Today, Hillary Clinton will seek to leash Donald Trump to the explicitly racist and anti-Semitic movement that is infatuated with him: the “alt-right.” By bringing on Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon to serve as his campaign’s CEO—the operational manager of a website that explicitly caters to this movement—Trump has made her job all too easy. Clinton’s task politically will be to educate the country on what the alt-right is and to set the terms of the discussion in a way that will force Trump either to defend himself or defend the alt-right.
The question is whether she will contend that this noxious movement is just another element of conservatism writ large. That would be a lie. The alt-right is not conservative. It rejects conservatism explicitly, and not just because most conservatives have rejected them.
You wouldn’t know this from the media. “Hillary Clinton takes aim at Donald Trump’s ties to ‘alt-right’ world of radical conservatives,” the L.A. Times declared. “‘Alt right’ conservative movement embraces the Trump campaign,” Fox News contended. These are misstatements of fact. The alt-right doesn’t subscribe to a conservative philosophy, nor do its members brand themselves conservatives. Indeed, they believe conservatism to be a failed ideology that needs to be replaced by something far more authoritarian.
This is a movement that rejects conservative policy prescriptions ranging from the need to reform entitlements to the very idea of limited government. They mock reverence for the Constitution as mere idol worship. The limitations the Constitution imposes on the federal government represent an unacceptable impediment to their preferred program. They reject the notion of an extroverted American foreign policy, preferring instead the appeal of retrenchment and the fantasy of Fortress America. This is a movement that mocks social conservatism, defined as reverence for traditional mores and values, as backward religiosity. As James Kirchick wrote in COMMENTARY’s June issue, the intellectual foundations of the alt-right are rooted in a tendency that dubs itself the “dark enlightenment,” which is exactly what it sounds like—authoritarian, fascistic, and illiberal.
To call this collection of largely anonymous malcontents members of a “conservative” movement is simply fallacious. There is little the alt-right seeks to conserve about the country as it is currently constituted. It is a radical movement dedicated to scuttling the nation’s founding documents and replacing its Judeo-Christian ethos with something else entirely.
Intrepid NBC News reporter Benjy Sarlin noted accurately there was something ironic in this dispute over definitions by observing that the argument mirrors the right’s attack on Democrats for rejecting the label of “radical Islam.” Sarlin is absolutely right, but not in the way he thinks. Those who refuse to use the term radical Islamic terrorists use for themselves—jihadis—are rejecting what these virulent figures believe and imposing on them a more politically convenient definition.
It is a political inevitability that opportunists will try to appropriate any seemingly potent social force and use it for their own ends. The alt-right is no exception to that rule. Democrats are being lured into contending that the alt-right is simply another arm of the conservative movement.
And some conservatives are tempted to see its online energy as something worth harnessing. This is something they must resist. Even the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt got into the game when he imposed on this racist movement a more palatable worldview than the one its members so inconveniently discuss freely and without shame.
“I define the alt-Right much more broadly as the reflexively anti-GOP right that is largely based in the anti-any-immigration-reform-of-any-sort and anti-Paul Ryan-and-Mitch McConnell club,” Hewitt wrote recently. This is simply wrong. To narrowly define this nihilistic outfit as just another lobbying group with a preference for a slightly more robust legislative compromise on immigration reform is delusional. They don’t merely reject compromise on immigration reform; they reject legislation as a form of small-r republican weakness.
This is not an ideology with which compromise and accommodation are possible. Its proponents do not seek it, nor should their principled adversaries.