During the 2016 presidential election, the white nationalist movement known as the “alt-right” and its founder, Richard Spencer, captured headlines. But two decades earlier, before he began to advocate for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the United States, Spencer was just another U.Va. student, fulfilling course requirements and enjoying Grounds.
Clean-cut and articulate, Spencer has been deemed an intellectual leader of the “alt-right” — a term Spencer himself coined in 2008 — and often represents the movement in national media. He leads the innocuous-sounding National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. His opponents say this polished appearance makes him dangerous.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes him as a “suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old,” writing his “clean-cut appearance conceals a radical white separatist whose goal is the establishment of a white ethno-state in North America.”
University alumni have disavowed Spencer — whose movement has been associated with racism, sexism and anti-Semitism — and raised funds for refugees who they feel have been targeted by the “alt-right,” an effort Spencer condemned as “national and cultural suicide” in an interview with The Cavalier Daily.
Members of the “alt-right” were vocal supporters of President-elect Donald Trump during the recent election. Following the election, The Atlantic published a video of Spencer telling a crowd of more than 200 people, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory,” which was followed by cheers and what appeared to be Nazi salutes from audience members.
Trump has tried to distance himself from the “alt-right,” saying he does not want to “energize” the group. In turn, Spencer has become more critical of the incoming administration, skeptical of whether it will follow through on campaign promises regarding immigration. During the campaign, Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States and a wall on the southern border with Mexico.
Before there was the “alt-right,” Spencer was starting his undergraduate career at the University of Virginia — a place he warmly reflected where he “became intellectual” and “started caring about ideas more.”
A “bookish” student
After graduating from a private school in Dallas, TX, Spencer entered the University in the fall of 1997 and went on to graduate in 2001 with a B.A. with High Distinction in English Literature and Music.
“I was also a very bookish person at U.Va.,” Spencer told The Cavalier Daily. “I was very interested in Shakespeare. I was actually reading philosophy for the first time when I was at the University of Virginia, mostly on my own.”
He was involved with Shakespeare on the Lawn and individual avant-garde theater projects.
In January 2001, The Cavalier Daily interviewed Spencer for an article about a Shakespeare on the Lawn production of “Twelfth Night,” for which he worked as a costume and set designer.
The reporter described the costumes and set as “unique and bizarre,” and Spencer told the paper he envisioned an "explicitly and boldly theatrical" look in the production.
Years later, Spencer highlighted his involvement with Shakespeare on the Lawn, but said “no one should associate them with my political views which can be very controversial.”
His controversial views, however, may be why when The Cavalier Daily reached out to numerous Shakespeare on the Lawn alumni from Spencer’s time at the University, many of them either did not respond to inquiries or declined to comment.
One alumna who ran in similar friend groups to Spencer said she was stunned to see her fellow Shakespeare on the Lawn alumnus appear in headlines last fall.
“The thing about Richard Spencer, like anybody in undergrad, you know, kids can be kind of thoughtless,” 2004 College graduate Elisabeth Seng said. “They can kind of lack empathy, they can kind of just do dumb things, but he never did anything that seemed ... like racism or any kind of hate or bigotry.”
Before he moved from his on-Grounds stage to a national political one, Spencer’s time at the University overlapped with the 2000 presidential election.
Although he has since become outspoken politically, Spencer said he was a Republican when he left high school and was not politically active on Grounds.
“I did not vote in that election,” he said. “By the election of 2000, I was not terribly excited about George W. Bush, and I would say that George W. Bush arguably created the ‘alt-right’ because he was so wrong as president that he more than anyone inspired me to create the term ‘alt-right.’”
When asked if there were any professors who influenced him, Spencer recalled taking courses with English Prof. Mark Edmundson and History Prof. Allan Megill, but emphasized he did not have a mentor who specifically influenced the development of his “alt-right” views.
“There were no ‘alt-right’ professors at U.Va.,” Spencer said.
When contacted for this article, Edmundson said he had no recollection of Spencer.
As a citizen scholar, Spencer took a history course with Megill following his undergraduate career. Megill disavowed Spencer’s views, but said his former student “has evidently not always held them.”
“Richard's current views … are abhorrent to me, but one should avoid demonizing the carriers of such messages,” Megill said in an email statement. “There are failures of policy and imagination that have led the U.S. to its present situation.”
In terms of an overall impact, Spencer said the University did not specifically put him on track to where he is today, but it nurtured his academic interests, such as philosophy — a topic he independently explored instead of formally taking philosophy courses at the University.
“I think I became intellectual at the University and a lot of that was doing stuff on my own. I was more bookish than I was a partier and so that whole environment really changed me,” Spencer said. “I started caring about ideas more.”
Spencer described his time at the University as “really great.”
Alumni react, raise funds for International Rescue Committee
Several alumni were shocked to see Spencer enter the national spotlight in recent months and started a Hoos Against Richard Spencer CrowdRise page to raise funds for the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, which has resettled refugees across the country, including in the Charlottesville community.
The group that created the page included former members of Shakespeare on the Lawn.
“His words and actions are causing real harm, so we were talking about this online, trying to figure out what could we do as people who used to know him and as fellow alumni,” Seng said. “We decided one of the best things we could do was help the very people that he’s targeting, especially the most defenseless of them — the refugees.”
The page has raised nearly $3,400 for the IRC so far. This follows a similar fundraising effort by Spencer’s former high school classmates at St. Mark’s School of Texas, which raised $62,500 for the same organization.
“For a lot of people like me, we feel … at a loss for what to do in the face of what I consider to be crushing and demoralizing moral defeat in the election of Donald Trump and the validation of extreme views that his election represents,” Daniel Kirzane, a 2007 College graduate and a donor on the page, said. “And in an attempt to overcome this feeling of paralysis, I and many others I think are looking for little ways that we can try to make a difference here or there.”
The page argues Spencer’s words and actions are “violating the spirit of the University of Virginia’s Honor Code.”
Upon learning about the page in his interview with The Cavalier Daily, Spencer dismissed the page as a “hate group.”
“I find it interesting that these people disagree with me and their response to that is that they want to commit national and cultural suicide even harder than before,” Spencer said. “They claim that I’m a hater, but the fact is that they are clearly operating on hate.”
Still, the recent controversy — just one among many — hasn’t sullied Spencer’s memory of the University.
“I have nothing but fond feelings about the University and really everything about it. It was a halcyon time for me,” he said.