Tomorrow in Reno, Hillary Clinton will speak about—as her press office put it—"Donald Trump and his advisors' embrace of the disturbing 'alt-right' political philosophy." Whether or not that speech helps Clinton's presidential bid, it will almost certainly help the alt-right.
I suppose I should pause here to define "alt-right." This is a tricky task, because the meaning has drifted a bit over time. It's short for "alternative right," a phrase that first started percolating in conversations and emails around 2008; I usually see it attributed to the far-right writer Richard Spencer, though I can't say for sure that he coined it. The backdrop was the slow decay of the paleoconservative movement, a wing of the right that had spent the '80s and '90s arguing that the conservative mainstream was too globalist and too egalitarian. In the twilight of the second Bush administration, one of the old paleos, Paul Gottfried, delivered a speech that called on a young "post-paleo" right to battle the conservative establishment without getting mired in the intellectual cul-de-sacs that he felt had ensnared his generation. The speech itself did not include the phrase "alternative right," but when Taki's published the text it used "The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right" as its headline. (At that point Spencer was managing editor of Taki's.) Early on, some writers used the phrase in that broad sense, roping in everyone from young Buchananites to the Ron Paul movement. But by the time Spencer started a site called Alternative Right, the easiest definition of "alt-right" was "the stuff Richard Spencer believes." And more and more, Spencer's politics were not just post-paleo but explicitly white nationalist.
The meaning mutated again when the phrase caught on in some neighborhoods of 4chan, an online haven for pranksters who enjoy being offensive for its own sake; the connotations of "alt-right" now included a bunch of 4chan memes and inside jokes, and at times a dose of irony. (While most alt-rightists are completely serious about their politics, with the channer component it isn't always clear if someone believes what he's spouting or is trolling you.) Since then the alt-right's boundaries have grown only blurrier. (If you want to spark an esoteric argument, ask a bunch of right-wing-watchers if they think the neoreactionaries are a part of the alternative right or a distinct movement.) In the last year I've seen all sorts of online subcultures described as alt-rightists, whether or not the designation makes sense. Vox's "explainer" on the alt-right devotes a couple thousand words to neoreaction and a couple hundred words to Gamergate; Spencer is mentioned just once.
In any event, the core of the alt-right tends to like Trump, and there are people on Team Trump who like them back. Notably, there is former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, recently hired as Trump's campaign CEO, who has called Breitbart "the platform for the alt-right." Bannon definition of "alt-right" might not be the same as Spencer's—he says he sees the central idea just as nationalism, not racial nationalism—but like I said, the meaning tends to drift.
After Clinton's speech, it's likely to drift still further. For part of the country, "alt-right" will mean "those creepy Trump fans." For another part, it will mean "someone who's got Hillary really hot and bothered…hmm. Maybe I should look into them." Yesterday the racist site VDare greeted the news of Clinton's speech with the words "It's happening." One of VDare's Twitter followers replied, "shall we tell our grand children one day that Clinton did more to build the alt-right brand than Trump?"
That's what happens when you take an obscure political faction and make them the starring villain in a speech by the presidential frontrunner: You give them a signal boost. You promote them from internet fringe to center of gravity. You build up their myth. As the '60s radical Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Yippies, put it in another context, "To build their myth they exaggerate our myth—they create a Yippie Menace. The menace helps create the reality." The left's best organizer, Rubin declared, was George Wallace. When he attacked them, he made them seem larger.
Needless to say, the benefits flowed both ways. (Wallace once told some Yippie hecklers, "Some of your actions tonight have helped me get a lot of votes.") It's entirely possible that Clinton's speech will help her politically. Most voters who take a look at the alt-right are going to be repelled by what they see, and if they associate it with Trump they'll be motivated to vote against him. That's the way polarization politics works: Two opposing sides grow at the expense of everyone else.