequences for neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups, and those who would organize with them. The approach takes seriously that young, white, often alienated men see promise, belonging, and elevation in these organizations. They don’t join groups like Identity Evropa, an American white supremacist group which has focused heavily on campus propaganda, because of the strength of their arguments — and they won’t leave such communities because of the flawed logic of their ideology, either.
To make the consequences of joining the white nationalist movement appear less appealing — to take the “fun” out of fascism — is precisely the antifa strategy to stymie the movement’s spread. Spencer stating that his rallies are no longer “fun” is music to antifa ears.
It is no accident that antifa tactics beat back the rise of neo-Nazism in the 1970s and 1980s punk scene, or that fighting squads of Jewish ex-service members halted the upsurge of Oswald Mosley’s anti-Semitic, fascist organizing in Britain after World War II. And it’s no surprise that the so-called alt-right has been forced to reconsider its tactics today. While writers for the New York Times opinion section may seek to paint the antifa position as little more than punch-seeking thuggery, the strategy of creating serious consequences for white nationalists who would organize is based on a well-grounded understanding of the desire for fascism and how it spreads.
Spencer has not declared the “alt-right” defeated, and his message certainly signals no death knell for the white supremacy that permeates this country’s DNA. As I’ve noted, the Anti-Defamation League found that last year, white supremacist propaganda tripled on campuses across America and far-right extremism accounted for 71 percent of extremist attacks. Spencer is also just one personality; the far right doesn’t hinge on his college appearances.
Some may argue that Spencer’s plans to become less public-facing, to organize more secretive meetings such that antifa will not be able to turn up, creates more dangerous possibilities for a movement to spread out of sight. The idea, however, that a movement forced underground — whatever that looks like in the age of social media organizing — is more likely to gain traction is unfounded and unempirical.
If “alt-right” speakers do go “underground,” where they will lack police lines and university establishment protections, antifa will be sure to follow them there, too. An antifa tactic that gets less media coverage than Nazi-punching involves intensive online research dedicated exposing who, where, and how groups are connecting and organizing. That’s the whole point of antifa: to do the work, by whatever means necessary, so that the far right has nowhere left to go.