Hillary Clinton’s highly touted address on the “alternative right” sparked debates in every corner of American politics. For some commentators on the left, such as the historian Rick Perlstein, Clinton’s decision to cleave “mainstream” conservatism from the alts was an unforced blunder.
“Republican congressional candidates have to be tied to a Trumpism that is understood as the apotheosis of the recent history of the Republican Party,” Perlstein wrote. “Because if they are not, it would be oh so easy for the survivors to say, on November 9: It ain’t me, babe. I’m a Ryan conservative, not a Trumpite. We Ryanites are normal, respectable folk. After all, even Hillary Clinton says so.”
For the alt-right and its allies — a group that temporarily included Republicans who accused Clinton of a strange diversion — the speech helped elevate a fringe. Jared Taylor, the editor of American Renaissance, told The Washington Post before the speech that his colleagues were taking bets on whether they’d be name-checked. After the speech, he was simply bemused.
“She seems to be running against Nigel Farage and Alex Jones for president,” Taylor said. “And maybe Steve Bannon.”
Jones, the Texas-based radio host who has hitched his wagon to Donald Trump, derided Clinton as attacking free speech and trying to control what media was and wasn’t worth listening to. In videos, Jones and his colleagues at InfoWars portrayed her as a sickly, doddering figure of desperation.
“So, Trump is the conspiracy theorist for listening to Alex Jones,” InfoWars contributor Paul Joseph Watson said in one of the site’s many takedowns. “Yet, you just asserted that a former KGB officer under the Communist government of the Soviet Union is now the leader of conservatives in America.”
Watson and Jones were being strategic. The idea that Clinton and Trump were both trafficking in conspiracy theories was advanced by the Associated Press; in a preview of the speech, the AP suggested that “insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin” was Clinton’s answer to Trump’s fulminations about President Obama’s citizenship and her health.
Other people cited in the speech argued that Clinton was engaged in misdirection and that the mainstream media was enabling her. One article cited by Clinton, “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer,” largely consisted of a video inspired by Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, in which college students at the University of Michigan were offered that choice. Yiannopoulos, who has tried to make “feminism is cancer” a catchphrase, does not identify as a member of the alt-right but has explained and credited the movement in several articles. In a fan video from one of his college talks, Yiannopoulos professes his fandom for Pepe, the cartoon frog adopted as an all-purpose meme for the alt-right.
Pepe made a return appearance in Yiannopoulos’s take on the Clinton speech, alongside an illustration of a blank-eyed Clinton wearing a Ghostbusters outfit and the glasses from her post-concussion testimony on Benghazi. “Muslims do not flee religious persecution in the Middle East,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “They move to the west to bring religious persecution to our societies. The alt-right and the Trump coalition in general looks at Europe and says ‘We will not let it happen here.’ Hillary Clinton looks at Europe and says ‘The future is now.'”
VDare, which had asked readers to donate to the site in advance of the speech, found another reason to declare it a failure.
“What Clinton single-handedly did is give the movement the greatest publicity and legitimacy it’s had in years,” wrote VDare’s James Kirkpatrick. “She also specifically designated George W. Bush and John McCain as the kind of good loser conservatives she wants Republicans to act like. In other words, she praised them for being the collaborators they are.”
Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, had the same take.
“The Alt Right as a moniker of resistance is here to stay,” Spencer said. “Hillary just ensured that; there will be more and more people, with various perspectives, adopting it. At this point in history, the ‘Alt’ is just as important as the ‘Right.’ Hillary aligned herself with George W. Bush and John McCain. The Alt Right is the real opposition. We’ve made it, I never thought this would happen so quickly.”