Is Hillary Clinton’s Alt-Right Strategy an Act of Genius?

(Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Hillary Clinton looks up to audience members as she leaves the campaign event in Reno, Nevada, on August 25.

It was a short speech delivered in a subdued tone. But nearly a week after Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took to a stage in Nevada to lay out her opponent’s ties to the racist alt-right movement, the speech is still reverberating, and drawing analysis from all quarters.

The sort of conservatives who deem themselves to be more respectable than Donald J. Trump, the bombastic Republican presidential nominee, fret that Clinton elevated the alt right, which they’d like to corral into the pen of a fringe movement. Others say she smeared the movement by calling it racist. The libertarian Reason magazine ran a headline accusing Clinton of, through her speech, recruiting for the alt right. And some liberals and progressives took issue with the strategy Clinton displayed in her address—that of differentiating Trump and his racism from the ideology of more mainstream Republican Party leaders.

Writing at The Washington Spectator, historian Rick Perlstein made the latter argument, jumping off from an email written by Democratic National Committee Communications Director Luis Miranda that was uncovered in the WikiLeaks dump of materials hacked from the DNC server.

In the May email to DNC Chief Operations Office Amy Dacey cited by Perlstein, Miranda questions a strategy akin to that exercised in Clinton’s August 25 speech—that of separating Trump from the Republican leadership. Miranda wrote that “asking state Parties to praise House Republicans like Ryan would be damaging for the Party down ballot.”

But that is not what Clinton did. She simply cited Trump’s contempt for the House Speaker’s religious views. Trump, she reminded her audience, railed against Paul Ryan for, as Trump adviser Steve Bannon said, “rubbing his social-justice Catholicism in my nose every second.”

This was a shrewd move. Trump has an enormous problem with Catholic voters, according to a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. In fact, Trump may have single-handedly revived the once-monolithic “Catholic vote,” which hasn’t existed as such for decades. The poll shows Clinton leading Trump among Catholics by 23 points—compare that with exit polling from the 2012 presidential race that showed a nearly even split in Catholic votes for Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. Clinton wants to make sure those Catholics show up to vote on November 8, and tying Trump to the white supremacist strain of the right revives memories of the racist anti-Catholic movements of yore.

And when Clinton, in her speech, contrasted the remarks of former presidential candidates John McCain and Bob Dole, who both publicly rejected racist statements by supporters, she was also shaming them for their endorsements of Trump.

Make no mistake, I take Perlstein’s larger point—that Trump’s candidacy, and the racism that comes with it, is the logical result of the GOP’s decades of racist dog-whistling, and the party’s takeover by the right wing. Perlstein has chronicled this shift in such epic works as Before the Storm and Nixonland, books that stand not only as extraordinary feats of scholarship and analysis, but collectively as a public service to the American people. And I agree that it’s frustrating to have that history papered over in a speech that drew so much attention. (I say this, too, as an essayist who has from the start linked Trump to the GOP’s turn toward the racist right.)

Clinton’s speech in Reno, however, was a tour de force and possibly an act of wedge-setting genius. Instead of harming down-ballot Democratic candidates—notably those running for the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—Clinton may actually have helped them with her speech. Ticket-splitting is becoming increasingly rare in U.S. elections; most people who turn out for presidential elections fill out the rest of the ballot for candidates of the same party as their chosen presidential candidate. While the extremely low percentage of ticket-splitters in the 2012 electorate (5.7 percent) may be an outlier, it’s unlikely that Clinton’s speech will bring a flux of new voters who wouldn’t have voted for Republican congressional candidates anyway. What she’s more likely to have done with that speech is to have made the case to Republican-leaning swing voters—the sort who always vote in presidential elections—that she’s a better bet than Trump. It will be up to candidates for Congress to emphasize their opponents’ ties to the Republican presidential nominee, especially any endorsements of him.

And then there’s this: In discussing the influence of the racist alt-right movement in the Trump campaign, Clinton delivered an address of historical significance. Never before has a presidential candidate been willing to talk about the racist right as a baked-in part of American politics, as something that demands the serious attention of serious people.

Mainstream media have long dismissed such movements as fringe and insignificant; consequently, institutions of education, politics, and media have tended to marginalize those who research and cover the right wing. Now that the presidential candidate of one of the nation’s two major political parties has yanked that curtain aside, big media has to cover the movement for what it is: more than just a racist, misogynist, nativist strain of the GOP, but a vital gene in the party’s DNA. In other words, there’s a reason the Republican Party, in a racially diverse nation, is nearly all white.

There’s no doubt that the strategy employed in Clinton’s speech carries some risk, if only because it defies conventional wisdom about how to conduct party politics in an election. But there’s little that’s conventional about this presidential campaign cycle, and it’s the political establishment’s investment in conventional wisdom that brought us the surprise of the Trump nomination. Clinton is trying a new strategic—and wedge-setting—approach.

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