How Hillary Clinton's Attack on the Alt-Right Went Wrong
By dismissing Donald Trump and his supporters as racists, the Democratic candidate ignores the economic and political anxieties that allowed him to thrive in the first place.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Nearly two decades ago, in the midst of her husband's intern sex scandal, Hillary Clinton went on the Today show and infamously lambasted the barrage of allegations against the Clinton White House as a "vast right-wing conspiracy"—a claim that, though perhaps hyperbolic, was not entirely wrong either.
So its perhaps not surprising that as she wrapped up one of the worst weeks of her own presidential campaign Thursday, Clinton returned to that playbook, linking Donald Trump to the alt-right movement and fringe conspiracy theorists, and accusing him of stirring up racism and bigotry with his dystopian presidential campaign.
"From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia," Clinton told an audience in Reno, Nevada. "He is taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party. His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous."
"Trump's lack of knowledge or experience or solutions would be bad enough," she continued. "But what he's doing here is more sinister. Trump is reinforcing harmful stereotypes and offering a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters."
Billed to reporters as "a speech to address Donald Trump and his advisors' embrace of the disturbing 'alt-right' political philosophy," the address was basically a highlight reel of Trump's personal and political history of coded racism and flirtations with fringe right-wing figures like Alex Jones, David Duke, and a Twitter user "who goes by the name 'white-genocide-TM.'""A man with a long history of racial discrimination," Clinton declared, "who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far, dark reaches of the internet, should never run our government or command our military." Just to make sure voters got the message, Clinton's campaign released a video highlighting support for Trump among the alt-right's more well-known white nationalists and robed members of the Klu Klux Klan.
It wasn't until the end of her speech that Clinton launched into her attack on the alt-right—a movement, she said, quoting the Wall Street Journal, that "rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity"— calling Trump's appointment of Breitbart editor Steve Bannon as his campaign CEO "a landmark achievement" for the right-wing group. Noting the strange cameo by Brexit leader Nigel Farange at a Trump campaign rally in Mississippi this week, Clinton declared the Republican candidate's campaign part of a "broader story" about "the rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world."
"All of this adds up to something we have never seen before," she concluded. "Of course there's always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, a lot of it rising from racial resentment. But it's never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone. Until now."
Trump was, predictably, outraged. "Hillary Clinton is going to try to accuse this campaign, and the millions of decent Americans who support this campaign, of being racists," he told supporters at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday. "It's the oldest play in the Democratic playbook."
He continued later on Twitter:
This is, of course, ridiculous. What made Clinton's speech so remarkable—and so effective—was that everything she said was simply true. In fact, her remarks were surprisingly lacking in hyperbole, both in terms of what she said and the even-keeled, almost grandmotherly way in which she said it. Almost none of the material was new—bloggers and pundits have been cataloguing the deranged controversies she mentioned or months.
In aggregate, though, it was a cogent reminder that the Republican Party has nominated a lunatic as its presidential candidate. It was also further confirmation of just how depressing and gross the presidential race has become.
With her speech, Clinton managed to elevate an ill-defined, and likely small, group of fringe racists into a national threat, giving a national platform to a handful of white nationalist bloggers and the internet trolls who follow them. The GOP is "the White Man's party, whether it likes it or not," Richard Spencer, the leader of the white nationalist National Policy Institute credited with coining the term alt-right wrote in a blog post Thursday. "Hillary is trying to push the GOP into permanent minority status by empowering the Alt Right," he added, "and believe me, she will be empowering us today."
"It was like Christmas morning for the #AltRight," one blogger wrote on VDARE. "What Clinton single-handedly did is give the movement the greatest publicity and legitimacy it's had in years." Recognizing this opportunity, the website, which serves as a hub for white nationalists and anti-immigration xenophobes, used the speech to blast out a fundraising email to its supporters. American Renaissance editor Jared Taylor gleefully live-tweeted the whole event.
The jubilation of "racialists" and white identarians aside, Clinton's focus on the alt-right also misses, or ignores, the broader economic and social anxieties—specifically, financial angst and resentments over globalization and immigration—that have, to varying extents, fueled Trump's rise and that of similar political movements in other parts of the world. And while the question of whether Trump's support is better explained by racial fears or economic ones has been the subject of heated debate this election cycle, a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that there's a strong link.
The report, which looked at income stagnation in 25 advanced economies, found that 81 percent of households in the United States had flat or falling incomes—part of a global phenomenon that reverses decades of income advancement across most segments of the population. According to a 2015 survey included in the report, those who said that their economic situations had deteriorated also held strongly negative views about immigration and free trade.
"A chunk of the increase in negative sentiment [toward] free trade [and] immigration, has been and can be explained by the rise of people who are no longer better off than people in previous generations," Richard Dobbs, one of the authors of the study, said in an interview about the report. "And we believe that it's going to continue."
Though the survey was taken before the Trump Moment, the results also found that those who felt like their economic situation was not advancing were more likely to support nationalist politics, like France's National Front or the Leave campaign in Britain. "I wouldn't say that this is about Trump, but I think this is about the rise of non-traditional political parties around the world," Dobbs said. "There's clearly a group of people around the world who are feeling that the global system is no longer working for them."
As Clinton noted Thursday, these political parties are often characterized by the same racial and anti-Semitic undertones that have defined the Trump campaign and the alt-right. But by dismissing Trump—and by extension, his supporters—as bigoted, the Democratic candidate missed, or avoided, the opportunity to address the very real economic concerns that have fomented these anti-immigrant, anti-trade sentiments.
The authors of the McKinsey study warn that the effects of such a large number of people with falling or flat incomes could be corrosive, with the potential to increase political instability in advanced economies. "This is a new phenomenon," Dobbs said. "And as we look going forward, we need to have a more whole conversation about the pockets of the country that are suffering from this, and what the measures are that we're going to put in place."
Of course, there is still time for Clinton to start such a conversation. However, her speech Thursday suggests that the campaign remains focused on casting Trump as unhinged, and creating racist bogeymen that will drive Democrats to the polls in November. Considering that Clinton is more than 10 points ahead of Trump in the most recent national poll, that strategy may work. But calling Trump a racist won't change the economic and political climate that allowed him and his friends on the alt-right to thrive. In fact, it might just make it worse.
Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.
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