In Reno yesterday, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gave a big speech about Donald Trump’s connections to the right-wing fringe. She talked about David Duke’s affection for the Republican nominee, and about Trump’s budding partnership with the Nigel Farage, the former leader of Britain’s far-right UK Independence Party. She talked about the candidate’s history of racially discriminating against his tenants.
And she talked about the alt-right.
Of course, the alt-right was thrilled. It’s not every day that a major presidential candidate calls out your fringe movement, even if there’s some murkiness about what your fringe movement actually is. (Quoting the Wall Street Journal, Clinton described it as “a loosely organized movement, mostly online, that ‘rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.'”)
Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who came up with the term “alternative right,” told Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg that the moment was “hugely significant.”
“When a presidential candidate—and indeed the presidential candidate who is leading in most polls—talks about your movement directly, I think you can safely say that you’ve made it,” he continued.
Trump has been palling around with the alt-right for months. The question for Clinton, basically, was when do you feed the trolls? Her answer—Feed them now!—may have been a savvy political move. Or it may just hand new weapons to her opponents and give them a whole new level of cohesion and national prominence. As Goldberg notes, a white nationalist organization has already used the speech in a fundraising appeal.
But the Clinton speech also illustrates a slippery dilemma that feels widespread here in the age of the attention economy: when your opponents seem to exist for attention, how do you take a public moral stand against them?
For a long time, fringe groups have followed the principle that there is no such thing as bad publicity. What has been striking about the alt-right, though, is the degree to which it frames provocation as its raison d’être, rather than as a means to an end. As Allum Bohkari and Milo Yiannopolous put it in a much-cited essay titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right”:
Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide… Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents.
In other words: the kids are trolling you, people! Relax! The argument is deeply disingenuous. How can two pundit-activists, even one as influential as Yiannopolous, claim that their movement won’t feed into real-world violence or political action, especially when it already has?
But there’s a genuine point in there, too: without question, shock value can be part of the fringe’s appeal. We live in a culture that celebrates non-conformity of all kinds, often with little attention to its moral consequences. And in the internet age, attention—even fleeting or negative attention—is tied very directly to profits. Breitbart News, where Yiannopolous works, is a privately held company, so it does not have to disclose much financial information. But his provocative claims probably haven’t been bad for its bottom line.
The joy of provocation does not explain white supremacy. But, while the alt-right didn’t invent white supremacy, this particular cocktail of troll-ish pleasure, countercultural ethos, threat, and old-school racism does seem to be having a moment.
And it is posing fresh dilemmas. An effective troll is harmful enough that to ignore him is to overlook an immoral act. But to engage the troll is to help him, and to give him the tools he needs (money, prominence, a sense of reward) to troll even more. This is the genius of trolling: it is a particular strategy to paralyze moral response. And it seems ideally suited for a world in which attention is currency and anonymity is easy to come by.
A version of this paradox exists in the realm of mass shootings, too. Acts of random violence often seem, in part, to function as dramatic plays for attention or celebrity status. The Orlando nightclub shooter reportedly checked his phone for news about the shooting during the actual event; the man who murdered hostages at the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store in Paris last year filmed the attack on a GoPro camera (in that light, the company’s slogan, Be a HERO, seems chilling). It would be wrong to ignore these shooters—their acts have enormous consequences—but you feel complicit, somehow, when you pay attention to them, too.
In Reno, Clinton may have made a sharp political calculation. As William Saletan argues, the candidate seems to be pushing establishment Republicans to exit Trump’s orbit, and offering them a frame for the schism. The reasoning, perhaps, is that it’s better to have a vocal right-wing fringe movement (like Farage’s UKIP) that has limited access to political power than to have a quieter right-wing fringe movement that, by taking over a mainstream party, actually has a shot at national office.
I suspect Clinton and her campaign made a good bet. Better to face things head on than to pretend they don’t exist, especially when so much is on the line. But the issue remains thorny. Faced with new, muscular expressions of bigotry, we don’t just have to search for a moral response. We also have to grapple, again and again, with these new and puzzling ethics of attention.