Poisoning the Well: The Rise of the Alt-Right

Posted on October 31, 2016 by

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The body politic is under attack, fighting off an illness so aggressive and vile that while it’s expected to make a recovery, it may never fully be the same again.

You know an election has been hostile when the two presidential candidates are asked, in a formal debate, to name one positive thing about the other. You know an election has had a lasting, damaging effect on the American public when members of the electorate have to seek professional help in order to grapple with the election’s rhetoric. As anyone living above ground can attest to, the 2016 cycle has been rife with insult slinging, a practice not unique to this year’s election alone. Getting into the mud happens all the time, questionable ads are run and unsavory tactics are used. But what makes this cycle’s rhetoric more damaging has everything to do with its source: the alt-right.

While mainstream media outlets downplayed Trump’s candidacy announcement in 2015, the alt-right saw an opportunity. As early embracers of Trump, the alt-right launched an aggressive campaign to boost his political message by propagating openly racist, sexist, and xenophobic content on their outlets. Rebranded as a rejection of so-called political correctness, Trump began to embrace the alt-right faction of his party, most notably by naming one of the movement’s leaders, executive of Breitbart News Stephen Bannon, as his campaign’s CEO in August of 2016. Since then, Trump has not only ramped up his regimen of divisive language, but he has also  openly flirted with the more fringe elements of the movement.

In January, Trump notoriously retweeted a Twitter user with the handle “WhiteGenocideTM,” an account that according to CNN has, “…about 2,300 followers — used the name ‘Donald Trumpovitz,’ linked to a website containing a pro-Adolf Hitler documentary, featured a background photo with red lettering saying ‘Get the F— Out of My Country’ and had a location of ‘Jewmerica.’ The account also includes a photo of George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party.” CNN also noted that, “The account’s Twitter feed was largely a collection of retweets about violence allegedly committed by African-American suspects and anti-Arab posts.”

But wait, there’s more!

Last August, Trump tweeted a photo of Hillary Clinton’s “History Made” graphic, superimposed atop a background of money with a star reading, “Most corrupt candidate ever!” Critics immediately attacked the tweet, claiming that the star and money were representative of a coded anti-Semitic message.

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After the storm of controversy, the tweet was deleted and officials from Trump’s campaign released a statement in which they said that the image was not created by the campaign directly, but that it had instead been lifted from another user on the platform. After some digging, it was revealed that the original source of the tweet in question was a user by the name of  “FishBoneHead1,” whose profile was peppered with images like the one below.

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As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explains, anti-Semitism existed long before Trump’s candidacy, but it’s evolution since Trump has taken a nastier, more confrontational turn:

“It’s worth emphasizing how genuinely new this sort of thing is.

In a digressive aside to his own account of Trumpist anti-Semitic harassment, Jeffrey Goldberg says that in his opinion, ‘opposition to the creation and continued existence of a Jewish state’ constitutes ‘a form of anti-Semitism.’ Larry Summers memorably dubbed a certain strand of anti-Israel activism as ‘anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent.’

Whatever one makes of these formulae, they capture the pre-Trump state of discourse around anti-Semitism in the United States. It was about Israel, and the people accused of it would generally deny that they had any kind of problem with Jews.

Since Trump, we have something much cruder, more straightforward, and more concretely linked to historical anti-Semitism and generalized bigotry — people lauding Hitler, throwing around the word ‘kike,’ and making memes that mash up Hillary Clinton with swastikas and/or the Star of David.”

Yglesias adds,

“Trump has not acted to distance himself in any way from the anti-Semitic behavior of his followers. There’s been nothing remotely in the vicinity of Barack Obama’s famous race speech from the 2008 campaign, and Trump has consistently appeared angrier about being criticized for ties to anti-Semites than about the anti-Semitism expressed by many of his fans. His campaign is promoting ethnic nationalism in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades, and that mobilization of majoritarian ethnic identity is bad for the Jews, whether Trump likes it or not.”

It’s Trump’s keen awareness of and attention to members of the alt-right that has consistently lowered the standard of political discourse. And it’s his continued public pandering to this group that is, perhaps, one of the most dangerous aspects of this election: the mainstream absorption of alt-right rhetoric.

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