"Alt-right" demonstrators clash with counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017.Steve Helber / AP

Donald Trump’s rise triggered a debate about the so-called alt-right, how best to define it, and its role in the American political theater. Broadly speaking, two poles dominate that debate, as most of the public focuses its fleeting attention elsewhere.

One side defines the alt-right broadly enough that it encompasses large swaths of the Republican Party, the conservative movement, and Trump supporters. And it regards all three groups as discredited by the alt-right’s racist ideology.

The other side defines the alt-right narrowly, so that it constitutes a tiny, marginal group of fringe ethno-nationalists who wield almost no influence in the Republican Party, the conservative movement, or the pro-Trump coalition.

Last week I heard an alternative theory. As David French sees it, the alt-right is a tiny group, and its ideology differs significantly from the mainstream of the Republican Party. Yet the alt-right has had a significant, negative influence on conservatives, he contends, through its tactics.

“The alt-right is a combination of ideology and tactics,” French said Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “Ideologically, the alt-right is white nationalist. It is post-constitutionalist. And it is often quite pagan … Nobody knows how big it is … if it numbers in the thousands or the tens of thousands … It’s not a huge number of people.”

But tactically, he continued, “they punch way above their weight. So how are they doing it? Well, in 2015 and 2016 … they did it as a wave of targeted harassment directed primarily against Trump critics.” The conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was among them.

So was French’s family, as he explained in harrowing detail:

My family is a multiracial family.

My youngest daughter was adopted from Ethiopia. When I criticized Donald Trump, alt-right figures took pictures of my daughter, who was 7 years old at the time, and Photoshopped her face into gas chambers … I was deployed to Iraq for a year. They said that the reason my daughter is black is that my wife was repeatedly having sex with black men. They filled her Twitter feed with black porn. They found her blog and filled it with pictures of dead and dying African Americans. They issued death threats. They hacked into phone calls with my wife and my elderly father-in-law screaming obscenities.

As he sees it, the alt-right’s core tactic is inflicting pain for political ends, “often in the way that is the most personal.” Is the Republican Party influenced by the alt-right? “Yes,” French said. “Cruelty as a tactic is now a part of the playbook on the right.”

For anyone who doubts that Trump, the Republican Party’s leader, has a cruel streak, read up on his past. If you doubt that Trumpism has that same streak, read Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty Is the Point,” where Serwer writes:

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting.

There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.

I don’t know whether this is proof that the alt-right has influenced the Republican Party or the conservative movement. Perhaps Trump’s cruelty would have influenced the right even if the alt-right didn’t exist. But I agree with French that the alt-right is characterized not only by its ideology, but also by the cruelty of its tactics, and that Trump and his allies embrace those tactics, whether coincidentally or because the alt-right is an influential, if small, part of their coalition.

Neither explanation is exonerating.

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