Hillary Clinton just said “alt-right” repeatedly on national television.
She shouldn’t have.
In a recent discussion about the alt-right beginning to receive mainstream attention (a concern I’ve also addressed, mostly in conservative and libertarian circles), a friend wrote to me in an email, “I think a movement of maybe 50 people has hijacked the news cycle through a combination of stupidity and opportunism.”
He added, “The left and the alt-right share an agenda of making the alt-right look a lot bigger than it is.”
When Clinton’s campaign announced she would address the alt-right movement and its Donald Trump connection in a speech, alt-righters declared that they had arrived. This formerly fringe movement would now get mainstream attention from not one, but both of the major party presidential candidates: Through Donald Trump, tangentially and clumsily, and through Hillary Clinton, directly.
All day Thursday before and after her speech, people asked: What is the alt-right? It’s a number of things. It’s racist as hell, first and foremost. Some call them “hipster Nazis.” They’re anti-feminist and anti-democracy. They focus a lot on masculinity, particularly their own. It’s confusing and really kind of pathetic.
Still, few, if any, would be asking about the alt-right if not for Clinton’s speech.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel performed the somewhat difficult task of trying to explain this movement and its origins by citing a few figures, websites and organizations. He listed 15 items, some explicitly alt-right, some related or having some link. It also included defunct organizations and a few dead people.
One of those organizations is the white nationalist website American Renaissance, which had 300 people at their national conference in May. Let’s say they could double or triple that number thanks to Trump and all the new attention they’re getting, having nearly 1000 attendees at their 2017 convention or potentially even more after that.
According to a 2014 study, there are over 12,000 Bronies in the United States. A Brony conference in Baltimore last year drew over 9,000.
A Brony is a grown man obsessed with My Little Pony. Like the alt-right, it’s a confusing and bewildering phenomenon. Well outside the mainstream.
Bronies obviously swamp the alt-right in their numbers, at least at conferences. But most people would still consider this fringe. Maybe Hillary Clinton should advertise Bronies too.
Populist movements, the alt-right included, tend to flounder without figures to rally or some other popular political context. The Pat Buchanan campaign of 1996—I was a loyal young member of the Buchanan Brigades—didn’t last beyond that election cycle as seen by Buchanan’s mostly ignored 2000 Reform Party campaign.
It was a moment inspired by a figure. But there were not any lasting institutions that came out of the Buchanan movement, no youth groups and no subsequent politicians (compare to Ron Paul’s liberty movement which features multiple institutions, a youth army that is the largest center-right student organization in the country, and second generation libertarian Republican leaders like Senator Rand Paul, and Representatives Justin Amash and Thomas Massie).
At this national level, the alt-right has become a phenomenon because of Donald Trump. If not for Trump (who probably doesn’t even understand what the alt-right is—this is mostly happenstance), no one would be talking about this movement right now.
If not for Hillary Clinton this week, most Americans still would have never heard of the movement.
The alt-right’s institutional structure, to the degree that it has one, really does consist of a little more than a few websites and a half dozen “leaders,” most of whom were preaching white nationalism or separatism before “alt-right” was even a thing.
And then there are just a bunch of nerds on Twitter or comment threads.
This is the movement’s real face and the only place where most Americans would even encounter anyone who identifies as alt-right.
They are racists. They are bullies. They troll and insult using language and images most people reject as hateful and crass. What they say and most believe is so extreme that it certainly gets attention.
But the alt-right does not necessarily represent the overwhelming majority of Trump voters, even those who might be attracted to the Republican nominee’s anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric.
Is there concern that the Trump campaign’s new “Chief Executive” Stephen Bannon describes his former website Breitbart as a “platform” for the alt-right? Sure. The Trump campaign rejects that they are a platform for the movement.
But is Clinton now exacerbating this concern by throwing too much of the Trump phenomenon into a catchall called the “alt-right,” however much it might help her electorally in November?
Yes she is. Hillary Clinton just did this movement a solid and they know it. This motley collection of white supremacists and dateless racists on social media never dreamed they could get this much attention.
The alt-right wants to appear larger than it is, and Hillary Clinton is now portraying the movement as more ominous and numerous than it actually is.
Hillary Clinton just did some the most deplorable racists on the internet a huge favor. She shouldn’t have.