Rumble in the Alt-Right Thunderdome

Hillary Clinton takes on Trump’s white nationalist fans

Photo Credit: Official Trump card

 

With several months of election-related chaos to go, Hillary Clinton took to the stage in Nevada to call out a crackpot movement of Trump supporters that few people have even heard of.

On Thursday, the Democratic nominee gave a speech in Reno, Nevada, decrying the so-called alt-right (short for alternative right), a nebulous band of free-wheeling, internet-savvy white nationalists who are giddy for “God emperor” Donald J. Trump. Although the alt-right has gained some national media attention within the past few months, Trump’s newest chief of staff—Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman for Breitbart News—has brought the movement into the limelight. If yesterday’s speech is any indication, the Clinton campaign, which had previously been railing against Paul Manafort, Trump’s previous chief of staff from an earlier wave of campaign upheavals, for his ties to former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has embraced a new set of tactics.

“The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for the ‘Alt-Right,’” she told supporters in Reno. “A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.” It’s a “fringe,” she continued, that has always been with us, “but it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone.”

While Clinton’s right to some degree, given the amorphous and anonymous nature of the alt-right, it’s unclear that her speech will even have that much of a substantive impact.

Trump’s polling numbers with minority groups are in the toilet; the self-proclaimed patron saint of black America has an approval rating in the 1 to 2 percent range with the very group he seeks to “save” from poverty and violence. Sure, it’s worth noting that Breitbart’s particular brand of adversarial, bombastic commentary fits snuggly with the image of the alt-right cultivated on Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit. But it’s also unclear that outside of a web of pundits, researchers, and devoted Twitter users, the alt-right actually carries much, if any, weight. Clinton has said—repeatedly—that Trump has a wealth of white nationalist supporters. Why the specificity about this particular sub-group?

For one, Clinton clearly is trying to tie Trump and the alt-right—both of whom have taken some effort to distance themselves from one another—together. The main figureheads on the alt-right—or tangential to the alt-right—have actively distanced themselves from Trump for months. “We do not claim that Donald Trump is part of the Alt Right or that he is an advocate for white people,” wrote one author at American Renaissance, a site run by self-proclaimed “white advocate” Jared Taylor. “It is clearly unfair to make him responsible for our views.” Trump’s camp is on the same wavelength: on Thursday, the Donald’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CBS that she wasn’t “that familiar” with the movement. The campaign, she said with a completely straight face, has “never even discussed it internally.”

The alt-right isn’t Breitbart—if anything, Breitbart is seizing upon the alt-right for its own benefit.

Where Clinton’s reliance on the Breitbart connection becomes particularly curious is the fact that the publication is somewhat new to the alt-right sphere. When I talked to National Policy Institute president Richard Spencer—who’s also generally credited with providing the intellectual backbone to the alt-right—he cited Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos as more of a fellow traveler than anything. About a week later, Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari published “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right”—a several-thousand-word essay outlining the movement’s “big tent” approach, highlighting where it diverges from “traditional” white nationalist groups. It was, of course, unabashedly sympathetic, concluding that “the alt-right is here, and here to stay.”

Since then, Breitbart’s commentary on the alt-right has picked up, with approximately 10 stories in August alone. On the eve of Clinton’s alt-right speech, Yiannopoulos and Bokhari declared, “Breitbart is the only major news site that has illuminating coverage to the alt-right, exploring its effect on the 2016 election without simple-minded denunciation or endorsement.” (We beg to differ—also, it’s worth pointing out that the New Yorker wrote about alt-right figureheads in . . . August 2015.)

Clinton sort of misses the point, though; after all, the alt-right isn’t Breitbart—if anything, Breitbart is seizing upon the alt-right for its own benefit. Breitbart and the alt-right share a hell of a lot in common—indeed, as Brendan James pointed out at VICE News, “the site has always been obsessed with ‘P.C. culture,’ hatred of protesters, fear of immigrants, and the white man’s burden of reverse-racism.” All that’s happened within the past several months is it has acquired a more family-friendly way of saying it’s a haven for ignorant pricks hellbent on acquiring as much traffic as possible.

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Whatever the alt-right is—and there are a lot of ways to define it—it’s wholly, irrevocably American. Maybe on some level the United States has, as Clinton asserted, “distinguished itself as a haven for people fleeing religious persecution.” Yet it’s also offered fertile breeding ground for hatred and despair—both of which have adapted to the post-industrial digital era.

Indeed, the anxieties about race and multiculturalism that lie at the heart of the alt-right have been with us for decades—look no further than the mythology surrounding the namesake of VDARE.com, an anti-immigration website run by Peter Brimelow. Virginia Dare—the first child born to English parents in the New World—her parents, and the remainder of the Roanoke Colony allegedly “vanished” into thin air in the late 16th century. In the 1920s, North Carolinians used Dare’s legacy to oppose black suffrage. Today, it’s in her name that Brimelow and his ilk claim to “defend the traditional American community and give it voice.”

Dangerous? Yes. Indicative of a global trend toward ethnocentric jingoism? Most definitely. But the moral burden lies with us, and it’s a quandary that will extend far beyond this election. The alt-right—much like Trump—is using its time in the spotlight to pursue its own interests.

This fringe is our fringe—and it always will be. It’s a fringe bolstered by decades of Republican politicians—yes, even those that Clinton has extended a helping hand to—engaging in dog-whistle politics, cozying up to nativist movements, and guilt-tripping the poor and downtrodden. Maybe the alt-right isn’t “conservative” in a literal sense, but it couldn’t exist without the GOP. Trump, after all, has merely provided it with a rallying cry.

 

Hannah Gais is associate digital editor at The Washington Spectator.