Before Richard Spencer came to town in 2011, the tourist destination of Whitefish, Montana, was known mostly to well-heeled aficionados of the sporting life for its splendid vistas and ski slopes. Now it’s making news as a battleground in the fight against a rising tide of antisemitism that has greeted the election of Donald Trump.
As president and director of the National Policy Institute (NPI), a far-right, White nationalist organization, Spencer has put Whitefish on the map in a whole new way, roiling the waters of civic life, as local activists and civic leaders have sought to counter the unwelcome notoriety conferred upon their idyllic environs by Spencer, the self-styled spokesman for the racist, misogynist movement he has branded as the Alternative Right, known by the shorthand, Alt-Right. Most recently, Jewish residents of Whitefish (and at least one person who was apparently mistakenly identified as Jewish) have found themselves harassed by neonazis and White nationalists who object to an effort by a local real estate agent to help Spencer’s mother, Sherry, sell a commercial building she owns in town, and her urging of Sherry Spencer to publicly disavow her son’s stated beliefs. That realtor, Tanya Gersh, is Jewish.
Sherry Spencer has since publicly complained that she is being unfairly targeted for the beliefs of her son, failing to note that, as of December 2015, NPI was registered with the Montana secretary of state as an entity that conducts its business from Sherry Spencer’s six-bedroom home in Whitefish. (Business Entity Registration (D231213), Montana Secretary of State.)
In the world of the Right, no story satisfies so completely as that of an upstanding member of the dominant culture allegedly “victimized” by a minority group or a disadvantaged group’s champions. Witness the spate of so-called “religious freedom” claims by right-wing Christian evangelicals against measures intended to provide equal access to LGBTQ people, as is the case with North Carolina’s anti-trans HB2 measure, or women, as with Supreme Court challenges to the contraception mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act. During the presidential campaign, President-elect Trump stoked the flames of resentment by telling his mostly White supporters that they were the victims of misplaced, left-wing “political correctness.” His fans ate it up.
In the wake of a now-notorious November 19 NPI gathering in Washington, D.C., headlined by her son, Sherry Spencer found herself in a tough spot with many of her Whitefish neighbors, some of whom were discussing conducting protests outside the commercial building she owns. The NPI conference drew national attention not just as a coming out party for the White nationalist supporters of Trump’s election, but for Richard Spencer’s grand finale, in which he quoted Nazi propaganda in German and finished with a salute to the new regime reminiscent of scenes of rallies led by Adolf Hitler. “Hail Trump!” Spencer shouted. “Hail our people! Hail victory!” With that last “hail”—the English translation of the Nazi chant “Sieg heil”—a number of participants responded with the stiff-armed Roman salute used by the Nazis.
Spencer was already a star on the Far Right, but with this stunt he grabbed the spotlight of national media. Many in Whitefish were alarmed by the racist in their midst; business owners were left to ponder what it could mean to draw tourists to a town whose most famous resident was known for his emulation of one of history’s greatest monsters.
In 2014, long before Spencer’s Washington confab took place, activists with the community group Love Lives Here (an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors and counters the activities of far-right groups in the state) organized Whitefish residents to pass a resolution promoting diversity and tolerance in the city council. The resolution came about after proponents abandoned an earlier attempt to ban “hate groups” such as NPI from doing business in the municipality. The Flathead Beacon, a local news outlet, reported that supporters of the no-hate-group measure couldn’t come up with a proposal likely to survive First Amendment challenges.
But with Trump’s unexpected success in the Republican primary, and the subsequent appointment of former Breitbart News executive Stephen K. Bannon as his campaign CEO, Spencer began to emerge from his semi-obscurity. Bannon used Spencer’s coinage for the gathered strands of the White supremacist fringe that were weaving themselves into a movement, boasting to Mother Jones reporter Sarah Posner that under his leadership, Breitbart had become “the platform for the alt-right.” Bannon’s and Spencer’s term, Alt-Right, represents a collection of virulent groups with sometimes conflicting ideologies but common enemies, coming together to demonize entire categories of people, whether determined by race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. As Spencer’s star rose in relation to Bannon’s elevation and Trump’s amplification via Twitter of hateful, far-right voices, reporters from national and international outlets began making pilgrimages to Whitefish. They weren’t there for the skiing or the scenery. They came for Spencer.
After video of Spencer’s Nazi-ish speech hit the airwaves of national television outlets, Sherry Spencer called realtor Tanya Gersh on November 22. A Gersh family advisor says that Sherry Spencer initiated the call in order to discuss the possibility of selling the building. (Following threats to her family, Gersh is not speaking to media.) Sherry Spencer disputes that account, telling PRA via email that she called Gersh at the request of one of the building’s tenants, who, according to Sherry Spencer, was “extremely distressed.” The tenant, Sherry Spencer says, told her that Tanya Gersh “notified” her that “there would be up to 200 picketers and national media at the building.”
