In recent profiles of the so-called “alt-right” — the collection of far-right misogynists, neo-monarchists, white ethno-nationalists and internet trolls currently rejoicing in Trump’s victory — many writers have expressed surprise at the clean-cut veneer of America’s white-supremacist movement.
“Sitting around conference tables, the formally dressed men more resembled Washington lobbyists than the robed Ku Klux Klansmen or skinhead toughs that often represent white supremacists,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, describing a recent conference of alt-righters in D.C. which featured cries of “heil victory” and a Hitler salute. In another piece about the conference, The Guardian devoted multiple paragraphs to an attendee who explained the variants of alt-right style (including the Nigel Farage “heritage look,” “retro 1980s: bomber jacket, acid-wash jeans” and a “fashy” undercut hairstyle.)
Descriptions of alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer — whose nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute, hosted the conference — have long centered on his “surprisingly” clean-cut appearance. From Huffington Post:
Spencer exudes the same kind of millennial élan as a lot of the young professional white guys in Washington D.C., with his clean-cut face framed by an angular jaw, square chin and neatly cropped “high and tight” haircut ― a ‘do that might once have been associated with the Hitler Youth, but now is far more likely to recall actor Ryan Gosling. He’s a neat dresser, and if he weren’t spouting off about Muslim gangs or the need to give preferential treatment to European immigrants or how women like being raped, Spencer could just as easily be one of those dime-a-dozen yuppies who have way too many opinions about IPAs and “fun” socks.
“An articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a “fashy” (as in fascism) haircut—long on top, buzzed on the sides—Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic,” wrote Mother Jones.
And the Washington Post:
He dresses in three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, gold-coin cuff links and $5,000 Swiss watches, and he sports a swept-over hipster haircut known as a “fashy” (as in fascist) … But to those who track hate groups, Spencer is dangerous because, when he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t look or sound or act dangerous.
It’s that last point we need to fixate on. As the alt-right works to legitimize itself — to expand the range of acceptable political discourse and integrate fascist ideas into mainstream thinking — it’s important for us to understand how extremists can use style as a tool to disarm opponents. It’s no accident that Spencer and his ilk look like lunching lobbyists as they spout ideas about “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and “the deconstruction of Occidental civilization.” Putting on a suit is a strategic act of image maintenance, as are all the ways Spencer presents himself: mild-mannered, genteel, with an innocuous-sounding think tank, cloaking his racist views in obtuse, faux-intellectual language.
“We have to look good,” Spencer told Salon in 2013, explaining that middle-class whites are less likely to join a movement that appears “crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid,” and that stereotypes of “redneck, tattooed, illiterate, no-teeth” are an impediment to achieving his goals.
This isn’t just happening in America. In Germany, the leader of the country’s far right Alternative für Deutschland party is Frauke Petry — “forty-one, with a pixie haircut and a trim, athletic build” who cuts “a disarmingly wholesome figure,” according to The New Yorker. In 2013, The Atlantic profiled French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and had this to say: “With her straight-cut Italian suit, white shirt, and vintage necklace, the ash-blonde Le Pen looks more like Katie Couric than your stereotypical white supremacist.”
“The guys in the suits are the ones we have to worry about,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Beneath the benign-looking guy and the benign-sounding name, the purpose of the National Policy Institute is to push the idea that all men are created unequal.” White supremacy may have a new suit and a hipster haircut, but beneath the dapper veneer, it’s the same ugly creature it always was.
For the alt-right, style is a propaganda tool, both to subtly pay homage to the pastiche of far-right movements before them (from the “retro 1980s” all the way back to Leni Riefenstahl) and to present a façade of legitimacy where none exists. Which means it’s time to abandon notions of what a “stereotypical white supremacist” looks like. We can’t be shocked when someone like Richard Spencer looks “normal,” because presenting as a legitimate, familiar, “dapper” man is the whole point.