President Donald Trump on Tuesday introduced a new nemesis to join the “fake news” media, Crooked Hillary, and Mexican rapists: the alt-left. “What about the alt-left?” Trump raged at a press conference at Trump Tower, seething over demands that he condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. “What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
We shouldn’t be surprised that Trump is unwilling to blame white supremacists for the fatal violence that struck Charlottesville on August 12, even when one of their cohort murdered an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, who was protesting their presence in her city. We shouldn’t be surprised because his every deed and utterance has shown that he either holds similar views or is merely content to let them flourish. Nor should we be surprised by his use of the term “alt-left.” The only way he can excuse the actions of violent racists is to create a false equivalence. The press, Trump rambled, had treated the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “very unfairly.”
But we should be at least partly surprised by the origins of this misleading and corrosive term. It is beloved by the likes of Sean Hannity and former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, who have used it to denigrate Trump’s opponents. And it has also been popularized—and legitimized—by red-baiting liberals who fear the rise of a progressive populist movement.
Unlike the term “alt-right,” which was coined by white supremacists to give their age-old movement a modern edge, the “alt-left” is an insult. As my colleague Clio Chang wrote in March of liberals who choose to use the term: “A graver sin is the adoption of a term that was created by conservatives to smear the left and discredit criticisms of the growing clout of the racist right.”
It should go without saying, but the left does not promote hate crimes or commit them. It does not strive for an ethno-state. It is explicitly anti-racist and feminist. It demands the redistribution of wealth. You may find that terrifying, but it’s not actually terrorism. And when a horde of white supremacists overran Charlottesville with their tiki torches and Confederate flags, the left was at the front lines, defending everyone else’s right to freedom. A member of the left died for those rights.
But if you pay attention to a number of prominent liberals and Democrats, you would think the American left poses some existential threat to the United States. Here’s Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, the most influential Democratic policy shop in the United States:
Here’s The Nation’s Joan Walsh:
Here’s Tom Watson, founder of CauseWired, a consulting firm that allegedly “helps organizations inspire people to support causes that change the world:”
Here’s Joy Ann Reid, the host of MSNBC’s AM Joy:
And here’s Eric Boehlert of Shareblue, the social media network that was created by David Brock to help lead the online resistance to Trump:
Liberals often use “alt-left” to describe progressives they consider rude or with whom they have Twitter beef; it is personal animus disguised as politics. James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair in March, captured the general spirit of disdain and irritation:
Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with “identity politics,” and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the ‘alt-right’ and an alt-left. They’re not kissin’ cousins, but they caterwaul some of the same tunes in different keys.
The events of Charlottesville should clarify that the only tune the so-called alt-left is singing is that it hates fascists. And yet Markos Moulitsas, founder of what is supposed to be one of the most progressive blogs in the world, decided to regurgitate red-baiting canards the very day a white supremacist killed a counter-protester:
The function of the term “alt-left” is to collapse the distinction between the activist left and the racist right. That’s why reactionaries like Sean Hannity use it. That’s why Donald Trump has taken it up. We are likely to hear a lot more about the alt-left in the coming months and years—and if liberals continue to use it, they will be doing the right-wing’s work.
So it is time for the entire left to permanently retire the term. It insults the dead and the work the left is doing to stop the rise of fascism in our country. It serves the cause of the right wing, amplifying its noxious tactics of delegitimization. These liberals have invested a lot of energy in an effort to discredit anyone sitting to their left. They are so furious, so disturbed by the emergence of this invigorated movement, that they paint them with the brush of fascism—even while the very people they vilify are on the streets fighting the Ku Klux Klan. In so doing, they have served the purposes of Donald Trump and no one else.