Sherry Spencer, in her comments to PRA, said that she made the call to Gersh “expecting to explain that the building was strictly a business (two retail spaces below and four vacation rentals above).” She continued: “The building has absolutely nothing to do with my son’s politics, it never has, and he has no ownership in the building. In spite of this explanation, Tanya Gersh told me that I must sell the building to make reparations to the community for my son’s ideas.”
According to 2014 legal documents filed with the City of Whitefish Planning & Building Department, Richard Spencer was the landowner at that time of the property on which Sherry Spencer erected her building. (Subdivision Exemption Affidavit, signed by Richard Spencer as “landowner,” City of Whitefish Planning & Building Department, June 24, 2014.) (In 2015, he transferred ownership to his mother, according to legal filings. (Unanimous Written Consent in Lieu of Special Meeting of Roediger Property, Inc., January 13, 2015)) The commercial property is a mixed-use affair that houses several retail businesses, offices and rental apartments for tourists.
In emails sent from Gersh on November 22 and 23 to Sherry Spencer, published online by the recipient, Gersh offers to help Sherry Spencer sell the building for the lowest discounted broker’s fee her employer will allow her. She also urges Sherry Spencer to make a contribution from the proceeds of the sale to the Montana Human Rights Network, and to publish a statement disavowing Richard Spencer’s views, which Gersh took the liberty of drafting. It is clear from Gersh’s tone that she believes Sherry Spencer to be on board with the plan. In the earliest email published by Sherry Spencer, Gersh writes: “Sherry, thank you for talking so openly with me today. I just can’t imagine what you are going through”—an apparent reference to the condemnation of her son by many in the community following Richard Spencer’s “sieg heil” moment of fame. Gersh goes on to say that she is consulting with her boss regarding a listing price. “I put out many fires today just by mentioning the possible sale,” Gersh continues. “All is very quiet right now waiting for your announcement.”
But no announcement was forthcoming. Instead, Sherry Spencer penned an essay and posted it on Medium, accusing Gersh of threatening pickets of her building if Spencer didn’t sell. “Whatever you think about my son’s ideas — they are, after all, ideas — in what moral universe is it right for the ‘sins’ of the son to be visited upon the mother?” she wrote.
And with that, the gates of hell opened, as Andrew Anglin, proprietor of the neonazi website The Daily Stormer, sicced his followers on Gersh and other Whitefish residents. He published addresses for and photographs of his targets, which included one of Gersh’s sons, who is still a child. On the photos he published of the Gersh family and Jewish civic leaders, Anglin Photoshopped a facsimile of the yellow Star of David badge that Jews were required to wear in Nazi Germany. Anglin complained of news reports in “the lying Jew media” (Andrew Anglin, “Lying Jew Media Says Daily Stormer “Threatened” Jewish Racketeers Extorting the Spencer Family,” The Daily Stormer, December 19, 2016) that he said misrepresented the situation in Whitefish, and tarred Love Lives Here as a terrorist group. (Andrew Anglin, “Operation Whitefish: New List of Collaborators with Jew Racketeers – TAKE ACTION,” The Daily Stormer, December 22, 2016)
In another example of crude image manipulation, Anglin took a Nazi propaganda poster that features an image of a giant pointing hand and the words “Achtung—Jude!” (Attention, Jew!), and superimposed images of the faces of Gersh and her young son on the cartoon characters being pointed at on the original poster. (Andrew Anglin, “(((Neverending Story))): Jews Respond to Chaos! in Whitefish Montana,” The Daily Stormer, December 21, 2016.) He published the boy’s Twitter handle as well. (Andrew Anglin, “Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion – TAKE ACTION!”The Daily Stormer, December 16, 2016.)
As the abuse flooded in, Gersh shut down her website, and assumed a low profile. Local businesses received hateful phone calls and were trolled in online reviews. (The Buffalo Café was targeted apparently because the neonazis mistook the Germanic surname of the owner as Jewish.)
At the Montana Human Rights Network, co-director Rachel Carroll-Rivas fielded threatening comments on the group’s website and in social media. She read one to The New York Times: “All of you deserve a bullet through your skull. Choke on a shotgun and die. All of you would be of greater worth to society as human fertilizer than citizens.”
On December 17, Sherry Spencer appended a caveat to her Medium essay, disavowing the harassment, but complaining that she and her family had been bullied on social media, too. According to The New York Times, she and her husband, Rand Spencer, published a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, The Daily Inter Lake, in which they wrote: “We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism.”
