A network of podcasts, including one which featured former President Donald Trump’s eldest son as a guest in 2016, fueled the rise of one of the core leaders of the modern white nationalist movement.
Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist figurehead during the Trump era, was one of dozens of up-and-coming extremists who leveraged a network of far-right podcasts to mobilize followers and turn his movement into a household name. This movement, known as the so-called “alternative right” or “alt-right” for short, encompassed a loose set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals under the mantle of white supremacy. While early coverage of the alt-right emphasized its members’ and leaders’ fluency with internet culture – specifically forums and social media – the role of podcasts as a vehicle for propaganda and leadership development has not yet been examined.
The Southern Poverty Law Center analyzed Spencer’s breakthrough into the upper echelons of the white power movement through the lens of a web of 18 different podcasts popular with the extreme right between 2005 and 2020. The SPLC found that Spencer’s earliest efforts to market his movement to the broader extreme right were facilitated in large part by “The Political Cesspool” (TPC), a podcast and radio show hosted by longtime white nationalist propagandist James Edwards. Though the show has featured a variety of far-right extremists from the United States and abroad, Edwards has brushed shoulders with members of the more mainstream right, including Donald Trump Jr.
This is part two of the SPLC’s four-part report examining 15 years of podcasting data across 18 different shows produced by far-right extremists. While Spencer is but one of the 882 cast members who appeared on 4,046 different episodes of these shows, he figures prominently in the web of far-right extremist content makers.
Spencer’s role in the white power movement
Spencer emerged as one of the most prominent white nationalist figureheads during the flurry of extremist activity around the 2016 election, although his involvement in the white power movement extends well beyond the Trump era.
In 2008, Spencer began promoting the term “alternative right” while an editor at the paleoconservative online publication Taki’s Magazine. In December of that year, Taki’s published a speech from far-right political theorist Paul Gottfried outlining his vision for a new “independent intellectual Right.” Though the speech itself never used the term, it was key to Spencer's nascent movement.
In 2011, Spencer became president of the National Policy Institute, a think tank founded by William H. Regnery II, a mega-donor to various white nationalist outlets. Under Spencer’s tutelage, the National Policy Institute, dedicated to ensuring the “biological and cultural continuity” of white Americans, rebranded age-old racial bigotries for a younger generation of extremists. It did so through a variety of media, including blogs, journal articles and podcasts. NPI also held dozens of conferences with other white nationalist figureheads. In the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election, these gatherings drew scores of younger attendees, in part because the institute offered discounted admission for those under 30.
Likewise, Spencer was one of a core cadre of white nationalist organizers behind the flurry of far-right rallies in the first half of the Trump era. This included the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, which brought hundreds of white supremacists and other far-right extremists to Charlottesville, Virginia. The event devolved into violent skirmishes, culminating in the murder of antiracist activist Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields Jr. A few months later, at Spencer’s Oct. 19 appearance at the University of Florida as part of his brief college tour, three of his supporters were arrested on charges of attempted homicide for allegedly firing at protesters.
Today, he is one of over a dozen defendants named as organizers of “Unite the Right” in the Sines v. Kessler civil lawsuit. NPI has remained largely dormant in the years following the fracturing of the alt-right in 2018. Spencer made at least two attempts to launch new podcasts, including “The McSpencer Group” and “Radix Live,” named after one of NPI’s publications, Radix Journal.
Spencer’s breakthrough on ‘The Political Cesspool’
On Oct. 24, 2009, less than a year after beginning to promote the term “alternative right,” Spencer made his first appearance on “The Political Cesspool” (TPC), a podcast and radio show hosted by James Edwards. Over the course of Spencer’s next two dozen or so appearances on TPC, Edwards used his prominent platform within the broader far-right movement to promote Spencer as a core member of the white nationalist intelligentsia.
Edwards, a board member of the Council of Conservative Citizens and a principal member of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, started TPC in 2004 as a terrestrial radio show, though it has since branched out to internet broadcasting. TPC’s mission statement includes white nationalist rhetoric, claiming that it “stands for the Dispossessed Majority” and is “pro-White.”
