A Montana town reflects on its effort to drive former President Donald J. Trump's extremist supporters back to the fringes.
Richard Spencer, the most infamous summer resident in the town of Whitefish, Montana, once boasted that he stood at the vanguard of a white nationalist movement emboldened by President Donald Trump. Things have changed.
"I have bumped into him, and he runs. That's actually a really good feeling," said Tanya Gersh, a real estate agent targeted in an antisemitic hate campaign that Andrew Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, unleashed in 2016 after Spencer's mother made online accusations against Gersh.
Leaders in Whitefish say Spencer, who once ran his National Policy Institute from his mother's US$3 million summer house in Whitefish, is now an outcast in this resort town in the Rocky Mountains, unable to get a table at many of its restaurants. His organisation has dissolved. Meanwhile, his wife has divorced him, and he is facing a trial next month in Charlottesville, Virginia, over his role in the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi march there but said he cannot afford a lawyer.
The turn of events is no accident. Whitefish, a mostly liberal, affluent community nestled in a county that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, rose up and struck back. Residents who joined with state officials, human rights groups and synagogues said their bipartisan counteroffensive could hold lessons for others in an era of disinformation and intimidation, and in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot.
"The best way to respond to hate and cyberterrorism in your community is through solidarity," said Rabbi Francine Green Roston of the Glacier Jewish Community/B'nai Shalom, who now lectures other groups on how to ward off hate campaigns like the one Whitefish endured. "Another big principle is to take threats seriously and prepare for the worst."
Mayor John Muhlfeld agreed. "You have to act swiftly and decisively and come together as a community to tackle hate and make sure it doesn't infiltrate your town," he said.
On Saturday, Spencer said he kept a "very low profile" in Whitefish, and though he had been denied service in local establishments in the past, "I don't have any anxiety dealing with anyone." He said he does not run from Gersh and understood why people would be angry with him.
"I don't want any battles with them here in Whitefish," he said, "and I hope they take a similar attitude, that it's best to move on." His mother, Sherry Spencer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Advice and an accusation
The trouble in Whitefish started after Trump's victory in the 2016 election that November. Spencer, who had called his white nationalist movement a "vanguard" for Trump, delivered a racially charged speech at his institute's conference in Washington, his words greeted by Nazi salutes. Video of the address went viral. In Whitefish, residents discussed protesting in front of a downtown commercial building owned by Spencer's mother.
Gersh said Sherry Spencer called her.
"She flat-out asked me, 'Tanya, I don't believe in my son's ideology. I'm heartbroken that this is hurting Whitefish. What should I do?'" Gersh recalled over coffee in her office downtown.
"I said, 'Sherry, if this were my son, I would go ahead and sell the building. I would donate some money to something like the Human Rights Network to make a statement and publish that you don't believe in the ideologies of your son.' And she said, 'Thank you, Tanya. That's exactly what I should do.'"
Gersh said she arranged to sell the property without making any profit. But a short time later, she said, Sherry Spencer sent an email saying she had changed her mind about working with Gersh, who then supplied names of other real estate agents.
Two weeks later, in December 2016, Sherry Spencer posted an article on the open publishing platform Medium accusing Gersh of using the threat of protests to blackmail her into selling. Richard Spencer said Saturday that he and his former wife had written the article published under his mother's name. He repeated their claims against Gersh, adding that she called his mother, not the other way around. The Spencers' accusations quickly reverberated among the far right. Anglin of the Daily Stormer exhorted his "fam" online to "TAKE ACTION" to defend Sherry Spencer.
He shared personal information and the social media accounts of Gersh and her family, including her son, then 12. A post in which Anglin encouraged his followers to "stop by and tell her in person what you think of her actions" was the first of some 30 articles he published targeting the Gersh family and the Jewish community in Whitefish, according to a lawsuit Gersh filed in 2017 against Anglin in US District Court in Montana.
Gersh received hundreds of text messages, emails and Christmas cards threatening her. Her voicemail filled up several times a day. Hateful comments about Gersh appeared on real estate websites. Homeowners were afraid to list with her.
