There has always been an extremist fringe in this country consisting of far-left and far-right elements that hold views that are out of line with the majority of Americans and with the concept of America as a democratic republic. From the Communist Party to the Klu Klux Klan to the American Nazi Party, those with politically and socially radical views have been out there, seeking to damage if not destroy our democracy and its ideals of equality and freedom for all. While some of these fringe groups, particularly those on the right wing of the political spectrum, attempt to put on a public face of legitimacy, it’s not hard to see beyond that veneer and understand them for what they are: hate groups that have used violence, fear and lies to harm what is dear to us. The strength of these groups has ebbed and flowed over the years, but they have always been a small minority of the American people.
Donald Trump, however, has secured the Republican Party nomination at least in part by pandering to these extremists. Certainly, over the years there have been presidential candidates that have been racists and held anti-democratic, discriminatory views. Trump is one of them, making unabashedly racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant and anti-minority comments and threats from the very beginning of his campaign to attract his base of supporters. Now he has made a direct political connection with the extreme right wing by hiring John Bannon, the CEO of the “alt-right” fringe website, Breitbart.com, as his own campaign CEO. Hillary Clinton, recognizing the danger of such an alliance, has stepped up and taken on this threat.
On Thursday, Clinton addressed the dangerous trend that Trump has stirred up by his remarks from the very beginning of his drive for the presidency, now well known to all. She exposed Trump as “a man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far, dark reaches of the Internet.” She referred to his discriminatory practices of not renting to people of color in the 1970’s and to his “birther” campaign against President Obama. She alluded to Trump’s use of name-calling and lies against his opponents during the primaries and against all who disparage him, alarmed that “bullying and harassment are on the rise in our schools, especially targeting students of color, Muslims and immigrants. They see it in a presidential campaign and now it’s okay for everyone to say this.”
For most of us, the name “Breitbart” and the term “alt-right” seemed to just pop into our vocabulary a week or so ago. We’ve all been aware, of course, that extreme right wing fringe groups have been associated with the Trump campaign for a while, certainly since former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke expressed his support for Trump and Trump refused to disassociate himself from Duke. Certainly since Trump began incorporating racist, nationalist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic themes and statements into his speeches and those infamous tweets. Certainly since he began encouraging violence against protestors at his rallies, and since he began bullying his fellow candidates and critics with name calling, which could have been written off as simply immature mischief had it not reflected the hate behind it.
But this new Breitbart connection takes this to a new level. As we have been hearing of late, “alt-right” (short for “alternative right”) refers to a strain of neoconservativism that goes beyond traditional, mainstream Republicanism by incorporating threads of nativism, misogyny and bigotry. It relies on conspiracy theories and lies to whip up right wing radicals, directed to and accepted by people who feel left behind and abandoned, looking for targets of blame. It turns its back on the problems of the world and the need for the U.S., still the world’s richest and strongest nation, to at least try to solve them, instead blaming President Obama and Hillary Clinton for everything that has gone wrong.
Clinton was right to step up and strongly condemn this latest Trump tactic. Trump has shown himself to be no more than a dangerous demagogue who threatens to undo the progress made to turn the promise of America into the reality of America. Hillary should continue to expose him for what he is and what he would do to our democratic institutions if elected.
From a political perspective, it’s hard to see exactly what Trump will gain from this Breitbart connection. After Bannon was appointed CEO of his campaign, it was widely speculated that this move was made to “let Trump be Trump again”, in other words to let him continue making his outrageous, off-the-cuff remarks and tweets to appeal to his base. Remarks which he usually contradicted or reversed the next day.
At the same time, he appointed Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager, allegedly in order to bring out Trump’s more moderate, gentler side.
Yet it’s difficult to understand how campaign advisors with such contrasting styles and methods can be effective in putting out a consistent, believable message and in getting Trump’s campaign back on track. Clearly, in light of his poor polling since the conventions, he needed to do something. But for someone who has been flip-flopping and backtracking on his remarks anyway, having advisors with disparate messages and tactics would seem to only highlight his campaign’s weaknesses.
This has already happened. This past week Trump tried to play down his infamous, inflammatory immigration proposal. After stressing for over a year that he would deport the millions of undocumented residents, he tried to “soften” his stance by moving towards a position actually suggested by President Obama as part of his efforts to initiate a discussion of immigration reform! Apparently this was Trump’s effort to attract the votes of more moderate, suburban middle class Republicans who cannot imagine the prospect of rounding up millions of people, including children, and shipping them out of the country.
But Trump makes this change at the risk of alienating the core supporters who were attracted to his aggressive, hard-line stance on immigration from the beginning. Apparently he believes that he can hold onto his base while moving towards the center even if it means contradicting what originally attracted them. After all, he has boasted that he could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square and his supporters would still vote for him. But he may have miscalculated as there has already been blowback against this latest flip-flop, and he is already moving back to his original hard-line deportation theme.
On Hillary’s side, due to the Trump side-show, it has been difficult for her to focus on the real issues facing this country and the “wonky” policy proposals that she would prefer to talk about, needing to concentrate on what a dangerously unacceptable candidate Trump is. Trump is still dominating the news according to the theory that even bad news is good for him; the question is, is this true? Given his narcissistic personality, it seems to fulfill some sort of need. And some political commentators suggest that if he loses the election, he will create a media organization, similar to Fox News, taking his core supporters with him to fight and obstruct from the outside. In other words, don’t count on Trump shifting into a campaign based on a rational, consistent discussion of the issues, no matter how much it may affect his campaign.
So Trump has continued on the dangerous course he set from the first days of his campaign, attempting to lure voters unhappy with the direction our country is taking by blaming immigrants, minority group members, women and Democrats. As Hillary Clinton so clearly exposed in her speech, Trump has reinforced his alliance with an extremist group by bringing in the head of that group to run his campaign. While Trump seems to say controversial and extreme things almost every day, Clinton knew she had to immediately expose this alarming direction in the Trump campaign. Her latest speech did just that.