Hillary Clinton has a troll problem. Her opponent is no ordinary politician but a troll king, who has energized an online army of covert mischief-makers. Clinton’s dilemma is how to respond.
There are no bigger trolls in American public life than the alt-right. It’s an amorphous movement, but is composed of break-away factions of the conservative movement that are most inclined to support Trump: protectionists, nativists, isolationists, with more than a dash of white nationalism. While the more public manifestations of the alt-right can be seen in publications like Breitbart, Taki, and VDare, most of the foot soldiers are trolls in the the most common sense of the word: anonymous internet pests, given to spreading Nazi-themed memes while hiding behind anime avatars.
Trump has gone out of his way to give winking approval to the alt-right by retweeting their memes and hiring Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, who once said his publication is “the platform of the alt-right.”
There’s a sensible adage online: “Do not feed the trolls.” Trolls live off attention, so if you respond to them, they get more energized. The problem is, if you leave trolls alone you run the risk of letting them poison public discourse unabated.
Clinton has decided to take the issue head on. She’s going to deliver a speech later today linking Trump to the alt-right and explaining why the movement is dangerous to America. As she told Anderson Cooper last night, in a preview of her remarks: “He is taking a hate movement mainstream.”
Jesse Walker, senior editor of Reason, contends that Clinton’s decision might be politically smart but that it will have the deleterious effect of stirring up a hornet’s nest:
For part of the country, “alt-right” will mean “those creepy Trump fans.” For another part, it will mean “someone who’s got Hillary really hot and bothered ... hmm. Maybe I should look into them.” Yesterday the racist site VDare greeted the news of Clinton’s speech with the words “It’s happening.” One of VDare’s Twitter followers replied, “Shall we tell our grandchildren one day that Clinton did more to build the alt-right brand than Trump?”
That’s what happens when you take an obscure political faction and make them the starring villain in a speech by the presidential frontrunner: You give them a signal boost. You promote them from internet fringe to center of gravity. You build up their myth. As the ‘60s radical Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Yippies, put it in another context, “To build their myth they exaggerate our myth—they create a Yippie Menace. The menace helps create the reality.” The left’s best organizer, Rubin declared, was George Wallace. When he attacked them, he made them seem larger.
Contra Walker, it’s not clear that ignoring the alt-right is a good option either. Clinton didn’t make the alt-right a force in national politics, Trump did. By not explicitly condemning Trump’s cultivation of the alt-right, Clinton will in effect have allowed Trump to pay no penalty for mobilizing white supremacy. This will increase the likelihood of future Republican candidates mimicking Trump’s tactic.
Perhaps the clearest historical precedent for Clinton’s dilemma is the way John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson confronted the rise of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s, which was allied with the conservative movement that was then in the process of taking over the Republican Party. Kennedy didn’t shy away from condemning the rise of right-wing extremism. In a 1961 speech in Los Angeles, Kennedy attacked “those fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution, an appealing slogan, or a convenient scapegoat. ... The discordant voices of extremism are heard once again in the land.”
When Barry Goldwater became the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, he was notably unwilling to disavow the support of the Birch Society, saying he did not “consider the John Birch Society, as a group, to be extremist.” This gave the Johnson administration more than ample cause to raise the issue and label Goldwater himself as an extremist.
Did these Democratic presidents make the Birch Society more powerful than it would otherwise be? After Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964, conservatives like William F. Buckley were more forthright in disavowing the Birchers and no Republican presidential nominee ever embraced them the way Goldwater did.
In linking Trump and the alt-right, Clinton will be following in the footsteps of Kennedy and Johnson. Like them, she’ll try to define an American consensus politics that accepts conservative Republicans but rejects outright extremism. It could be that her words will spark a backlash and create more members of the alt-right, but that’s by no means certain. What can be confidently stated is that the alt-right is, in fact, noxious, and that it’s one of the jobs of political leaders to marginalize racist movements.