Hillary Clinton gave a big speech last week, about the connections between the Donald Trump campaign and a movement known as Alt-Right. Alt-Right is a complicated phenomenon, a toxic blend of nativism, nationalism, and white supremecy. It’s mostly found on-line, in reddit threads, and various websites, most prominently on the conservative site Breitbart.com. One key belief is authoritarianism, a belief that democracy has failed, and that a strong man figure is needed to restore order.
It sounds dangerous, right? But that description misses something crucial–tone. At least on Breitbart, they don’t always sound entirely serious. They actually remind me of the Futurists a hundred years ago, “young artillerymen on a toot.” Of course, futurists essentially grew up to become fascists, so that historical parallel does give pause. Anyway, perhaps they’re just jester-provocateurs, tweaking the establishment, saying deliberately shocking things to get a rise out of old fogey squares. They shouldn’t be taken seriously anymore than parents should have worried, back in the 70s, that their KISS fan kids were really turning into Satan-worshippers.
Maybe that’s true. It’s always difficult to assess tone when reading material coming out of a foreign belief system–and I do see Breitbart as foreign, as opposed to mainstream American values. But, of course, they’re not trying to be mainstream. They are deliberately transgressive and provocative. And their ferociously anti-immigrant stance does read as racist. Of course, in saying that, I may only be restating the values of current American political correctness. If the point is to epater la bourgeoisie, well, I’m pretty bourgeois, I suppose.
Still, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart is CEO of the Donald Trump campaign. Trump is the Republican candidate for President. His campaign is certainly built on anti-immigration sentiment, and racial insensitivity. Hillary was right to challenge him on the not-terribly-subtle ways in which an Alt-Right ideology has found expression in Trump’s campaign.
Or, maybe not. A conservative friend of mine was talking to the young guys he works with, who he describes as libertarians. And they found Hillary’s speech condemning the Alt-Right hilarious. And they said (apparently unanimously), that her speech would prove to be the turning point in this election. She took seriously a movement that is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. She gave them free publicity, and she came across as a nagging schoolmarm. She lost, in short, the coolness battle.
My friend said that he thought the turning point in the 2012 race came when Mitt Romney talked about ‘binders full of women.’ That awkward formulation marked him as terminally uncool. Obama, on the other hand, was cool. He’s hip to pop culture, he’s quick on his feet, he’s funny, he can turn a phrase. In that race, Romney came across as clumsy, square, old-fashioned and uncool. Trump, by embracing Alt-Right, has become cool. He gets it. That’s one reason why his most politically incorrect comments always seem to increase his popularity, not diminish it.
According to my friend, in her Alt-Right speech, Hillary came across as terminally uncool, a hectoring old bat. She doesn’t get it. She took seriously deliberately and intentionally tongue-in-cheek transgressive humor. Said my friend, quoting this group of guys, “she fed the trolls. Stick a fork in her. She’s done.”
Polling data since her speech could be seen as supporting this a little. I mean, it’s not serious, but she has lost 2% in the polls since this time last week. She did have a bad week, what with an AP story attacking the Clinton Foundation. I thought that story was rubbish, but it did make her look bad. Certainly, if the Alt-Right speech was supposed to make a positive difference, that difference isn’t discernible in polling data.
Here are the main two reasons, though, why I think my friend’s co-workers are wrong.
First of all, the coolness train left the depot months ago. Of all the candidates who ran for President in this election cycle, one, and only one consistently spoke to young people, consistently and constantly drew massive crowds to his rallies, consistently articulated a vision that spoke to the dreams and aspirations of millennials. That candidate was Bernie Sanders. His message wasn’t Alt-Right–it was thoroughly, unabashedly and unapologetically progressive. It was his ideas that matter, his policies, his views. Honestly, one of the most astonishing and encouraging aspects of this election is this fact: the coolest candidate in this election was a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont.
Why was he cool? Because he was himself. Because he was authentic. Because the views he articulating on the campaign trail are the same ideals he’s fought for his entire political life. Health care for everyone, as a right. Higher education, as a right. He didn’t quite win, but he came awfully close, and his ideas will continue to animate American policy discussions.
Hillary is not and never will be as cool as Bernie. It doesn’t matter. Trump isn’t cool either, and he’s not going to get cooler by preaching racism and nativism and a hostility to immigration.
But there’s another, incredibly important factor that needs to be taken into account. My friend’s co-workers are all male. And Breitbart is not just home to the most appalling ideas regarding race and immigration. (And Breitbart’s editor, once again, is Trump’s campaign CEO). Breitbart is also home to Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s home to the men’s rights movement.
Yiannopoulos recently made headlines because he was permanently banned from Twitter. He was banned because of utterly disgusting attacks he made on the actress Leslie Jones. Jones committed the following crimes against humanity: she’s African-American, and she starred in a movie. Imagine.
Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart, and probably the site’s most popular writer. And his views are noxious. He’s a blatant and open misogynist. He has written that the two inventions that hurt women the most were the pill and the washing machine, because they both freed women to pursue careers. Birth control, he says, makes women unattractive and crazy. Is that supposed to be funny?
He is, in short, a humorless crank, a deeply disturbed young man with serious woman issues, who speaks to an audience of similarly damaged young men. He’s a gamer-gate bigwig. He’s not smart enough to engage with, not clever enough to read, and not kind enough to qualify as fully human.
And young women vote too.
I have no idea what the demographics say about any of this. I can’t imagine people of color reading Breitbart, for example, though I suppose it’s possible a tiny handful do. I haven’t been able to find any research on Alt-Right demographics, but my guess is that the movement includes essentially no women.
People support Trump for a variety of reasons, most of them undoubtedly benign. I’m not saying that supporting Trump automatically makes someone a sexist white nationalist. But it is true that Trump has a problem with female voters, and especially, educated single women. And that’s a group that Bernie really did resonate with. At any rate, as long as poisonous slugs like Milo Yiannopoulos infest the Alt-Right, and Trump retains his ties to that movement, I’m not much worried about the coolness factor.