So “Hurricane Spencer” turned out to be a Category Zero.
Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who reveled in the notoriety he created by speaking at the University of Florida last week, craved the dread he had created in the state.
Gov. Rick Scott had issued a state of emergency days before his speech. Security costs for this exercise in free speech were predicted to be $600,000.
Spencer embraced the attention, retweeting photoshopped illustrations of himself barrelling to Florida inside a funnel cloud with the caption, “Hurricane Spencer.”
But any self-respecting hurricane needs a reservoir of warm ocean water to feed it. It can’t sustain itself without that broad base of support. Without it, those powerful winds quickly fizzle.
And that’s what happened in Gainesville. Spencer imagined himself roaring into town and leaving his mark. But what he ended up doing was fizzling right there on the stage.
Because in that big auditorium around him, he couldn’t muster enough admirers to make a respectable showing. He had entered a high-pressure area with significant wind shear.
Nearly everybody in that room and the thousands in the streets outside were just there to deliver one message, “Go home, Spencer! Go home, Spencer!” They shouted it over and over again, standing and with fists raised.
“Well, I’m not going home,” Spencer said from the stage, as the chants continued to drown him out, “so I think it’s probably in your interest to sit down and allow me to speak, and then we’ll have a conversation afterward. What do you think of that?”
Not much. They kept shouting. He was quickly becoming a tropical depression. So he gave up the idea of giving a speech, and resorted to taking questions from the audience. That didn’t stop the chanting either.
This approach may seem to be effective. But there’s a downside to it. By drowning him out, Spencer can try to turn himself into a kind of free speech martyr, somebody who is being treated unfairly by the mob.
Which he did on Thursday.
“Do you think this is going to be read as ‘great victory for U of F’?” he told the jeering audience. “No, it’s going to be read as the University of Florida is filled with child-like antifa, who shout at people as opposed to talking to them.”
So it probably would have been more effective if all those protesters didn’t even bother showing up in the same room with him. Just leave Spencer in the auditorium with a few dozen of his people — a sorry sample of an alleged master race — and more than 1,500 empty seats.
They could all discuss their racist dreams of a white ethno-state in a big empty room.
Because there is no “conversation” worth having about white-nationalism in America. There’s no talking to them. There is no question-and-answer period worth participating in, even if it’s just to heckle it.
Rebranding old-fashioned Nazi ideals in the deceptive wrapping of white pride doesn’t eliminate the rotten core of what it is. It’s like trying to make pedophiles acceptable by calling them “minor-appreciative persons.”
And giving white supremacists a seat at the table of ideas is to confer a level of legitimacy it aspires to, but doesn’t deserve.
So it would have been more crushing to Spencer to look out from the stage and see that vast plain of empty seats. It would have been a visual confirmation of just how alt-light his alt-right really is.
His right to free speech would have been met with the vast majority’s right to free assembly out of his earshot.
Guys like Spencer count on being notorious. They’re looking to be taken seriously.
They don’t mind being states of emergency. They do mind being irrelevant laughingstocks.
And they were Thursday. There were so few of them that police had to keep them from getting hurt by the crush of protesters around them.
In the only serious incident of the day, three of Spencer’s followers, all from Texas, got charged with attempted homicide after one of them fired a shot at a group of protesters whom they taunted with “Heil Hitler” chants. The bullet missed.
Nobody died. Gainesville was luckier than Charlottesville, Virginia.
And now, Spencer will blow into some other college town and try it all again.
But we’ve got his number in Florida, where he’s not much of a hurricane.