As part of TPC’s five-year anniversary special, Spencer appeared alongside Paul Gottfried to discuss “the failure of the conservative movement.” Edwards introduced Spencer as the “Managing Editor of TakiMag.com” and an “intellectual heavyweight.” Within the first ten minutes of the interview, Spencer began promoting his vision for a new far-right movement.
“We’ve got to find a new tactic that isn’t just about kicking the neoconservatives out of the [conservative] movement. I don’t think that’s possible or desirable. We’ve got to find a new right wing,” he said during the interview. Spencer added that he had begun to refer to this movement as the “alternative right,” “a collection of different groups or individuals who are basically not falling into that lesser-of-two-evils logic” that he claimed was used by some far-right extremists to justify voting for Republican candidates such as the late John McCain.
The discussion was notable in two regards. First, Spencer’s efforts to introduce the “alternative right” as a concept to TPC listeners came long before the term had begun to take root among far-right extremists. Spencer’s TPC appearance came less than a year after Gottfried presented his vision for a nationalist, populist right-wing in a speech at the H.L. Mencken Club. Spencer published Gottfried’s speech on Taki’s Magazine’s website, under the title “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” in December 2009. The term stuck, and over the course of the next year, Taki’s Magazine, under Spencer’s editorship, would publish several articles laying the groundwork for this “alternative right.”
Second, Spencer’s appearance on TPC allowed him to reach a broader constituency within the far right. Edwards, a Tennessee resident, had long tailored the show for a Southern white nationalist and neo-Confederate audience – two audiences that would become crucial partners for Spencer and other organizers during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. Throughout the episode, both Edwards and Spencer urged far-right activists to come together, with Edwards emphasizing that their “survival depended on it.” Likewise, throughout the segment, Spencer and, later, Gottfried sought to draw listeners to their causes. Spencer, Gottfried and Edwards encouraged listeners to attend the H.L. Mencken Club’s second annual meetup.
Spencer’s subsequent appearances on ‘The Political Cesspool’
Between 2009 and 2020, Spencer appeared another 29 times on TPC broadcasts. The bibliographical details of each appearance provide a timeline for his development as a white nationalist leader, as well as for the alt-right’s rise.
- Six months after his appearance in October 2009, he was invited back – this time hawking his new blog, AlternativeRight.com. Edwards re-introduced him to TPC listeners as the “Executive Editor of Alternative Right, a trendy new paleoconservative website that features a wide variety of intellectual writings from some of the greatest minds you'll find today.”
- In late 2010, TPC nodded to Spencer’s past career in more mainstream right-wing media. Spencer, Edwards said, was the “former editor of the American Conservative magazine and is the founder of AlternativeRight.com.” (Spencer worked at the American Conservative, a paleoconservative magazine, briefly as an assistant editor after dropping out of his doctoral program at Duke University in 2007.) By 2011, TPC described him as the founder and co-editor of Alternative Right and Executive Director of the National Policy Institute.
- In 2012 Spencer added “Executive Director of Washington Summit Publishers” to his resume.
- By 2014, he became “President of the National Policy Institute” and “founder and editor of Radix Journal.”
- After Hungarian police detained Spencer in October 2014 during NPI’s disastrous attempt to hold a conference in Budapest, he was described on TPC as an “international thought criminal and free speech martyr.”
- In 2015, TPC highlighted his educational achievement as “a doctoral student at Duke University before dropping out to pursue a life of thought-crime.” By 2018, this had softened to “he was a doctoral student at Duke University before becoming a journalist.”
Most of Spencer’s 30 appearances on “The Political Cesspool” pre-date his notoriety in the popular press by several years. Through “The Political Cesspool,” he was able to use the airtime to establish himself as an intellectual leader within the broader extreme right, while also drawing listeners deeper into the world of far-right activism through attendance at in-person events. Spencer continued to organize, promote and attend white nationalist meetups and conferences, including infamously in 2016 when he catapulted into the public eye after yelling “Hail Trump!” and “Hail victory!” – an English translation of the Nazi chant “Sieg Heil” – during an event in Washington, D.C.
