Despite an ideology of shared bigotries among what he and his acolytes call “the alt-right,” a recent spate of profiles and reports about National Policy Institute president Richard Spencer are positively devoted to elaborate descriptions of his sophisticated tastes and expensive clothes. In the last few weeks, a handful of media outlets have published flattering profiles of Spencer, the ostensible head of the so-called “alt-right,” which is a phrase Spencer himself coined and that resists labeling what the group actually is: what my colleague Brendan O’Connor described as a “reactionary coalition of white supremacists, neo-monarchists, radical misogynists, and outright fascists.”
These pieces, which have recently branched out from Spencer to whimsical descriptions of European-based neo-Nazi groups more broadly, share a fascination with his virility. They are almost eager to reassure readers that, despite the fact that Spencer throws around “Heil Hitlers,” his appeal is somehow remarkable: bound to his good taste, as though that good taste is somehow a reflection on morality. Beyond that, each of these profiles—be it in Mother Jones, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times—are equally captivated by the image of masculinity Spencer exudes. Fascinated by Spencer’s fascism, the profiles perform a naturalization of Spencer’s physicality, pretending that his posture is simply the way of the world.
Mother Jones’s profile of Spencer takes pains to highlight a (it must be said, fictional) tension between urbane sophistication and debased racism. Spencer uses chopsticks to “pluck slivers of togarashi-crusted ahi from a rectangular plate” while sharing his opinions about race. He eats Thai noodles at an “eclectic” restaurant. He sips merlot, much like, well, a wine-sipping liberal. Spencer, a former Ph.D. student, appreciates the sublime paintings of Caspar David Frederich, and cites Friedrich Nietzsche. (If history has taught us any lessons, one should be wariness of white men who are just a bit too keen to extrapolate on Nietzsche’s ideas.) The piece treats these proclivities with a surprising reverence.
Spencer is described as “articulate and well-dressed,” with “prom-king good looks,” and the profile brands this “radical chic.” Mother Jones is hardly alone in this type of depiction of Spencer or those he has deemed the “alt-right,” a loosely affiliated group of white nationalists whose ideology closely resembles twentieth-century fascism. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post were also criticized for profiles of Spencer that included flattering descriptions of him and the photographs to match.
The Washington Post’s coverage also finds itself in the thrall of Spencer’s appearance, describing his “three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, gold-coin cuff links and $5,000 Swiss watches.” As with Mother Jones’s profile, the Post remarked upon Spencer’s haircut, which he has termed a “fashy,” and looks like a knockoff of Cillian Murphy’s haircut in Peaky Blinders (incidentally, there’s been quite a bit of ink unnecessarily spilled over the “fashy”). Yet the Post isn’t just concerned with elaborate descriptions of Spencer’s expensive accouterment; the interest also extends to his body, to Spencer’s arms and shoulders, “exposed” after he removed his shirt which had been soiled by a protestor. The Post writes:
“Let’s party like it’s 2016!” he shouted, raising his bare arms and pumping them in the air as the room roared even louder.
This type of description isn’t limited to Spencer to extends to ideological relatives like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s Senior Counselor. A story at the Boston Globe that sketched Bannon’s time as a student at Harvard Business School took pains to emphasize his (former) attractiveness:
He was fit and trim, always clean-shaven, and naturally tan. His posture was ramrod straight, and his handshake firm. He was almost always in khakis, a pressed shirt, and a sweater.
He reminded some classmates of Robert Redford.
These narratives reinforce a certain aesthetics of appealing white masculinity while playing into a fundamental belief that white supremacy aggressively and outwardly signifies its ideology; that racism wears a hood or shaves its head, that it bears a striking resemblance to an Elliot Erwitt or Harry Ransom photograph. Spencer or a young Bannon are clearer embodiments of these values than many of the leaders of the new far-right. Geert Wilders or Boris Johnson are easier to dismiss as cartoonish renderings; so too is Donald Trump. As my colleagues here at Jezebel have demonstrated time and time again, his unnaturally orange hue makes him easy to mock.
The Post and the Times, at least, acknowledged this in their reports. A representative from the Southern Poverty Law Center described to both papers that Spencer’s “clean-cut appearance” as the standard style of an “academic racist.” And yet, a recent CNN report on the resurgence of the far right in Austria (they resist the phrase neo-Nazi but they are, indeed, neo-Nazis) was given the provocative headline “Hipster or Hatemonger? The trendy young face of Austria’s far-right.”
And yet, this doesn’t seem to quite explain the fascination with Spencer’s looks. Some have accused the media of “normalizing” the racist, sexist ideologies spouted by alt-right and, to a certain extent, that’s true. There is, sometimes, an attempt to dance around the reporter’s infatuation; many of the profiles include a variation of the sentence, “Style is consciously constructed.” It’s a kind of plausible deniability, as though by pointing out something so excruciatingly obvious, the reporter is indicating that s/he sees through the artifice.
