Libertarians and conservatives have always admired H. L. Mencken, the 20th century journalist and satirist famous for his literary and political commentary. Now the Baltimore author and editor, whose heydey lasted from the 1920s to the late 1940s, has become a hero to the alt-right, who have cherry-picked his views to support their white supremacist vision. For white nationalist leader Richard Spencer and fellow enthusiasts, Mencken embodies "worthy ideals," namely, a questioning of "the egalitarian creed, democratic crusades, and welfare statism" that American democracy has become since the New Deal. Such is the essence of humor: It is hard to believe that Mencken would have ever given his worshippers the time of day.
Animated by Mencken's prose, Spencer and his colleagues inaugurated the Mencken Club in November 2008, with the aim of "building an independent intellectual right" to resist "the left-wing takeover of our society" which conservatives seem not to oppose. "Like Mencken," they declared, "our enemies are ignorance [and] wishful thinking."
Why did Mencken become catnip to the alt-right? They seem to be attracted to the author's isolationist views during both World Wars and his opposition to the New Deal, which Mencken called "the most stupendous dysgentic enterprise ever undertaken by man" and one that had "only one new and genuinely novel idea: whatever A earns really belongs to B. A is any honest industrious man or woman; B is any drone or jackass." For Mencken, Roosevelt's "Forgotten Man" was not some poor fish requiring charity; the truly forgotten man was the self-reliant American who paid his bills.
Unlike the Mencken Society—a scholarly organization founded in 1976 in Baltimore that hosts talks on Mencken's life and works by such luminaries as the late Christopher Hitchens, Arnold Rampersad, and Alfred Kazin—the Mencken Club holds pseudo-academic conferences ranging in themes as "The West: Is It Dead Yet?" or "The Right Revisited." In 2016, the club focused on the populism of Donald Trump and the preservation of white Christian heritage through anti-immigration policies. White House speechwriter Darren Beattie spoke to members alongside Peter Brimelow, white nationalist and founder of the anti-immigrant website Vdare.com—a gig that ultimately cost Beattie his job.
Speakers rarely mention Mencken's name at their meetings, except for random recitals from Chrestomathy or his earliest works: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), whom the alt-right see as a great visionary, and from Men Versus the Man: A Correspondence between Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H. L. Mencken, Individualist (1910), an epistolary debate where Mencken explores Social Darwinism, eugenics, heredity, and race. In the most offensive passage, Mencken defines "the American negro" as "a low-caste man," and that the "superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him." In its podcast, club members touted Men Versus the Man as "a fun book" and asserted "race realists, anti-globalists, educational reductionists and immigration restrictionists can draw nourishment from Mencken…and his disdain for the low-caste man."
In reality, Mencken would have shunned the white identity politics of the alt-right. To Mencken, Nietzsche's "superior man" was the enlightened individual of honor and courage, regardless of race, creed, or social background. Soon after 1910, Mencken reversed his views of white superiority and began calling for civil rights for African Americans. Despite the fact that his Diary contains racial slurs and ethnic slang, Mencken rebelled against "the Aryan imbecilities of Hitler" and stated: "To me personally, race prejudice is one of the most preposterous of all the imbecilities of mankind. There are so few people on earth worth knowing that I hate to think of any man I like as a German or a Frenchman, a gentile or a Jew, Negro or a white man."
He was especially contemptuous of white Anglo-Saxon Southerners, describing them as "shiftless [and] stupid," and extolled African Americans as "superior to the whites against whom they are commonly pitted." Unique for the mid-1900s and into the '20s and '30s, he collaborated with black intellectuals and was the first white editor to publish their work in his magazine, The American Mercury, and energetically promoted their writings in his books and columns and to his publisher Alfred Knopf. He was relentless in his campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan, and he joined forces with the NAACP to testify against lynching before the U.S. Congress. He repeatedly wrote against segregation; behind the scenes he discussed strategies with African-American leaders to promote civil rights.
Living in a port city, Mencken refused "to fall into the sentimental fallacy that all immigrants are worthy of pity." Nonetheless, he consistently praised their many contributions to American culture, and battled against their deportation: "What becomes of the old notion that the United States is a free country, that it is a refuge for the oppressed of other lands?" During the 1930s, in a departure from popular opinion, including that of fellow journalist Walter Lippmann, Mencken argued for the admission of Jewish refugees into the country and personally sponsored a Jewish family's emigration to the United States.
When, in 1933, the leader of one of the first pro-Nazi societies in the United States chose to award Mencken an honorary membership, he rejected the offer outright. Any defense of Hitler and Germany was impossible, "so long as the chief officer of the German state continues to make speeches worthy of the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and his followers imitate…the monkey-shines of the American Legion at its worst." To friends in Germany, he expressed distress at the reappearance of anti-Semitic feeling in the United States, and elsewhere lamented that Nietzsche would be misinterpreted as "the inventor of all the deviltries of Hitler."
If Richard Spencer chanting "blood and soil" at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville ever imagined his idol might have approved of such lunacy, then he should read Mencken's reaction to the German American Bund rally held at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. On that date 20,000 American Nazis shouted slogans and denounced Roosevelt and Jews as 1,500 police kept 100,000 counterprotesters at bay.
The New York Nazis, Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Sun, were "morons." He went on: "Like all other fanatics they show a vast development of what Nietzsche used to call 'the delight to stink,' and are thus less interested in propagating their idiotic ideas than in annoying those who object to them." Despite his outrage, Mencken defended their right to protest. While it was "unpleasant…to be deafened day in and day out by the agents of preposterous and usually dishonest arcana…it would be far more unpleasant to live in a country wherein even the meanest and stupidest man was forbidden to disseminate his delusions. If we can stand having hordes of quacks engage in endless exchanges of imbecility in Congress and the State Legislatures, then I see no reason why we should fear to let other quacks make a din outside for Communism, Naziism, or, for that matter, even cannibalism."
Such is the price of living in a country where the rights of free assemblage and free speech are constitutional guarantees, Mencken concluded. "Perhaps the easiest way to resolve the dilemma would be to herd all the known Communists and Nazis into Arkansas, North Dakota or some other such wilderness, arm them with artillery, and let nature take its course."