Yesterday, Democratic candidate for president Hillary Clinton stood on a stage with cameras trained on her and warned the nation that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for memes—specifically, the toxic, white-nationalist memes being spewed out by what’s now being called the “alt-right.” Don’t align yourself with this new movement, Hillary warns. Love trumps dat boi.
Let’s take a moment to really consider this. The woman who will almost certainly be the next president went on TV and demanded that we recognize racist Twitter eggs, cartoon frog-obsessed trolls, and professional paranoid loud man Alex Jones as forces for evil. And they absolutely loved it:
Of course, the target for Hillary’s speech wasn’t several thousand meme-hocking keyboard warriors dirtying up the internet, but the people they have the potential to embarrass: It was an appeal to moderate conservatives. Just like the National Review did way back in January, Hillary Clinton wants to warn these moderate, “normal” conservatives that Trump is not their candidate, but rather the candidate of internet-savvy white supremacists sitting in America’s basements and fuming over Emperor Obama’s white genocide.
She even went so far as to hold up former and current GOP leaders as examples of what the Republican should aim for:
Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole accepted the Republican nomination, he pointed to the exits and told any racists in the Party to get out.
The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims “love America just as much as I do.”
In 2008, John McCain told his own supporters they were wrong about the man he was trying to defeat. Senator McCain made sure they knew – Barack Obama is an American citizen and “a decent person.”
We need that kind of leadership again.
The myriad problems of holding up George W. Bush as an ideal leader aside, this is (or may be) a decent strategy for winning an election. But in absolving the conservative establishment of Donald Trump’s sins, Hillary Clinton is also letting the GOP off the hook for decades of strategic, institutional racism. Because while it’s certainly true that the alt-right is upsetting to more traditional, moderate Republicans, that’s not because this group is any more racist than the conservative base. It’s because it isn’t trying hard enough to hide it—or, perhaps more to the point, because it’s saying out loud what Republicans once consigned to euphemisms.
Clinton doesn’t just want you to know that the alt-right like Trump, though; she also wants you to know that Trump has actively embraced this supposedly new, fringe faction of conservatism by hiring Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon as campaign CEO. This isn’t your kind of Republican, Clinton urges, because you, my friend, are the good kind. And to show you just how crazy and politically unprecedented Bannon’s ideas are for a national campaign, Clinton points to Breitbart articles like “Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”
In her speech, Clinton said “the de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for the ‘alt-right.’ A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.”
What doesn’t follow here is that the alt-right hasn’t taken over anything; it’s simply making explicit what’s been there all along. Do you know who else once called the Confederate flag “a symbol of heritage?” Former Republican nominee and current senator John McCain. And who once called birth control “harmful to women” and “harmful to society”? Former candidate and senator Rick Santorum. Bannon’s ideas are anything but new, despite what more relatively mannered conservatives might want to believe.
The same is true of the conservative intellectual class. Take Charles Murray, the respected pundit who wrote in the National Review that “when a man deliberately inflames the antagonism of one American ethnic group toward another ... there is nothing that person can do or say in private that should alter my opinion of whether he is fit to be the president of the United States.” Murray also believes that black people are objectively less intelligent than white people due to genetics; he is a direct progenitor of the racial scientists Clinton decries. Drawing a line between his Republican Party—that of Reagan, Bush, and McCain—and that of Trump is functionally a way of congratulating it for having had the courtesy to speak about its xenophobic ethno-nationalism in code, reducing the question of whether a party should appeal to racial hatred to one of manners.
Hillary Clinton was right when she called the “alt-right” a hateful and aggressively racist group that festers online. Where she went wrong was in claiming that “all of this adds up to something we’ve never seen before” when it’s been the backbone of Republican electoral strategy for 50 years now. Whether you call it the Southern strategy, as Richard Nixon did, or the alt-right, it’s an appeal to revanchism and naked racial grievance.
So of course we’ve seen this before; the score has been running down the right side of our ballots for decades. Donald Trump just whistles it a little more loudly.