The troubling origins of Trump's 'alt-left' smear
President Trump is, at the very least, in sympathy with white supremacy. That much was clear during his latest press conference, when he walked back his previous condemnation of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in which a known neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields, Jr., allegedly murdered Heather Heyer by running her down with his car.
"There is blame on both sides," he said, specifically blaming a so-called "alt-left." " What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right'? Do they have any semblance of guilt? They came charging with clubs in their hands."
The history of this term is instructive, both in the use of propaganda and in the irresponsibility of left-punching centrist liberals, who could not resist the temptation to smear their competitors for control of the Democratic Party as being akin to white supremacists.
Let me start with the alt-right. This term was deliberately coined and adopted by white supremacist Richard Spencer, as something more sanitized and neutral-sounding than the traditional name for what he espouses — namely, white supremacy. As we all have seen, this movement — while still small — has significant numbers, and has been powerfully emboldened by the Trump presidency. So despite Spencer's branding effort, "alt-right" was quickly associated with racism.
As best I can tell, the very first people to use the term "alt-left" was a tiny faction within the alt-right, who favor more left-leaning economic policy. However, this did not catch on. The actual popular use came later, from two sources, more or less simultaneously. First was a tu quoque from mainstream Republicans, desperately looking for something to distract from the fact that their party was now headed by an elderly addle-brained racist. If the left also had racists, then it somehow wasn't so bad that Republicans had nominated one for president.
Second was from centrist liberals, who were and are furious at leftist criticism of Hillary Clinton and centrist Democrats. (As Sarah Jones documents, these include extremely prominent writers, TV personalities, and Democratic Party hangers-on, like Markos Moulitsas, Tom Watson, Neera Tanden, Josh Marshall, Joan Walsh, Joy Ann Reid, and many others.) "Alt-left" was a useful shorthand for the incendiary charge that all or most criticism of the neoliberal establishment was motivated by straightforward bigotry on par with violent white supremacy, if not quite so extreme.
Both of these instances are lying smears. Nobody on the left assumed the label "alt-left" to describe some political agenda. As the Anti-Defamation League's Mark Pitcavage told The New York Times, "the word had been made up to create a false equivalence between the far right and 'anything vaguely left-seeming that they didn't like.'"
It was a vile insult from start to finish — and actually the precise opposite of truth. As I have detailed before, until about 2015 the actually-existing left has always stood at the forefront of struggles for social justice, while the center-left has advocated restraint or actually advanced bigoted policy. Indeed, one of the strongest criticisms leveled against neoliberal free-market policies is the disproportionate harm done to minority communities. A broad left-wing economic platform must be part of any assault on American bigotry.
Now, that is not to say that leftist political formations are 100 percent free from prejudice. This is America, every person and every institution has been tainted by prejudice to some degree. (Some unions in particular have awful histories on this score.) That is why modern leftist institutions like the Democratic Socialists of America (which had several members injured in the Charlottesville terror attack) generally have structural policies and procedures to ensure fair representation of women and minorities in leadership positions, and to ensure a working space free of abuse and harm. Without a broad multi-racial coalition, there can be no leftist politics.
That history could be seen in Charlottesville, where counter-protesters standing against violent white supremacy were from all sorts of backgrounds. Heather Heyer (whose parents spoke brilliantly and movingly of her martyrdom on Wednesday) was no white supremacist. Neither was Deandre Harris, a black man who was severely beaten by alt-right thugs. Neither was Marcus Martin, a black man who pushed his fiancée out of the way of Fields' car before being struck and wounded himself. Neither was John Aguilar, a Navy veteran who volunteered to watch over a local synagogue while heavily-armed alt-right goons stood menacingly outside.
And neither was Corey Long, the black man captured in an instantly-iconic image shooting flame from a can of spraypaint at a pack of doughy Confederate flag-wielding goons. But as Yesha Callahan discovered, Long and his friends were at that moment protecting a terrified elderly white counter-protester, who can also be seen in the picture.
That is exactly the sort of cross-racial solidarity American leftists are fighting for.
Fortunately, many liberals seem to have wised up to their error, and have quietly ditched their usage of alt-left. But in future, let us remember that if there is to be a popular front against white supremacy, we must first be clear about who holds such views, and who does not.