Inside a beige meeting room at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the buttoned-down millennials, in their dark suits and ties, settled in for the long conference day ahead.
Like countless others who travel to Washington, they had come to position their interests at the forefront of the political agenda. Their sponsor had a wonky and nondescript name, National Policy Institute. They cradled cups of morning coffee.
But on closer look, this group Saturday was different: They were almost entirely young men, many sporting the same haircut of short sides and back with a familiar flop on top.
The agenda topics: “Trump and the New White Voter,” “America and the Jewish Consciousness,” “The Future of the Alt-Right.”
This was the white nationalist lobby — the alt-right — coming to town for a victory lap after Donald Trump’s election, assuming what they see as their rightful place influencing the new administration.
“An awakening among everyone has occurred with this Trump election,” Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist think tank, said during opening remarks. “We’re not quite the establishment now, but I think we should start acting like it.”
Several hundred pro-white nationalists showed up for the day-long confab, buoyed by Trump’s popularity and the role they now intend to play in bringing white identity politics to Washington.
Sitting around conference tables, the formally dressed men more resembled Washington lobbyists than the robed Ku Klux Klansmen or skinhead toughs that often represent white supremacists, though they share many familiar views.
This new generation is aiming to influence Washington in Washington’s own ways: churning out position papers, lobbying lawmakers and, and perhaps most importantly, removing the cloak of anonymity to fully join the national political conversation.
Heidi Beirich, who monitors hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said today’s nationalists are picking up where David Duke left off when the former Klan imperial wizard shed his robes to enter politics in the early 1980s.
“This is how you sneak these ideas into the mainstream,” she said. “The guys in the suits are the ones we have to worry about.”
Spencer looks like many young staffers on Capitol Hill. And Beirich noted that even the newer white nationalist label, alt-right, removes the reference to “white,” while positioning the nationalists on the “right” as part of the conservative movement.
“Beneath the benign-looking guy and the benign-sounding name, the purpose of the National Policy Institute is to push the idea that all men are created unequal,” Beirich said. “Sadly, in American history, there’s nothing new with that idea.”
Trump has said he “disavowed” support from white supremacists, but many in the alt-right believe his tough talk on immigrants and Muslims shows that their efforts to preserve a white majority in the United States are ready for a wider audience.
They were heartened by his selection of Breitbart News executive Stephen K. Bannon, who has called his site a platform for the alt-right.
“We are the epicenter of the right now in terms of intellect,” said 30-year-old Nathan Damigo of California. “We are the culture creators of the right.”
At Saturday’s event, organizers were holding an “ask us anything” news conference inside the Reagan building downtown as protesters filled the streets outside on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Vendors were hawking T-shirts and stickers as conferees milled about between sessions. A band was scheduled for entertainment. Hors d’oeuvres would be served before a social hour at a local bar — though some said they were accosted by protesters at a restaurant the night before.
As the up-and-coming intellectual voice of the movement, Spencer is credited with popularizing the term “alt-right.” Twitter banned his account and those of other leaders last week in a clampdown on hate speech.
A father who splits his time between his home in Montana and an office in the Washington suburbs, he organized the conference before Trump won the election.
But now, with Trump preparing for the White House, the National Policy Institute is planning to seize the opening with a series of policy papers on immigration, foreign and domestic policy to offer pro-white ideas.
The views span left and right. The group advocates paid family leave, for example, but also requiring immigrants in the country illegally to leave and giving preference to white arrivals from Europe.
“In terms of policy, Trump’s movement was a little bit half-baked,” Spencer said. “Moving forward, the alt-right as an intellectual vanguard can complete Trump.”