In a scorching takedown of Donald Trump and his alt-right allies, Hillary Clinton reminded Americans that silence never defeats hatred, but that it must be called out and exposed for what it is.
With a record like his, Trump had it coming. After a week of hypocritical and offensive so-called “outreach” to African Americans delivered in front of all-white audiences, Trump stooped low enough to call Clinton a “bigot.” The Republican presidential candidate was more than due for the takedown that Clinton delivered on Thursday.
Clinton could have simply ignored Trump’s baseless accusation. In recent weeks, the Clinton campaign’s strategy seemed to be to stay out of the way and give Trump plenty of room to crash and burn. It worked pretty well, too. Trump almost single-handedly widened Clinton’s lead in the polls into double digits.
She could have responded as Trump himself probably would; with an ill-advised tweet, trumpeting statistics that have no basis in reality, and calling her opponent various names. Instead, Clinton took Trump’s accusation of bigotry, and turned it back on him. Clinton said that Trump “has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia” and is “taking hate groups mainstream.”
She delved into Trump’s own record of racism and discrimination, from the Department of Justice suing Trump for “for refusing to rent apartments to black and Latino tenants,” to Trump’s casinos removing black dealers from the floor whenever he visited.
Then Clinton segued seamlessly from the personal to the political, reminding voters that, “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 reaches of the internet, should never run our government or command our military.” Clinton reminded Americans that Trump launched his campaign railing against Latino immigrants, retweeted white supremacist propaganda, said a federal judge was incapable of doing his job due to his ethnicity, chose a prominent white supremacist as a delegate in California, and hired Breitbart CEO Stephen Bannon to run his campaign. Unlike her opponent, Clinton supported her accusation with verifiable incidents racism.
Toward the end of her speech, Clinton came to the reason why it was necessary. Following the announcement of the speech, critics warned that giving it would only give the alt-right movement the attention and recognition it seeks, and recommended instead that Clinton stick to a bit of time-honored advice in online circles: don’t feed the trolls. But, as media and internet studies scholar Whitney Phillips wrote a few years ago, “sometimes silence isn’t enough, and in fact isn’t appropriate.”
Sometimes assholes need to be called out—and yes, maybe even shamed—not just because the antagonist in question crossed an ethical line but also to send the message that this sort of bigotry or aggression or general unpleasantness will not be tolerated.
As Clinton pointed out, this is bigger than one election. It goes directly to the heart of what kind of country we want to be. The extremists of the alt-right movement are not new. They have always been around. Decades ago, conservatives who cared about mainstream respectability, like William F. Buckley, chased them out of the mainstream conservative movement, and relegated them to its outer fringes.
The GOP, however, held on the extreme right’s tactic of exploiting racial fears and anxieties, and simply called it the “Southern Strategy.” Republicans fed their base on a watered-down version of extremist rhetoric, as described by Republican operative Lee Atwater, nursing the racial anxieties and resentments of the party’s base, and leaving it primed for a candidate like Trump — who embraced the ethos of the extremist right, adopted its rhetoric, and injected both into the national discourse.
The white supremacists and white nationalists of the alt-right movement recognized an opportunity for mutual benefit. Trump represented their path back into the conservative mainstream. His candidacy energized white supremacists and white nationalists, who returned the favor by supporting his candidacy with robocalls and endorsements.
But, as Clinton noted, the conservative mainstreaming of white supremacist and nationalist beliefs and rhetoric comes with the broader risk of normalizing them across the board. Already, Clinton noted, the “Trump effect” has already contributed to an increase in openly racist bullying of minorities in schools across the country. In the past year violence against minorities — blacks, Latinos, Muslims, etc. — has increased, including acts of harassment and violence at Trump rallies and by Trump supporters.
Ignoring the threat represented by the mutual embrace between Trump and the alt-right movement only enables them to spread their poison. In calling out both, rather than maintain silence out of fear that doing so will draw more people to their cause, Clinton exemplifies faith that the forces of hatred and division can and will be defeated by the very decency they assault, proving once again that “America is already great because America is good.”