The link between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the loosely connected white nationalist movement known as the “alternative right” or the alt-right, which first drew media attention several months ago, has now been brought into the spotlight by Hillary Clinton in a much-publicized speech in Reno, Nevada.
But while some are commending Clinton for exposing Trump’s unsavory allies, others are concerned that she is overstating the influence of a fringe group and giving it the publicity it wants.
The alt-right is a real phenomenon, though a difficult one to nail down.
While attacking it can backfire, letting it infiltrate and hijack spaces in public discourse and recruit followers — many of them young people in search of a cause — has its own dangers. But it also needs to be discussed in the larger context of our culture’s descent into toxic identity politics cultivated by the left.
Some commentators dismiss the alt-right as a gaggle of internet trolls who have a penchant for bizarre combinations of Nazi imagery and anime cartoons and think it’s hilarious to taunt Jews with Hitler photos and Auschwitz jokes. Such sad creatures make up a large proportion of alt-right Twitter users. But not all. Some alt-right social media accounts have a clear pattern of dedicated posting about the Holocaust “hoax,” Jewish malfeasance, the mental inferiority and criminality of dark-skinned people, and the like.
The alt-right also has a definite presence outside Twitter, including conferences in real space. Its websites, such as VDARE and Radix Journal (formerly Alternative Right), where one can find articles arguing that nonwhite immigration is ruining America and that Jews have a genetic imperative to undermine the cultures in which they live, or mocking Christian churches that promote adoption of orphaned African children.
While there is some diversity of opinion on the alt-right, nearly all its followers believe that race is destiny and that racial and ethnic homogeneity is the ideal. The alt-right’s America is defined not by the Declaration of Independence and its core principles of human equality and liberty, but by a 1790 law which limited U.S. citizenship to white people.
It would be an exaggeration to call Trump an alt-right candidate. While alt-right websites have supported his bid, he has not interacted with them or actively solicited their backing — though he has retweeted white nationalist Twitter users.
However, the right-wing website Breitbart.com, which has had close ties to the Trump campaign — and whose former editor Steve Bannon is Trump’s new campaign chief — has actively promoted the alt-right for the past year.
Controversy-courting pundit Ann Coulter, a close Trump ally and anti-immigration crusader, has linked to VDARE and retweeted its Twitter account and has used Jew-baiting humor many see as a signal to her alt-right fans.
Attempts to mainstream the alt-right should be soundly rejected, and most of the conservative media deserve credit for doing just that. Likewise, Clinton deserves credit not only for addressing hateful racial rhetoric on the right but for drawing a distinction between this rhetoric and mainstream conservatism.
But toxic race talk on the progressive left needs to be addressed as well — talk that defines people solely by racial and ethnic identity, brands all white people (including the economically disadvantaged) as guilty of “privilege,” and reduces complex issues to racial oppression. Such rhetoric is rampant on college campuses, in the left-wing press, on social media, and in progressive activist circles.
If Clinton followed up on her condemnation of far-right racial demagoguery by condemning racial extremism in her own political camp, it would go a long way toward true national healing.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.