The campaign swept in Roston, another area rabbi and his wife, and any Whitefish residents and business owners the trolls believed were Jewish.
At one point, Roston realized one of the anonymous antagonists was the father of her son's best friend. Her family did not confront the man, who has since moved away. "He had a lot of guns," she said.
Anglin next announced a march on Whitefish, planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2017. An ad for the event depicted the gates of the Auschwitz death camp with photos of Gersh, her son, Roston and the other rabbi's wife superimposed.
The march was planned to end at the Gersh home.
'A full plan in place'
Whitefish and Montana mobilised.
Montana's governor, attorney general and congressional delegation issued a bipartisan open letter, making clear "that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation." The governor at the time, Steve Bullock, wrote editorials condemning the antisemitic campaign and met with the families in Roston's home.
As tensions rose in Whitefish, Richard Spencer and his parents made public statements distancing themselves from the march and from Anglin. Behind the scenes, police and federal authorities readied themselves for a potentially violent event.
Muhlfeld, the mayor, said that the town had not refused Anglin a special event permit, but that Anglin had not met the town's conditions, including a prohibition on firearms.
"If you asked, 'Do you think they're going to show up?' they were like, 'Nah,' but they had a full plan in place," Roston said. "If you look at January 6, the quickness with which people wrote off threats was dangerous."
The Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center and Secure Community Network, the official safety and security organization of the North American Jewish community, advised residents on what to do.
As a result, Gersh did not speak publicly about her ordeal at the time. Roston kept a low profile, discouraging coverage in the Jewish news media to protect the congregation and avoid giving attackers the attention they craved. The congregation did not cancel its Hanukkah party in December 2016 but moved it from the rabbi's home to the conference room of a motel, with two armed security guards at the door. On each table, the rabbi placed a pile of supportive letters that had arrived from around the nation.
Volunteers distributed thousands of paper menorahs. "There were menorahs in every window in Whitefish," Gersh said. An anti-hate rally drew 600 participants in zero-degree weather. On the eve of the neo-Nazi march, Roston organised a chicken and matzo ball soup get-together for 350 people at the middle school in Whitefish, in a demonstration of unity and appreciation.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day — Monday, Jan. 16 — not a single neo-Nazi turned up to march. "We could say they chickened out," Roston joked.
In April, Gersh, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed suit against Anglin for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of Montana's Anti-Intimidation Act. In 2019, she won US$14 million in damages. A team of lawyers is still searching for Anglin and his assets.
The trial in the Charlottesville case, Sines v. Kessler, begins October 25. A group of victims and counterprotesters filed suit against Anglin as well as Richard Spencer, along with nearly two dozen people and groups involved in the "Unite the Right" rally, after a neo-Nazi at the Charlottesville march ploughed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring at least 19 others.
Richard Spencer's lawyer withdrew from the case last year because he had not been paid. "Due to deplatforming efforts against me, it is very difficult for me to raise money as other citizens are able to," Spencer told the judge in a pretrial hearing in 2020. He is now representing himself.
As the trial approaches, the case has generated a number of contempt-related fines and sanctions against the defendants.
"After four years of so little accountability, it's important to make clear that accountability matters and it works," said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit group that brought the lawsuit.
Separately, in May, a federal judge in Ohio ordered Spencer's National Policy Institute to pay US$2.4 million to William Burke, a counterprotester severely injured in Charlottesville.
Muhlfeld said he had last seen Richard Spencer in 2019, skiing at the mountain resort. "He walked into the Summit House and summarily was booed by pretty much everyone," Muhlfeld said, referring to a restaurant there.
"Richard Spencer wanted this to be his happy vacation place where he could play and have fun, and people would just live and let live," Roston said. "Then he started suffering social consequences for his hatred."
Gersh said that she had been afraid to work again after Richard Spencer's hate campaign but that after Charlottesville, "I knew that I had to go back to work because if I didn't, they win."
She keeps a photo of Heyer on her desk and bear spray in its drawer.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Elizabeth Williamson
Photographs by: Tailyr Irvine
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