While a lot of ink has been spilled about the “fall of the ‘alt-right’” after the “Unite the Right” catastrophe in 2017, organized white nationalism’s recent decline may ultimately prove to be only a temporary setback. The “alt-right” (white nationalist) movement in the U.S. has been punctuated by starts and stops, and fascist thought leaders like Richard Spencer have always found ways back into the limelight to attract a new crowd of followers.
Spencer is now attempting to do just that by trying to launch a new donation subscription effort through the Russian crowdfunding service SubscribeStar, an alternative to the Patreon donation platform that turns a profit by charging subscribers a flat service fee of 5 percent on every pledge. (SubscribeStar is incorporated domestically in Wyoming, reporting at The Daily Beast and the Financial Times traces its Russian origins.) While Spencer has said he planned to offer some minor exclusive content for SubscribeStar followers, he is using the service mainly just as a platform to receive recurring donations while continuing his main work: hosting roundtable discussions on YouTube covering everything from politics to movies.
“It is a free speech platform. It’s solid…. This is what we’re going to be using for the foreseeable future,” Spencer said about SubscribeStar in an April 9 livestream on the Radix Journal YouTube channel. Patreon had received a flock of racist internet personalities looking to raise money but effectively shuttered those accounts (along with a number of left-wing accounts) in an effort to combat “extremism.”
After almost three years of deplatforming since the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally, the alt-right’s main recruitment tools have disappeared. Their podcasts, blogs and videos were the primary way they gained outreach, and their central funding came from small donations though platforms like PayPal. Those funding sources, however, were eliminated when tech companies started pulling accounts. Anti-fascists piled on, pressuring employers, landlords and public venues to likewise sever relationships with far right figures. Spencer himself has even admitted that this kind of deplatforming worked, and that “antifa has won.” He and his National Policy Institute and Radix brands have been looking for a way back ever since.
Now they may have found it. Spencer tried using SubscribeStar not simply as a way of making money by creating a “paywall” that forces viewers to pay for access, but also as a way to maintain a presence on platforms like YouTube, where he gets a much wider reach. The subscription service allows his supporters to create a stable funding stream for him to continue broadcasting. Spencer often combines his YouTube livestreams with Entropy, another platform that helps monetize content by hosting live chats, helping Spencer attract a loyal audience who maintain an ongoing connection with him and his brand.
“Joining us on SubscribeStar is fundamentally about supporting us…. It’s not about creating some choir that we preach to, or creating a clique or anything like that…. This is how we get our support,” Spencer said during the April 9 Radix livestream.
Other alt-right figures have taken a different approach after being deplatformed. For instance, The Right Stuff, the network that was the home of the vulgar neo-Nazi podcast “The Daily Shoah,” has created a paywall where hosts now make a living by essentially preaching to the already converted. They doubled down on their jargon and racist rhetoric rather than trying to maintain a presence on platforms that would kick them off for violating their terms. By contrast, Spencer has avoided racial slurs and combative appearances in order to fly under the radar of YouTube’s censors.
Radix Journal essentially stopped publishing two years ago, until recently, and Spencer went almost quiet, doing little more than a YouTube show. He now says he hopes to return to this work after dealing with the turmoil of his divorce and ex-wife’s accusations of his domestic violence. He is looking to build a more professional studio for video production and is focusing on releasing white nationalist books through his publishing company, Washington Summit Publishers.
While the far right is currently focusing on books as a way of adding substantial depth to their movement, Spencer has acknowledged that it is actually platforms like YouTube that offer the best possible access to new recruits.
Even while Spencer remains deplatformed on some social media, his Twitter and YouTube accounts have stayed alive. He claims that around 35,000 people watch at least four of his YouTube videos a month — not an insubstantial number and one that could not be replicated on alt-right friendly video platforms like BitChute. While Spencer depends on this content stream for viewers, one of his fundraising goals is to build a web platform where he can control all of the content and not rely on any third-party hosting company, such as he does with YouTube or other website hosting services. He is already talking to developers to do just that. Such a scenario would put his content out of the reach of gatekeepers who have responded to anti-fascist activism by pulling far right figures from using their platforms.
“I think what [Spencer] accomplished in 2016 was only possible with the complicity of major platforms like Soundcloud and YouTube, as well as Twitter,” says Alexander Reid Ross, a researcher who tracks white nationalism.
SubscribeStar seems intent on making itself the primary platform of those shuttered by other payment platforms, similar to the platform Gab’s relationship to Twitter, or BitChute’s clone of YouTube. While SubscribeStar has made a name for itself by promising not to interfere with creators’ content, there has been concern from some SubscribeStar users that they may end up responding to complaints from outside parties.
Moreover, the platform hasn’t gone without pushback. PayPal stopped business in 2018 with SubscribeStar when the company touted far right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Sargon of Akkad as among its new clients. SubscribeStar said in a statement to Truthout that there is no longer a SubscribeStar account associated with Milo Yiannopoulos.
If Spencer is able to create a reliable funding platform, he will be able to return to a more stable content production pattern than he had been able to achieve over the past two years. This could revive his white supremacist think tank and lobby group, the National Policy Institute, particularly if enough capital is generated to create his own insulated series of platforms. He still has to rely on the “open internet” and social media accounts for a network effect, which means that he will continue to be vulnerable to anti-fascist activists who pressure companies to avoid working with white nationalists.
“Anti-fascists deplatformed Spencer from his old payment processors, and we’ll do the same with the new ones. SubscribeStar has been historically willing to work with white nationalists, like the American Identity Movement’s Patrick Casey, but no tech service exists independently,” says an anti-fascist organizer who has worked to deplatform fascists and who goes by the moniker AntiFashGordon. “SubscribeStar relies on a plethora of other services — web hosting companies, financial payment processors, etc. — to do business. If they’re going to persist in making hate profitable, we can pressure companies not to do business with SubscribeStar.”
In recent months, Spencer pulled away all his previous support for President Donald Trump, who he was vocally supportive of in the 2016 election. Now with a heated presidential bid coming up amid the pandemic, it is likely that angry populist rhetoric from the Trump reelection campaign could help to mobilize far right parts of his base and allow the alt-right a more productive climate to recruit from.
“[Spencer] has been thoroughly disgraced in the U.S., even on the far right, as a known wife beater and charlatan. However, a second Trump term would deflate the liberal movement in the U.S. significantly and empower sociocultural positions of patriarchy in the U.S., which would erode general standards of human decency amid serious economic turmoil,” says Reid Ross. “The White House is always the site of important hegemonic interplays and struggles, and an emboldened Trump in 2021 would have few restraints in retaliating against his political opponents and supporting the white nationalist elements in his administration. This would certainly lead to the elevation of far right politics worldwide.”
The potential for Spencer’s return depends on a lot of factors external to his control but can still be influenced by how community organizations and company officials want to handle his attempt to gain a new following.
Note: Some small clarifications have been made to the text of this article to clarify that while SubscribeStar has Russian origins, it is officially incorporated domestically in Wyoming, and that PayPal stopped business with SubscribeStar in 2018. A correction was also made to indicate that SubscribeStar charges subscribers 5 percent rather than 5 cents per transaction.