Richard Spencer has been described as a white nationalist, and is widely accepted as the creator of the term “alt-right,” as well as a cultivator of the movement that subscribes to what it stands for.
Richard Spencer hopes for a white “ethno-state.” He has lamented that, “in the current year, a white who takes pride in his ancestor’s accomplishments is evil.” He has referred to refugee relocation programs as a “population transfer scheme deliberately designed to break apart functional white communities.” He has stated that “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance and it belongs to us.”
Richard Spencer refers to the mainstream media as lügenpresse, or “lying press,” a German term once used by Nazis and now adopted as a far-right epithet. He has railed against the fact that it is considered improper to target people of the trans community for ridicule. He is the man you likely saw videotaped inciting Nazi salutes at an alt-right rally in late November after he shouted “Hail Trump!” into a microphone.
Lest anyone be confused, Richard Spencer says things that I consider abhorrent. His newfound prominence, gained in the last 18 months as Donald Trump rose in the polls to eventual victory—fuelled in part by those who support Spencer’s world view—is deeply troubling. I think his ideas are a disease infecting Western culture, and not, as he suggests, an antidote to what ails it.
But, despite all of this, Richard Spencer does not deserve to get sucker-punched in the face, no matter how much it may seem that he does.
Perhaps by now you have seen the footage that was circulated widely online Friday afternoon and Saturday of the incident I’m referring to. Spencer was giving an interview on a sidewalk in Washington Friday as protests against Trump’s inauguration went on around him. Just as he began to discuss a pin he was wearing depicting the alt-right online meme Pepe the Frog—a symbol that has been designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League—a man dressed in all black appeared from nowhere and slugged Spencer in the head.
Then the assailant ran away.
The clip and subsequent gifs of the attack on Spencer went viral, as did an edited version of the video, set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, wherein the shot of Spencer getting nailed in the head is repeated at every beat of Max Weinberg’s reverbed snare drum. (Or the one set to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” or the one set to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in The Name Of.”) It makes for admittedly compelling viewing, and on a day when liberals seemed to need a cathartic release, it did the trick.
But as most in the liberal, and many in mainstream conservative, spheres have been saying for months with regard to the kind of speeches Donald Trump was making on the campaign trail: hate breeds hate. With this in mind, one could make the argument that Spencer got what was coming to him. But the reality is that it doesn’t end the cycle. In fact, it likely only fuelled it. Friday evening Spencer took to Twitter to warn that “if law enforcement can’t protect us from antifa [anti-fascist] assaults we will begin protecting ourselves.”
In short, this incident turned Spencer into a victim.
Among the worries over what kind of a future Donald Trump might usher in have been visions of anarchy or mob rule (as when he suggested that American citizens “go out and watch” the polling stations on voting day). But just as the left fears the threat of lawlessness under Trump created by hordes of emboldened racists, it might be wise to equally fear those on the left’s extreme flank who might act in a similar manner, taking matters into their own hands.
Anarchy should be rejected, no matter from what side of the political divide it is supported.
The threat posed by people like Spencer will only increase if liberal America (or liberal Britain, Germany, France, Canada, Holland, etc.) gives those like him or those sympathetic to his message a reason to believe that liberalism is as hypocritical and soulless as he says it is. If those of us who might lament Obama’s departure from the White House, imperfect though his administration was, cannot heed the wise words of the former first lady—”When they go low, we go high”—then what are we? What do we really believe in?
It is on that last note, by the way, that Spencer and his ilk will now tap dance for years: the existential quandary at the heart of the liberal order that Donald Trump’s election has created and that many seek to expand – a black abyss that, if liberals are not careful, might be filled with all the wrong sorts of things, or that might continue to grow so wide that it swallows the values of modern liberal democracy, reason, fact-based policy, and progress whole.
Spencer and those like him point toward a future of nihilism. Liberals ought to offer an alternative of hope, based on the enlightened ideas of peace, order, equality, liberty, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. In the end, those ideals win. And losing to them is what people like Richard Spencer really deserve.
Now, perhaps unlike any other time in a generation, is the moment for liberals to believe in something. And it’s not whatever Spencer’s attacker showcased on Friday.
Hate breeds hate; violence breeds violence. They’re going low. Let’s make sure we go high.
Disclosure: From 2014 to 2015, Colin Horgan was a speechwriter for the Liberal Party of Canada.