No, Richard Spencer Is Not a ‘Wilsonian Progressive’

Contrary to recent claims, Richard Spencer is not a “Wilsonian Progressive.” How could he be? Woodrow Wilson pushed for foreign war in the name of “Democracy,” saw the administrative state as the cornerstone of government action, and sought the spiritual uplift of Americans from the “hosts of sin” and a “heartless” economic system.

Spencer on the other hand, despises foreign interventionism, does not support democracy, and says very little on the subject of economics and public administration. It is true, as Dinesh D’Souza notes, that both Wilson and Spencer reject the American Founding. It is also true that both consider European civilization to be a product of something unique and superior in the “blood” of those who built it.

But these instances of possible overlap do not make D’Souza’s case that Spencer’s views are “virtually identical” to those of the early 20th century Progressives. The Founders restricted immigration in the Naturalization Act of 1790 to “free White persons.” Does that mean Richard Spencer and George Washington are “virtually identical” or that they are both “white nationalists?” Only a fool would suggest it.

In D’Souza’s attempt to draw a straight line from slave-holding Democrats to Adolf Hitler to the modern-day Left he jams wildly different and opposed figures into tortured contortions to serve his purposes. All this so he can show that the “Democrats are the real racists.”

D’Souza’s argument takes liberal presuppositions at face value. D’Souza, like the Progressives, appears to buy the idea that government exists to uplift the marginalized, he simply thinks that conservatives do a better job of it. It is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who secretly repress blacks, Jews, and women. In fact, conservatives are the real liberals! It is they who support Israel in order to defend the Jews and promote capitalism to save minorities from poverty. After all, it was the Republicans who opposed slavery and voted for the Civil Rights Act!

If only the marginalized could get off the Democrat-liberal “plantation” and escape the lies of the media, they’d see just how good conservatism is for their own interests. D’Souza’s argument is essentially Rawlsian; it centers politics on the social and material uplift of the oppressed.

To make his case that conservatives are the real liberals and liberals are the real bulwarks against progress, he tries to turn the leftist argument that opponents to progressivism are “literally Hitler” against them. In order to do so, he needs to make sure all the “bad” people end up on the same side. Richard Spencer is bad and must therefore somehow be with the liberals (who are secretly Hitler.) D’Souza is clever enough to recognize that Spencer is no Nazi. He’s far too tame for that. But he is a racist, and he likes the movie “Birth of a Nation.” You know who else was a racist and liked “Birth of a Nation”? Woodrow Wilson, that’s who. See, it all comes together!

Or not.

What Separates Spencer from the Old Progressives
Spencer is clearly not a progressive. He doesn’t give a damn about democracy or tutelage for the “lesser races” as Woodrow Wilson did. Spencer’s aims are rooted instead in a romantic vision of defending the volksgeist. For Spencer, whites should strive for progress, yes. He is interested in an eternal “upward” conquering path for his people. But unlike Wilson, Spencer isn’t concerned with upending economic systems, spreading Christian moralism, or launching foreign wars.

But if Spencer isn’t a progressive then what is he? His opponents never cease with their castigations of “Nazi!” But this overwrought shrieking over tiki torches and violent confrontations with Communist agitators reeks of banality. Spencer isn’t calling for empire, or lebensraum, or the murder of Jews. Ironically, Spencer is far less interested in killing brown people on the other side of the planet than his “antiracist” neoconservative and liberal interventionist critics.

He is still an authoritarian, but vaguely. His specific policy proposals are unclear but he definitely rejects the idea that rights have any existence outside the state or that consent is the foundation of the regime.

There is some gesticulating toward a future white ethnostate. But how will it come about? What sort of government will it have? How will membership be determined? Spencer either equivocates or remains silent on these points. Fleshing out real-world solutions and appealing to the American people, however, have never been Spencer’s focus.

Spencer is, at heart, a contrarian social critic. The cultural Marxist Left, the dominant force in elite opinion, posits that whites, and white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men in particular, are the source of all the ills of modern life. Racism, sexism, misogyny, colonialism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and heteronormativity—all these are the fruits of “whiteness.” For the new Marxists, the ethnic and cultural dialectic replaced the economic one.

Instead of bourgeois and proletariat, we now have whites versus the marginalized. Spencer is the poster-boy archvillain of that construct. The entirety of Spencer’s argument is simply to posit the opposite of the Left: whites aren’t bad. In fact, they’re wonderful. They have the conquering “Faustian spirit” and a world-historical role separate them from the other races. Therefore, whites ought to maintain their own countries in order to live out this separate destiny.

Wide, Not Deep
The Left rooted their politics in a vile concoction of envy and tribalistic spite. Spencer has made a career of gleefully poking them in the axioms. Spencer enjoys this role of arch-villain immensely. It has lifted him from obscurity and into infamy. But in the end, he is a provocateur and critic of liberalism, nothing more. Spencer’s politics are reactionary not “Progressive.”

His erudition and urbanity allowed him to become the perfect representation of all the Left’s nightmares: a defender of whiteness sensible enough to be a threat but fringe enough to be safely skewered by the elite everywhere and anywhere. Spencer is a convenient Leftist boogeyman. But in the end, there is no “there” there.

Spencer is wide, not deep. He is here simply for the interviews, attention, and ego-boost. He imagines himself as a world-historical figure creating a new future for his people. It won’t happen. The West may well be headed toward cataclysm but Spencer won’t lead us out of it.

His relentless focus on race as the defining political element is myopic. Human life is not wholly pre-determined. The genes are “not everything” as Spencer claims. As a much wiser man than Spencer noted, half of all human life is determined by what is given to us by nature or fortune. The other half is left to the will.

Whiteness Doesn’t Ensure Good Government
Spencer is right to challenge the neoliberal order, but his resistance is crude and ill-formed for the crisis at hand. Yes, differences in nature are relevant to political life. Kalahari Bushmen, Han Chinese, and Anglo-Saxons differ in their temperaments, tastes, and talents.

Broad group differences, just like individual differences in intelligence, beauty, and strength, are important but not final in politics. The American Founders knew that. They knew that whiteness did not ensure good government. Their frequent criticisms of European governments and wariness regarding mass immigration from white countries testify to that point.

But neither did the Founders fall into the much more common hubris in our time of believing that equal rights mean equal outcomes, and that government power can uplift all of mankind to the same plateau of greatness simply by removing “systems of oppression” or teaching the Constitution.

The Founders rejected the extremes of pure determinism and pure universalism. They were neither Marxist fools nor “Fashy goys” dreaming of the “Faustian spirit.” Instead of ideological nonsense, they embraced a rational and cogent political philosophy that dealt directly with the real problems of human life.

We would be well served to return to their moderation and wisdom.

Photo Credit: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Image

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.