NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—Late on the afternoon of February 23, nearing the end of CPAC, I found myself in a dark hotel room with an excited cluster of conservative college students who were waiting in line to chat with a Nazi.
I wasn’t exactly there on purpose. Around 4 PM, in pursuit of another story, I was unexpectedly herded into Richard Spencer’s hotel room at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. This is not really how I’d envisioned my day going, but CPAC has a way of making terrible ideas sound fine. After all, my immediate alternative was a panel with Rick Harrison from Pawn Stars called “What It Takes: Could You Have Cut It in General Washington’s Army?”
Spencer was kicked out of CPAC last year because organizers said they found his white nationalist views “repugnant,” although there seem to be quite a few other, slightly less famous white nationalists still milling around freely. A quick glance around a panel on discrimination against men, for example, would give you Marcus Epstein, a white nationalist who pled guilty to a racially-charged assault on a black woman in 2007, and Peter Brimelow, a white-haired white nationalist who wrote a book about the imperative of keeping America white.
This year, still unwelcome at the main event, Spencer paid for a hotel room and invited CPAC attendees to come up and “debate” him.
The room was neat and orderly. Two cameramen—one from The Atlantic, one from a French outlet—were setting up in the corner, and a sociologist from Iowa with perfect blonde waves sat on one of the beds, writing in a notebook. Reporters from Rolling Stone and The Intercept were also there, and if Spencer minded that a writer from a feminist website was in his room, he didn’t show it. His attitude was fairly welcoming, which initially surprised me, and then didn’t. This was, after all, an event aimed at attracting media attention, and if he couldn’t manage a public spectacle, a semi-private one would have to do.
Brian Brathovd, a pink-faced white supremacist performing the role of Spencer’s security detail, peered at me quizzically while we waited for the guests to arrive. “So you’re a journalist—at Jezebel. Interesting,” he said, making a face that implied a different kind word.
“I’m like, semi-famous, not really,” he added proudly, when I asked him to repeat his name. “Known around the podcasting scene as ‘Caerulus Rex’.”
Soon, a wave of college-aged CPAC attendees in khakis and tight dresses began to filter in. Many of them would not give reporters their names, or consent to be filmed. A video producer killed the lights as Spencer held court on the balcony, fenced in by glass and cameras and Brian. I felt vaguely like I was inside a fish tank, khakis swirling dreamlike around me.
“You guys are gonna get crushed, bro!” one of the young men howled at his friends.
“Bon-jour!” another, wearing an “I Heart Capitalism” sticker, barked with a grin at the French producer.
“I want to know why he believes what he believes in,” a serious, wide-eyed 17-year-old from New York told me. She wanted to speak to Spencer, she said carefully, because she doesn’t believe bigotry belongs in the Republican party. She was a big supporter of Donald Trump. “I just want to understand why Jewish people and black people and Mexican people, why they’re all so horrible.”
While we spoke, a chiseled, rather keyed-up student named Vincent had taken his seat on the balcony and was yelling at our host about economics. “I’m gonna get up and leave,” Vincent hissed. “I don’t want to hear your justification for discrimination. I came here to call you out on being a socialist.”
Fans were in the room, too. I approached an 18-year-old college student named Laura, whose small, pale face was frozen in a slightly haunted expression, though she was clearly glad to be there. She was wearing black blazer and a red tie pierced with a large gold sword pin. (“You know, fighting liberals,” she explained.) Laura identified with the “alt-right,” but found it to be “so secluded that I can’t get involved”; here was an opportunity to connect.
“I’m a supporter [of Spencer]—not, you know, fully, but... I definitely think there are some points of his that deserve a fair try,” she said. “I wouldn’t call him a Nazi. When you say ‘Nazi’—he’s not like, a military person.”
Laura explained that she’d come to CPAC in search of solidarity. “I’m afraid of being ostracized,” she said bluntly. “I’m afraid of isolation—being from New York, when I came out as a conservative in high school, I lost all my friends in a second. And this was way before the ‘alt-right.’”
Many of Spencer’s guests, though, were just there to gawk. “I don’t like Obama, but I’d love to meet him,” a short young man in a pristine outfit explained, pressing his sculpted hair against the glass door of the balcony.
“I like drama,” a girl in a tight green dress told me brightly. “I kind of follow it around, I had nothing better to do.” She knew someone who had “beef” with Spencer; though she could not recall the specifics of this beef, it was apparently unrelated to his desire for a white ethno-state. “I was going to a cupcake social and someone was like, oh, Richard Spencer’s here, and I’m like, Richard Spencer who? And they’re like, oh, the guy who’s fighting with that guy, and I’m like, I’ll go!”
“I just want to see him, say hi, make eye contact, leave,” she said, giggling.