During this time, too, Spencer’s appearances on the show coincided with a range of notable guests. Representatives from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white nationalist group with roots in the efforts to oppose school desegregation in the 1950s, were frequent guests, joining Edwards’ show some 58 times between 2005 and 2020. It also featured a variety of racist thinkers who figured into the alt-right’s growth during the 2016 election. These included Jared Taylor, editor of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance, who appeared on the show 52 times during this period; Sam Dickson, a former lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan who appeared 36 times; and Kevin MacDonald, a retired university professor and author of several antisemitic tomes. MacDonald appeared 35 times. Many of these figures had, like Spencer, nurtured a deliberately more mainstream image to hide their extremist views.
But Edwards also hosted politicians, from the United States and abroad. In 2012, Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, went on the show to discuss troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. (He later claimed he was unaware of the show’s political leanings.) Rep. Nick Griffin, of the far-right British National Party, made multiple appearances on the show, joining Edwards’ program five times. Finally, Edwards interviewed Donald Trump Jr. in March 2016 on a sister program, “Liberty Roundtable.” There, the two disparaged immigrants, particularly undocumented ones. Trump Jr. later claimed Edwards was “brought into the interview without my knowledge.”
Growing the alt-right
While Spencer continued to appear on “The Political Cesspool” throughout the 2010s, an array of newer white nationalist podcasts provided him a variety of different platforms from which to promote and grow the alt-right. These shows, many of which were produced by and for a younger generation of white supremacists, tended to appeal to a younger, more digitally savvy, audience.
Spencer became a regular fixture on The Right Stuff podcasting circuit in fall of 2015. On Oct. 13, 2015, Spencer joined “The Daily Shoah” for the first time. The show was recorded in the runup to NPI’s annual conference, held around Halloween of that year. It included a brief promotional segment, dubbed the “NPI Conference Haircut Contest,” where Spencer judged TRS listeners’ undercuts – a type of hairstyle where the sides of the head are shaved or buzzed, and the top is left at a longer length. NPI awarded the winner a free ticket to its annual conference, held that year in Philadelphia.
After this initial appearance on “The Daily Shoah,” Spencer’s involvement with other shows in the podcast network grew. While Spencer appeared on 95 episodes of nine different podcasts from 2009–20, his appearances on five of these nine shows coincided with an upswing in street mobilization between 2016 and 2018 by far-right extremists throughout the country. Spencer used many of these appearances to either promote future events or shape the narrative after a high-profile event, such as “Unite the Right” or press conferences.
Some of these discussions brought together other prominent organizers as well. The diagram below shows Spencer's diverse set of co-appearances with dozens of cast members from multiple podcasts over an 11-year period, from 2009 to 2020.
In 2016, Spencer appeared with Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer on an episode of “Between Two Lampshades” – a spin-off of “The Daily Shoah,” named after the Zach Galifianakis talk show “Between Two Ferns” – to promote a speaking engagement at Texas A&M University. Following the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, Spencer joined two TRS podcasts to break down what happened in Charlottesville. In an episode posted Aug. 13, 2017, Spencer joined Matthew Gebert, then a State Department official and TRS organizer known in white supremacist circles as “Coach Finstock”; fellow “Unite the Right” organizer Elliott Kline, who used pseudonym “Eli Mosley”; and the rest of usual cast of “The Daily Shoah” to unpack what happened at “Unite the Right.” A few weeks later, on Aug. 21, 2017, Spencer joined the “Fash the Nation” podcast, along with “Third Rail” host Norman Asa Garrison III. In the first 10 minutes of the two-hour episode, Spencer and Garrison sought to shift the blame for the violence at “Unite the Right” from the far right to antiracist protesters.
Spencer’s extensive cooperation with other prominent alt-right podcasts declined in the aftermath of “Unite the Right.” In 2019, he launched “The McSpencer Group,” a podcast and talk show. While the show has managed to attract a small number of rotating cast members, Spencer himself has appeared on just two other podcasts in the SPLC’s data set between 2019 and 2020, signifying a retrenchment back into his own work and away from other figures in the movement.