At 9 p.m. Eastern on Thursday night, Google searches for the term “alt right” were at peak popularity: more people were entering the search term at that point than ever before in internet history, as determined by Google’s tracking metrics. This was an easily predictable consequence of Hillary Clinton earlier in the day choosing to take the once-unthinkable step of coming right out and directly denouncing the “movement” by name, thrilling its adherents and accelerating wider public interest in their purported beliefs. It was a stunning development. That Hillary would have crafted an entire nationally televised speech around attacking the group—an amorphous, loosely amalgamated online phenomenon whose organizing principle is evidently to torment Twitter personalities with deranged and frequently racist meme-blasts—boggles the mind.
Hillary left no doubt that she was aiming her remarks specifically at the nebulous, trollish provocateurs, because she used the exact phrasing the trolls use themselves: “alt-right” is a neologism they proudly coined and bandy about routinely to distinguish themselves from other, more milquetoast right-wingers. The tactical calculation was notable in that Hillary need not have explicitly gone after the “alt-right” in order to accomplish her ostensible goal of tethering Donald Trump to the unsavory populist elements that have coalesced around him. She could have raised the specter of such groups and elucidated their repellent ideological features (to the extent that these groups have any ideology) without giving them an epic signal boost.
Their response, naturally, was jubilation. Leading lights of the burgeoning “movement” could hardly contain their ecstasy, with many thanking Hillary profusely for heightening their profile beyond anything they ever could have imagined. Once confined to a relatively niche subset of internet inhabitants dwelling in obscure forums and chats, the group has now attained a level of prominence such that they are being “called out” by the Democratic presidential nominee, and this could not bring them greater joy.
For one thing, they see their incendiary tactics as having been vindicated. “Alt-right” devotees are known for engaging in outrageous conduct on social media, namely Twitter—barraging perceived enemies with racist iconography, trolling assiduously, and indulging in other forms of relentless irritancy. The reason one behaves provocatively is generally to provoke a reaction, and provoke a reaction they now have—on a grand scale. Elevating the “alt-right” will feed their in-group notions about having some special ability to control wider societal discourse, as if they alone possess the magic keys to unlock the secret mechanisms lurking behind the national conversation. This phantasm will inevitably draw in new converts, hugely amplifying their delusions of grandeur.
While many who Google the term will of course be repulsed upon cursory investigation of what the “alt-right” stands for, others will no doubt be intrigued, fall into a research wormhole, and end up adopting the label. Even if the most recognizable “alt-right” tactics and imagery (such as the absurdist cartoon frog named “Pepe” they incessantly tweet at targets) become widely associated with repugnant conduct, the group is infinitely adaptive by virtue of existing almost solely on the internet. Not every “alt-right” adherent behaves in an outwardly inflammatory way. Some new followers will pick up on discrete bits and pieces of the still-forming belief system and promulgate its tenets more subtly than do the ostentatious “shock troop” types who position themselves on the front lines of a never-ending troll war. (It should probably be noted for posterity: I’ve heard rumblings about physical meetups increasingly taking place, so there might be a tactile component arising to operate in tandem with the internet presence.)
Whatever legitimate points Hillary could have made in the speech last Thursday—and she did make some, calling attention to the mainstreaming of genuinely noxious forces once consigned to the lunatic fringe—they were undermined by her bizarre pivot to Vladimir Putin. Her campaign had been ramping up its frenzied attacks on the allegedly ominous Trump-Putin nexus for about a month now, but over the last week the rhetoric has really escalated to a staggering degree.
First, on August 21, her campaign manager, Robby Mook, went on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and gravely intoned: “The hand of the Kremlin has been at work in this [Trump] campaign for some time. … There are real questions being raised about whether Donald Trump himself is just a puppet for the Kremlin in this race.” Hillary carried forth these themes Thursday by attributing emergent right-wing populist movements across the United States and Europe to the diabolical subterfuge of Putin, whom she ludicrously called “the grand godfather” of worldwide nationalist extremism.
This was all the more ironic because earlier in the address Hillary had (rightly) condemned the GOP populist fringe’s propensity for conspiracy theorizing about all manner of topics—of late notably including her supposed hidden health problems. But she then promulgated a whopper of a conspiracy theory herself, suggesting that Putin is somehow personally orchestrating nefarious populist upswings throughout the Western world. It’s consistent with the narrative propounded days earlier by Mook—“the hand of the Kremlin” as the dark force behind every inconvenient global problem. Her charge had all the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory: spurious dot-connecting, unfounded insinuations, and an extravagantly baleful premise (Putin the omniscient evil menace). Then she went on to confabulate all kinds of disparate, tendentious evidence to substantiate the premise.
This would be perversely comical if it weren’t so dangerous: retrograde Russophobic hysterics are now being “mainstreamed” at a pace unseen in decades. Especially with Syria teetering on the brink of all-out multinational conflagration—the new U.S. commander in the region recently threatened Russia and Syria with military retaliation should they attack in areas where American special forces are located—these Hillary campaign tactics are especially worrisome. Accusing Putin of single-handedly empowering Trump via surreptitious meddling not only poisons the well for future U.S.-Russia relations under a prospective Clinton administration, it makes catastrophic military conflict between the two nations far more likely.
Hillary might have accurately identified some nascent right-wing trends in the U.S. and abroad, but she also furthered us down the path of sleepwalking into Cold War 2.0.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.