Yet White nationalism—the idea of creating a White ethno-state through exclusion and segregation—is just one part of Richard Spencer’s ideology. While only Sherry Spencer knows what she believes, she attended a 2010 meeting of the H.L. Mencken Club in Maryland at which her son appeared on a panel. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Mencken Club is a White nationalist organization co-founded by Paul Gottfried, who is described by SPLC as “a fixture on the paleoconservative and white nationalist right.” The Mencken Club was named for the 20th Century satirist who was revealed after his death to have had Nazi sympathies, leaving behind a journal peppered with racist and antisemitic comments. On its own website, the Mencken Club’s leaders describe it as “an organization for independent-minded intellectuals and academics of the Right.” The “About” page proudly declares: “From the standpoint of conservatism, inc., our group belongs to the ‘basket of deplorables’ that Hillary Clinton denounced in her presidential campaign.”
Photographs from the 2010 event posted on the Mencken Club website show Sherry Spencer chatting with featured speaker Peter Brimelow, the fiercely anti-immigrant White nationalist who also figured prominently at NPI’s November gathering. (Author notes from November 19, 2016, NPI conference, “Become Who We Are.”)
In a video commentary published on December 20, however, Richard Spencer took to YouTube not only to defend his mother, but to dismiss the online harassment of Whitefish’s Jews as mere “pixels” and “mean words.” His mother, meanwhile, he said, was threatened with deprivation of her livelihood, presumably by any potential exercise of the First Amendment by his opponents outside of his mother’s building. He also implied that he wasn’t much of a Whitefish presence. During a December 26 podcast interview with White supremacist leader David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Spencer said that while he spends “a lot of time” in Whitefish, “I do not do anything here that is political.” He also noted in the interview that he spends part of his time in a suburb of Washington, D.C. (On its website, NPI lists an Arlington, Virginia, post office box as its address. But just 10 days earlier, Spencer told The Missoulian that he was mulling a run for Congress for the Montana seat likely to be vacated by Ryan Zinke, who was tapped by Trump to lead the Department of the Interior.
During the interview with Duke, Spencer complained further of his mother’s treatment in Whitefish—at the hands, he implied, of the town’s Jewish community. In the interview, Duke urged Spencer to describe “the tribal nature of the vicious attack upon you… [by] those tribal racists who support the tribal ethno-state of Israel…”
“Certainly the chief leaders in this case against me were not only Jews,” Spencer replies, “but in many cases, literally rabbis.” (Leaders of Love Lives Here include two local rabbis, including one whose wife Spencer has described as “shockingly ugly.”)
When Duke suggests that the Jews of Whitefish are trying to deprive Spencer of his Montana home, Spencer concurs and responds, “I mean, I don’t want my daughter growing up in Washington, D.C., [for]…many reasons—but you can imagine one of the big ones.” (One assumes Spencer is referring to the fact that the population of the District of Columbia is nearly 50 percent Black.
Several newspapers in Montana have run editorials not only denouncing the hate being visited upon the Jews of Whitefish, but urging citizens to stand up against it by placing Hanukkah menorahs in their windows, even if they’re not Jewish. For those who didn’t have menorahs, The Missoulian and The Daily Inter Lake published downloadable posters featuring the image of menorah for readers to display.
The Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin doubled down, calling for 200 followers (including skinheads “bused in” from the Bay Area (Andrew Anglin, “Operation Whitefish: New List of Collaborators with Jew Racketeers – TAKE ACTION,”The Daily Stormer, December 22, 2016)) to muster for an armed march through Whitefish in mid-January. The march, he said, “will be against Jews, Jewish businesses and everyone who supports either”(Andrew Anglin, “Operation Whitefish: New List of Collaborators with Jew Racketeers – TAKE ACTION,”The Daily Stormer, December 22, 2016) unless opponents of the White nationalist and supremacist movements stop talking about the role of Spencer’s family in advancing his ideas.
If that seems like a contradiction—a proud White supremacist vowing to stage a threatening, and potentially violent, protest unless a historically victimized group promises to limit their own protests—it shouldn’t. In the worldview of many on the Right, the First Amendment protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution belong solely to adherents of right-wing tenets. For anyone else to claim the right to speak against them is an affront—an example of the victimization of the dominant class, the people on whom Far Right ideology confers the ownership of the nation. Those who resist that social order, who claim rights of their own, are labeled aggressors. With the Right’s assertion of victimhood comes the justification for extreme measures. It’s an old trick from the authoritarian’s bag. In Whitefish, Montana, the price of resistance to White nationalism grows ever higher, as the false victim-consciousness promoted by neonazis fans the flames of hatred.