The Sanctifying Language of the Alt-Right

In November 2016, Richard Spencer’s public profile took on a new degree of notoriety when The Atlantic released video of a speech he gave at the annual conference of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank then under Spencer’s leadership. The comment that yielded the most headlines came at the end when he cried out “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” as he raised a cocktail glass with a straight arm at a high angle to a cheering audience and at least a few Nazi salutes.

The phrase hail victory is, of course, historically linked to that gesture insofar as it is a translation of the German Sieg heil. That pairing of signs – one verbal and one corporeal – was also commonplace among alt-right participants. In a previously recorded deposition that was presented during the Sines trial, former Identity Evropa member Samantha Froelich was asked if she had heard “either Sieg heil or hail victory discussed within the alt-right.” She answered, “yes, at every social event I went to, that was said” and explained that it was associated with “the Roman or Nazi salute.” She even described a joke that was passed around among Identity Evropa members “where you would ask if you’ve seen my friend Kyle. ‘Did you see Kyle?’ Sieg heil? I hope you understand the wordplay here. And then you would do the Sieg heil and say, ‘Oh, he’s right over there’ and point your finger. ‘He’s about this tall’ [indicating a Nazi salute] and that was – that was the joke, is that you’re Sieg heil-ing in plain day.”

The English phrase “hail victory” is littered throughout the evidence presented in the Sines case. League of the South leader Michael Hill and former National Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep often included it when signing off at the ends of emails and it is scattered across the comments on the Discord servers used to plan Unite the Right.

Hailing and Personality Cults

Alt-right activists hailed not only the abstract concept of “victory,” but their various chosen Leaders as well. One video presented at trial showed Spencer arriving in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park on the morning of August 12, 2017 amid sporadic shouts of “Hail Spencer!” Questioned about this kind of language during the trial, Matthew Heimbach noted that members of his own Traditionalist Workers Party sometimes greeted him with “Hail Heimbach!”

Image from a video shot at an after-party following an alt-right march and rally in Charlottesville, VA in May 2017, three months before Unite the Right. Richard Spencer is at the center, wearing a blazer and giving the Nazi salute (as are most people in this video). Matthew Heimbach is in the background on the right wearing a white shirt.

In German-Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer’s 1947 book LTI (an acronym for Lingua Tertii Imperii, a Latin term he invented meaning Language of the Third Reich), Klemperer repeatedly comes back to the religious fervor that the Nazis courted in their public demonstrations. He frequently uses words like redeemer or savior (Heiland, Erlöser) to described how people viewed Hitler. And, of course, he links that perception to the language they used, like their constant use of the words Fanatiker (fanatic) and fanatisch (fanatical) as things to aspire to, rather than pejoratives. There should be little doubt that the frequent, mandatory use of the phrase Heil Hitler – and only Hitler – was one element in a panoply of devices that set him apart from and elevated him above the rest of the population of Germany and beyond.

With that in mind, one thing that the use of “Hail Spencer!” or “Hail Heimbach!” highlights is the fanatical, cult-like adulation movement participants had for their Leaders at the time. In her deposition, Froelich said of Spencer that “he told me that this was the closest thing to being like L. Ron Hubbard and creating his own religion that he was going to get. He … bragged about the fact that people saw him as a god, that young men worshiped him, that women wanted him romantically or sexually or whatever.”

However, with that adulation come the inevitable rivalries that emerge when an array of different personality cults pursue similar objectives and overlapping constituencies. In this case, most of the Sines defendants were explicitly bent on establishing a white ethnostate in North America. A territory like that would necessarily require strict regulation of political participation, forced removal of anyone officially deemed insufficiently “white,” and explicit, rigid gender and reproductive roles. After all, repopulating an ostensibly endangered, genetically discrete populace was their own stated goal and their ideal of “traditional” family life permits very little deviation.

Such deeply authoritarian forms of social organization tend to invest a great deal of power in a highly centralized body or an individual and, to put it bluntly, a Spencer and a Heimbach could not act as Leader of the same personality cult simultaneously. Someone would have to step aside, be co-opted, or be eliminated (history provides examples like the German National People’s Party and, obviously, the Night of the Long Knives – nobody hates a fascist like other fascists).

Invoking God’s Will

Another indication of the modern far right’s sanctified vision of its own inevitable victory is the widespread use of the Latin phrase Deus vult. Commonly associated with the Crusades, the phrase means “God wills it” and it implied divine provenance for the Latin Church’s military assault on the Holy Land.

Some 900 years or so later, present-day white nationalism has long seized upon historical justifications for colonialism that ascribe a “civilizing” effect to Christianity – a notion that first slipped beyond European shores with the Crusades (it should nonetheless be noted that the Christian-pagan divide is a fairly significant point of discord between different strains of white nationalism). It therefore makes perfect sense that a movement that seeks to establish a separatist ethnostate would utilize a battle cry that was first popularized in the course of the First Crusade.

A comparatively tame “Deus vult” meme of the kind that was widely propagated during the heyday of the alt-right.

The phrase Deus vult became a popular subject for white nationalist memes in the mid-2010s, usually in conjunction with images of a helmeted crusader. These images expressed the flippantly xenophobic (and often specifically Islamophobic) ethno-separatist urge within the alt-right movement. However, it has also been adopted by Sines defendants the League of the South (LOS), a Southern nationalist organization that cultivates neo-Confederate separatist ambitions, but has never considered itself part of the alt-right.

On September 1, 2017, LOS member J.C. Adams submitted a “Unite the Right After-Action Report” to the organization’s leader Michael Hill “in hopes that it will improve future operations” conducted by LOS. Adams did not specify just what kinds of operations he had in mind, but he concluded his report by writing “It is an honor to be a member of the League of the South and an honor to stand with my new found tribe against the forces that seek to erase us. Till the end! DEUS VULT!”

While not as old as “Deus vult,” the notion of a racialized “tribe” fighting against its own erasure can be traced at least as far back as late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century French nationalist novelist Maurice Barrès. However, in more recent decades, it was taken up in the mid-1990s by the late neo-Nazi terrorist David Lane in the form of “white genocide” theory and then again in the early 2010s by French nationalist Renaud Camus as “great replacement” theory.

It is this rhetoric of impending erasure/genocide/replacement that justifies the ongoing demand for a white ethnostate – a new promised land, where whiteness could proliferate free from the influence of any non-white people. It justifies the idea of carving out territory and taking it from the people who are already there. As Spencer said that evening in 2016, “to be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conquerer.” If “God wills it,” who are any of us to say otherwise?

Finally, it is noteworthy that, unlike Sieg heil and heil [name], Deus vult is never translated. It doesn’t need to be. Its meaning is sufficiently obscured by time that its baggage is unlikely to be apparent to the casual observer. By contrast, the historical caché of Sieg heil is only obscured when it is translated. In all of these cases, obscurity to all but the movement’s initiates is the point. It is part of how a constellation of terms helps shape a worldview in which eliminationist ambitions seem reasonable and even desirable to participants. And that, in turn, is how words turn into violent action.