And yet the profile exists as tangible evidence that they do not. Neither the photographs nor the descriptions are neutral—journalism’s theatrical pose of objectivity is an effect like any other. Beyond these fawning descriptions, there’s a beguiled tone that runs through these stories that isn’t merely normalization. There’s an enthrallment here with virility which, as the Barbara Spackman noted in her study, Fascist Virilities, “an obsession with virility is one of the traits of fascist discourse, a commonplace that is...taken for granted as a sort of linguistic tic.”
The media might naturalize Spencer and his neo-fascists buds but, in turn, the alt-right are naturalizing a certain seductive media narrative about themselves, one that’s nearly a century old. The alt-right—as all historic fascism—fundamentally relies on the masculine white body to signify its core tenets. It is meant to be admired for its virile appeal; it as meant to be as irresistible as its depicted in these profiles, even if a reporter has, in the case of Bannon, to reach decades into the past to find evidence of its existence. It’s as if that, faced with hegemonic masculinity, the profile can’t resist its allure—the flattering descriptions are bound to a long history in which that kind of body has been codified to symbolize many things. More often than not, the histories that created those tissues of meaning—Nazi propaganda or the aesthetics of fascist Italy—are bound to racist, bigoted, and sexist ideologies.
Historically, the fascist masculine body is inscribed with assurances about the renewal of the state, national security, and control. As George Moss wrote in his landmark study, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity:
The rise of modern masculinity had always centered on the cultivation of the human body, a hallmark of the modern as over or against earlier ideals of masculinity, and this concern reached its climax in fascism.
In Italy under Benito Mussolini, virility was reified and the “projection of the martial male body” became the personification the powerful and colonial state. Written onto that body are a series of myths about heroics, potency, and victory, as a model of masculine behavior, it was untouched by an (ostensibly immoral) social permissiveness. As a stand-in for security and normalcy, the martial male body masquerades as nature, as many have pointed out it substitutes “normalized” for historic forms. Just as Mussolini’s fascism mined Nietzsche’s concept of a Superman and ancient Roman sculpture for as a tangible ideal, the normalization of the alt-right, purposefully or not, reaches back to the pre-war 20th century forms of masculinity as its natural ancestor. As Dick Hebdige put it, culture translates “the reality of the world into an image of the world which in turn presents itself as if composed according to ‘the evident laws of the natural order.’”
The flattering profiles of Spencer, this constant reassurance that he’s both attractive and intelligent, despite his anti-intellectualism reiterates an established narrative. The pretense of these stories, the naive surprise that Spencer can buy clothes or go to graduate school, that he can claim some of the effects of sophistication, elide the history of fascist masculinity. The pretense that Spencer is outside of some norm because he owns expensive suits is an ahistorical gesture that poses for the reason the profile exists (this needs explaining, the profiles insist).
Yet again, it’s a familiar narrative. Take, for example, Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascist. Mosley and his wife Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, were featured in British and American newspapers regularly before the late 1930s. Even though the pair, monied and sophisticated, were open supporters of Hitler, their urbanity and glamour proved to be an alluring story. In multiple accounts, Mosley, in particular, is described as “dapper,” even as he’s wearing the uniform of a Black Shirt and inciting knife fights in the streets of London. Or here is Susan Sontag’s critique of the post-war romanticization of the Nazi visual aesthetic, cultivated by state-produced propaganda:
The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful...The SA, whom the SS replaced, were not known for being any less brutal than their successors, but they have gone down in history as beefy, squat, beerhall types.
It’s clear that the naturalization of this particular kind of fascist virility is important to the alt-right as well. The Guardian reports:
The almost entirely male audience cheered when Spencer made his statement about women’s desire for a “strong man”.
“I’ve looked at a lot of romance novels that women read and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern,” Spencer said.
“Romance novels about cubicle-dwelling boring computer programmers don’t sell very well. Romance novels about cowboys and vikings seem to be very popular. We might want to look at something like that and see if that tells us something about human nature.”
“Human nature” is a telling phrase; an emphasis that this is the order of the universe, one that cannot be altered with good intentions or different politics. Spencer reiterates the erotic appeal of romantic individualism, underpinned by a construction of martial masculinity—of warriors and adventurers. Sontag described this iteration of the male body as “constructed to serve the image,” which, she argues, relies on an “orgiastic transaction.” “Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing,” she wrote in 1975.
And yet despite this, the “virile posing” is still somehow alluring, its pretense somehow still treated as the natural way of the world. Spencer is still framed as just a young ideologue who knows his way around a wine menu. Members of Europe’s far-right are just another subculture, as innocuous as the hipsters the populate any average American city. It’s an ugly reminder that while society might occasionally repudiate that fascist body, it still finds its signifiers simply too seductive to resist.
History has already normalized the image of fascist masculinity—reified its importance and posited as a “fascinating” or irresistible symbol—but continued writing about Spencer—if it’s really necessary—or any white neo-ism should recognize that for what it truly is and resist that fascist construction of that image as natural.