Most people would be offended if you called them a white nationalist or a leading racist, but Paul Gottfried doesn’t mind. Really.
“I couldn’t care less,” he says.
At 71, Gottfried, white-bearded and thin of hair, is a retired humanities professor from Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College and an occasional columnist for a slew of rightwing outlets like The American Conservative. He’s also the founder of the H.L. Mencken Club, a group that calls itself “an organization for independent-minded intellectuals and academics of the Right.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center callsit something else entirely. On the group’s annual “Hate Map,” the Mencken Club is depicted as a white nationalist organization based in Brooklyn, one of 38 hate groups active in New York state.
“They are essentially advocating for a country which is either completely inhabited by whites or dominated by whites,” says Mark Potok, a senior researcher at the SPLC. “They are, in effect, a kinder, gentler Klan.”
In truth, there might be better adjectives to describe the Mencken Club: Archaic. Dusty. Overwhelmingly geriatric.
The club’s activities seem to begin and end with precisely one thing: holding an annual conference, where mostly aging male guests talk about the Crucial Issues as they see them. Are too many black and brown people coming to America? Is the GOP slipping too far to the left? And will “noisy feminists” (Gottfried’s term) ever be shut up? Photos from 2009 show beaming attendees posing with the guest of honor, the partially fossilized Pat Buchanan.
The tone is less frothing Klansmen than palpable yearning for a time when the social order was intact and white men stood in their proper, God-given place atop the pyramid. The 1830s, say.
Also, somewhat crucially for New York: The club isn’t actually based in Brooklyn. It appears its only tie to the borough is James Kalb, a retired attorney and former club treasurer, who used his office address to register the Menckens as a nonprofit.
The club meets yearly at airport hotels near Baltimore. It takes its name from journalist and gadfly H.L. Mencken, who was colossally famous in his day as “the sage of Baltimore,” a satirist and wit known as a noncomformist and casual racist.
In 1930, Mencken called Jewish people “the most unpleasant race ever heard of” (though his views on Judaism seemed to evolve with time). He wrote of the “negro” as a “low-caste man” who will “remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.”
The club that celebrates Mencken still sings this tune today, however politely. “We try to bring up issues that sort of push the envelope,” says E. Christian Kopff, an associate professor of classics at the University of Colorado.
The group has a “strong commitment to preserving the traditions of the West,” he says. “Every time you say something good about the West or Europe or America’s European heritage, someone calls it racist. No one’s saying China or India doesn’t have a great culture, but we have ours and it’s worth preserving.”
Yet the notion that American culture is mostly “European” is the sort of thing that frequently gets the club into hot water. Board member Richard B. Spencer, founder of AlternativeRight.com, has been known to wax on about things like the need to strengthen the right wing’s “historical Anglo-American majority” as the “indigenous ruling class of this country.”
But just how racist does a conference have to be to qualify as a “hate group”? That question has had the Menckens and the SPLC bickering for years.
“I’ve been attacking them for the better part of 20 years,” Gottfried explains. “Their political correctness makes impossible any exercise of academic or intellectual freedom.”
Yet Potok says Gottfried is merely trying to mask the club’s truer stripes. “I think these people richly deserve the description we’ve given them,” he says. “I’m a little surprised to hear them disputing the notion that they’re white nationalists.”
Other watchdogs don’t quite agree. “We don’t call them a hate group,” says Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “But I would definitely say it attracts a number of white supremacists to their conferences.”
Still, the gatherings often seem not much different than the nightly railing on Fox News, with its hand-wringing over immigration, the welfare state, feminists, and the creeping scourge of political correctness. What’s interesting is how closely the club resembles the rest of the GOP.
In his columns for Lancaster Online, a small Pennsylvania news site, Gottfried likes to castigate the “mainstream media” for “celebrating gayness and calling for the public humiliation of those who disagree.” Facsimiles of these lines can be heard in stump speeches of half the Republican members of Congress.
And though Mencken attendees hate being lumped in with the rest of the GOP, they really, really dislike being labeled “extremists.” “It seems they paint with a very broad brush,” says Kalb about the SPLC.
Yet Potok argues that even aging, somewhat addled racists can present a danger. “We’re no longer going to be a country dominated by Protestant white people. At this point it’s too late. One of my own worries is that people like this will be driven to the very extreme when they realize once and for all that there’s no way they can win.”
But, he adds quickly, “I’m not saying Paul Gottfried’s going to go out and start murdering cops. I think that’s very unlikely.”
“They’re not out there promoting a violent agenda,” says Mayo. “But it’s still a concern, because of the fact that they are racists and they are people who have some kind of legitimacy in the world based on their position” as academics.
The fact that Gottfried is Jewish, she says, doesn’t make the group less racist. “This group in particular tends not to be anti-Semitic. But they’re still very problematic.”
Whatever the case, Potok says the whole argument may soon be moot. After all, the notion of an “Anglo-American ruling class” returning to its former might is absurd—ask any demographer.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “they’re losing.”