What It's Like as an Asian-American Journalist to Interview a White Nationalist

"Nightline" co-anchor Juju Chang writes about her experience.

ByABC News
December 9, 2016, 1:51 PM

— -- It’s not every day that a self-proclaimed white nationalist calls you an “honorary white person.”

He was joking, of course, after I said I enjoyed a recent trip near his home in Whitefish, Montana. It would have been light-hearted banter in any other context, but not this one.

Because Richard Spencer had just told me with a smile on his face that I would not be allowed to live in the all-white ethno-state he envisions for the future.

“You could have your own ethno-state,” he offered, as though ethnic cleansing might strike most Americans as anything other than reprehensible.

“Nightline” asked to spend the day with him before his Texas A&M University appearance on Tuesday as he was confronted by hundreds of loud protesters chanting “Say NO to hate.” He seemed unfazed, amused even, and clearly unapologetic.

My producer Victoria Thompson and I traveled to College Station, Texas, to bring into sharp focus the man who takes credit for coining the phrase “alt-right,” which Spencer describes as “identity politics for white people in the 21st century.”

Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and Trump’s current chief strategist, was once quoted as saying his site provided a “platform for the alt-right.” Days after the election, President-Elect Trump tried to distance himself from the alt-right with one quote in an interview with the New York Times. -- "I don't want to energize the group, and I disavow the group," he said.

Spencer, 38, earned national attention after a video surfaced on “The Atlantic” showing him at a so-called “alt right” conference shouting “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory,” as some in the crowd raised their hands in a Nazi salute.

Spencer says he yelled out “Hail Trump,” “in the spirit of irony and exuberance.”

“What is exuberant about genocide?” I asked him.

He then tried to dismiss it, telling me, “a half a dozen people in the audience or so who gave a Roman salute.”

“It was not a Roman salute. It was a Nazi party salute, you know that,” I replied.

Spencer did acknowledge that provocation is a strategy for the alt-right and that he had been toiling in obscurity until this shot of notoriety. He sees President-Elect Trump as someone who “sling-shot our movement into fame.” Spencer says he was euphoric the moment he found out Trump won the presidency, “it felt like a kind of miracle.”

“If someone had told me two years ago that Donald Trump would be the alt-right hero and he would be President, I would be like, ‘What ridiculous movie are you talking about like this is not real life,’ but it is real life,” Spencer said.

Spencer and I talked one-on-one for more than an hour. He claims he is not a white supremacist or a racist, but it is difficult to understand his incendiary rhetoric any other way.

I asked about his quote in Mother Jones magazine that “Hispanics and African Americans have lower average IQs than whites and are more genetically predisposed to commit crimes” -- a pseudo-science argument of white supremacists which has been widely discredited.

“When you study, say average intelligence say around the world, and you keep getting the same answer, at some point you are going to have to look towards genetics” Spencer said. He spouts many of the hallmarks of vitriolic racist ideology.

His deeply inflammatory world-view involves that all-white “ethno state” perhaps outside the U.S., he says, where races are segregated. He claims there would be no forced deportations, though says it could result in a violent race war.

“I think the current paradigm we’re living under is going to lead to blood and tears,” Spencer said. “I don't know exactly what is going to happen but yes I do think that there is going to be a major crack up… predominantly on racial lines.”

You might ask why devote so much attention to what many consider a fringe hate group? It was Louis Brandeis a century ago who famously wrote “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

“[Spencer] is the head of the alt right … and quite frankly Mr. Trump ran a racially divisive campaign, so I think the media has an obligation to cover Richard Spencer,” said Southern Poverty Law Center’s President Richard Cohen.

Spencer’s organization, the National Policy Institute, is listed as a hate group by the SPLC for promoting far-right, white-nationalist views.

“The term alt-right is really nothing more than a re-branding of white supremacy for the digital age,” said Cohen. “I don’t think anybody should be fooled by what it is at its core and that is white supremacy.”

The Texas A&M campus held a diverse yet unified presence of thousands of people demonstrating their opposition to his views by attending competing events: a rowdy protest, a silent protest and a concert at the football stadium next door celebrating diversity.

Texas A&M, in keeping with Justice Brandeis’ prescription, decided not to ban him, citing freedom of speech. The university had not invited Spencer to speak on Tuesday, but a room was booked on campus by a former student.

University President Michael Young spoke at the Aggie’s football stadium unity rally and said, “I believe we live in a world where differences actually makes us stronger.”

Rather than keep quiet about Spencer’s visit, the university managed to turn it into a teachable moment -- allowing Spencer’s freedom of speech, while supporting protesters' freedoms of expression as well.

While Spencer is undeterred by the protests, his Nazi saluting followers were notably absent. In the end, the overwhelming majority of the few hundred people who did show up to hear him speak were there in protest.

Tensions erupted during Spencer’s speech several times. He fat-shamed a female protester dressed as a clown for effect and spewed insults at a man who stood patiently in line to ask a question, even before he had a chance to ask his question.

“You’re a coward. You can’t beat the ---- out of anything,” he said. “You need to go to the gym."

His tone reminded me of an exchange Spencer and I had during our long conversation when he laughingly dismissed values like compassion, diversity, even freedom as “weak” or “lame.” I pointed out that these are bedrock principles of our country, “diversity, inclusion, Lady Liberty bring us your huddled masses."

“I would keep Lady Liberty. I think that’s a beautiful statue," he said, laughing. "I would tear down that stupid horrible poem about 'Send us your worst! Send us your ugliest, your stupidest. Let them wash up on our shores!'"

Tensions ran high just outside as Spencer spoke, police in riot gear wound up pushing people out of the building where he was talking.

But in the end, it was the anti-hate folks who showed up at the Kyle Stadium -- including a multi-cultural group of students and anti-hate groups – that sent a far more powerful message of tolerance and diversity to drown out what they considered the repugnant and unwelcome din next door.