Hillary Clinton delivers a speech Thursday attacking the so-called alt-right
Timothy Stanley: Clinton created an imagined relationship between everyday, mainstream conservatives and the alt-right
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Compared to all of that, Trump University is very small fry indeed.
The big loser of the night was the Republican Party. Most of its activists had probably never heard of the alt-right either. Now their label is tarred with it. Never mind that the alt-right is tiny and unrepresentative of conservatism, or even that Trump has allied with alt-right figures but never endorsed the movement by name. These are details that Clinton doesn’t benefit from so she didn’t dwell on them.
What exactly is the alt-right then? Come back and ask in about 30 years’ time. It’s too soon to be exact about a movement so diffuse and containing so many factions, some disputing the label.
To put it generously, alt-righters are conservatives who are as critical of the Republicans as they are the Democrats – believing both to be slaves of political correctness. Put ungenerously, they tend to preach a white rights, hypermasculine identity politics that comes off like sheer bigotry.
Notably, they contain few Christian groups. They are post-Christian, almost post-capitalist, rather obsessed with biology. The American Renaissance, an alt-right group, posted a response to Clinton’s speech, arguing: “If whites really understood the racial implications of what she stands for, they wouldn’t vote for her as dog catcher.”
American Renaissance adds: “We do not claim that Donald Trump is part of the alt-right or that he is an advocate for white people. It is clearly unfair to make him responsible for our views. However, by promoting polices that put America first, he will slow our decline and perhaps even pave the way to an American Renaissance in which the truth about race is no longer a taboo.”
When future historians write about the alt-right they may well quote Clinton’s speech. It was important. She drew a spurious line of influence from Vladimir Putin to Britain’s Nigel Farage – who addressed a Trump rally in Mississippi on Wednesday – to Trump himself, who is, said Clinton, the agent of the alt-right’s takeover of the Republican Party.
This is too slick an interpretation. In reality, Farage, the British nationalist, has consistently said there are profound cultural differences between British and American conservatives, particularly over the importance of religion. Trump, meanwhile, may channel alt-right ideas or provide a platform for them, but it’s not clear that his overall philosophy is theirs.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And Putin’s supposed influence over right-wing politics is overblown. We’re in danger of entering McCarthyite waters when anyone who suggests that confrontation with Russia is unnecessary is painted as an agent of foreign influence. Trumpism is not alt-right, the alt-right is not Trump, and neither is some plot by the KGB.
But Trumpism isn’t mainstream conservatism either, and neither is the alt-right. Don’t get me wrong: There’s a reason why the alt-right has found a home with the Republicans rather than the Democrats. Since the 1960s, the GOP’s rhetoric has made it a more natural fit for those who think only African-Americans get welfare or that feminists are worse than cancer (the latter a famous Breitbart headline quoted by Clinton when she mentioned that the Trump campaign’s new CEO is the executive chairman of Breitbart).
But there are angels within the Republican Party, and those with a clear-eyed understanding of the moral precepts of conservatism resist this trend. Long before Clinton gave this speech, Mitt Romney attacked Trump for his alleged racism. Commentators like Ben Shapiro – as far to the right of the sane spectrum you can get without falling off into madness – have condemned his bigotry also.
Conservatism is as hard to define as the alt-right. And at a moment when people are fighting over its meaning, it’s important to establish what it’s not.