WASHINGTON — Richard Spencer is pleased with the president.
A white supremacist and one of the leading figures of the alt-right, Spencer said he was “happy” Donald Trump did not initially fault his movement for the deadly turn Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally took in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After the rally ended with a 20-year-old Ohio man ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others, Trump addressed the nation.
He condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.” He then repeated for emphasis: “On many sides.”
Trump’s words quickly prompted widespread outrage for his equivocating between the white supremacists and those who showed up to oppose them, while pointedly failing to specify who was in the wrong.
But for Spencer, the most prominent member of the alt-right who attended the demonstration, Trump was sending a message that was reassuring.
“I was happy that he didn’t claim that white nationalists created these problems” in Charlottesville, he told The Times of Israel on Monday. “I think in his gut he knows that we are not the ones aggressing.”
Asked if he felt personally condemned by the president’s Saturday statement, Spencer said: “No.”
It took two days and unceasing pressure until Trump was willing to take a stronger stance, saying “racism is evil” from a podium at the White House on Monday and calling out white nationalists by name.
“Those who cause violence in its name are criminal and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” he said.
On Friday evening, hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists marched through the bucolic University of Virginia campus, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans like “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (an English translation of the Nazi chant, “blut und bodes”).
On Saturday, the rally, which was organized to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, erupted into more mayhem.
Before the car ramming carried out by a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer, there were tirades of racial taunting, skirmishes of pushing and shoving, and outright fighting as demonstrators marched the streets hoisting Confederate and Nazi insignia.
Things soon got to the point where Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard.
These gestures, associated with Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exterminate European Jewry, did not bother Spencer. “This was an open event,” he said. “People are expressing themselves.”
(Spencer first gained prominence in November when he was videotaped “hailing” Trump while others made a Nazi salute.)
For the rest of Saturday, White House officials stood by Trump’s declaration that “many sides” were to blame for what happened in Charlottesville.
When asked to clarify the remarks, an administration official said, “The president was condemning hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter protesters today.”
It wasn’t until 12:09 p.m. on Sunday that an unnamed White House official said of the president’s statement: “Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
While Vice President Mike Pence directly condemned the alt-right in a Sunday news conference in Cartagena, Colombia, saying “we have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK,” Spencer noted that such words did not originally come from the president himself.
“A lot of these people like Pence, I mean, he’s not particularly bright,” Spencer said. “I’m sure he’s just morally signaling about how, ‘We condemn this and we condemn that.'”
One of the lines in Trump’s Saturday remarks that Spencer found “interesting” was when the president said: “We must love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other.”
Besides finding much of that sentiment “kumbaya,” Spencer thought the part of encouraging Americans to “cherish our history” had resonance for him and other white nationalists.
The impetus for the rally, after all, was to protest the removal of a Confederate statue.
“That was a very interesting comment,” Spencer said. “I think there is reason to believe he wants an America where we can look back upon the Civil War as a deeply tragic event, but we can honor great men, like Robert E. Lee.”
Trump’s “slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an inherently nostalgic slogan or backwards-looking slogan about returning something,” he added.
Lee, a general who commanded the Confederate Army of North Virginia in the American Civil War, in which he, a slave-owner himself, defended the American South’s authority to own people as slaves because they were black.
He is often viewed as a hero to white supremacists, and any attempts to remove statues of him or other Confederate figures are met with intense resistance from people like Spencer, who oppose America’s embrace of multiculturalism as an assault on his “white heritage.”
Trump has never said anything endorsing those views. But Spencer said his campaign rhetoric and response to Charlottesville might have given him a signal.
“I think he does want to be in that America,” Spencer said. “But what’s actually in Trump’s head or Trump’s heart, I can’t say.”