One of the most common criticisms when Megyn Kelly's interview with Alex Jones aired on Sunday was that, by giving him the time of day, she was somehow legitimizing him and making him stronger.
It's time for liberals and moderates to accept an uncomfortable truth: Ignoring the radical right is what makes it stronger, not acknowledging it.
We can start with the presidential campaign of Ron Paul, for as Salon's Matthew Sheffield points out, "it's more than uncanny how many current alt-right leaders backed the former Texas congressman in his quixotic bids to stop GOP mainstream candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney."
Although Paul himself advocated a brand of extreme libertarianism that couldn't be further removed from the grab-bag ideology propounded by Donald Trump, he managed to draw support from a mosaic of racists, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists and others who are traditionally dismissed as "fringe." He was particularly popular online, where he has remained a popular meme even though his last major political campaign ended with his failed presidential bid in 2012.
Yet despite winning more than 2 million votes in the 2012 presidential primaries, Paul was written off by observers of that election, with the chronicle Double Down describing him as "more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee."
Let's hop ahead two years to Gamergate, the quasi-political movement that tried to cover up its members' seething hatred of feminism and women in video gaming by claiming that they were concerned about journalistic ethics. It might seem silly to equate a mob of online misogynistic fanboys with a presidential campaign, but as Ian Sherr and Erin Carson of CNET astutely observe, this reactionary pop culture backlash very easily bled into the realm of serious politics.
"Soon, the mob's attention turned to a world much wider than video games," they write. "Ultimately, some of them — like the popular right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich — moved on from GamerGate to attack presidential candidate Hillary Clinton."
As they later point out, "By the time the 2016 presidential election moved into its final phase, pitting Clinton against Donald Trump, these mobs' favorite tactics were well-established."
It isn't a coincidence that many of the same people who were seen advocating for Ron Paul's presidential candidacy in 2012 and tooting the Gamergate horn in 2014 became, if not outright pro-Trump, then without exception virulently hateful toward Hillary Clinton. Their vitriol makes little sense from a strictly ideological standpoint, since Clinton's neoliberal philosophy is no different from the views propounded by mainstream Democrats (such as Bill Clinton himself) who have never attracted such ire from the alt-right and other movements like them.
Yet, because Hillary Clinton is seen by them as a symbol of feminism, multiculturalism and a number of other progressive values — and these same emotions were used to fuel Paul's campaign in 2012 and the Gamergate movement in 2014 — it was natural that they bled over into the anti-Clinton backlash.
This brings us to the other major pop culture backlash that, despite many in the media claiming it should have been ignored, ultimately wound up having real-world political consequences. The 2016 reboot of "Ghostbusters" was, as I wrote at the time, a good-but-not-great movie that — because of the intensely misogynistic backlash of many online — wound up a lightning rod for cultural issues rather than the innocent and fun popcorn flick it had been destined to be.
"The apex of furor over women getting good roles in movies was hit over the summer, when sexist men melted down over the release of 'Ghostbusters,' a remake of the 1984 comedy classic, but starring women instead of men," writes Salon's Amanda Marcotte. "For reasons that will never really make sense, letting women have an equal opportunity to crack jokes while shooting ghosts sent an alarming number of men over the edge and right wing organizers like Milo Yiannopoulos were there to catch those men, giving political meaning to their anger and encouraging them to vote for Trump."
Along with their far-right political vantage points, the common theme connecting the Ron Paul campaigns, Gamergate movement, anti-Ghostbusters movement, anti-Hillary Clinton backlash and Donald Trump campaign is that all of them were to varying degrees dismissed by pundits on the grounds that "If you pay too much attention to them, you wind up giving them legitimacy."
Yet, as you may have noticed, despite this attitude, each of these movements wound up yielding meaningful results. The white nationalism that fueled Paul eventually benefited Trump and got him elected to the presidency; Gamergate has threatened and negatively impacted the lives of many feminists in the gaming industry, from critic Anita Sarkeesian to indie developer Zoe Quinn; "Ghostbusters" was a flop and Hillary Clinton, despite her deep résumé and years of experience as a Democratic Party leader, isn't just an Also Ran but a pariah due to the effectiveness of the far-right smears against her.
Which brings us back to Megyn Kelly's interview with Alex Jones. Like it or not, Jones is a man with millions of followers, one whose show has the ear of the American president and who has attracted a number of other high-profile political guests. He has pull, whether you want to admit it or not, and there is zero precedent for thinking that ignoring him will somehow diminish any of that.
I'm not going to offer commentary on whether Kelly did a good job or not of interviewing Jones (I covered the mixed responses to her interview here), but I will say that anyone who criticizes her merely for the act of interviewing him is, for lack of a better word, naive or willfully ignoring history and reason.
America's recent cultural and political history makes it clear that the far right is going to continue to have clout in this country regardless of whether we choose to address them. As a result, the best chance we have for defeating them isn't in pretending that closing our eyes makes them disappear, but in confronting them head on.