Lost amidst all the stupid things said by Donald Trump last week was a stupid thing said by Nancy Pelosi. Asked about a request she’d filed with the National Park Service to prevent the right-wing group Patriot Prayer from holding a rally in San Francisco last Saturday, the most powerful Democrat in America (admittedly a devalued superlative these days) declared: “The Constitution does not say that a person can … yell ‘wolf’ in a crowded theater.”
Talk about speaking out of both sides of your mouth and carrying a big stick! I can’t decide what’s the most striking feature of that quote: the metaphor that isn’t so much mixed as ground into hamburger, the ignorance of our Constitution or the sinister authoritarianism. Patriot Prayer, it’s worth pointing out, isn’t a white nationalist group, and its leader actually canceled the San Francisco march after he became concerned violence would break out. That violence erupted anyway in nearby Berkeley — but not because of the right-wingers whose freedom of assembly Pelosi was so intent on abrogating.
According to most accounts of the event, only a small knot of conservatives showed up at Berkeley. They were peaceful and easily outnumbered by the vast crowd of left-wingers who turned out to counter them. Then a posse of black-masked antifa militants stormed in and began assaulting people seemingly at random. One man was punched and whacked repeatedly with a pole. He was beaten relentlessly until a journalist managed to shelter him from his assailants. Later interviewed by Slate, the reporter who intervened, Al Letson, said he was worried the victim was going to be killed. Other journalists were attacked too, cameras were tossed around, and police were chased away.
Here was the most high-def demonstration yet that the alt-left exists and is mobilized. The rioters in San Francisco weren’t giving as good as they got — even the Washington Post ran with the headline “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley” — they were driven to pugilism by their hatred of Trump supporters, the media and anyone else who makes for a suitable target in their Days of Rage fantasy. Such enmity is less native to the United States than that of the alt-right, which taps into our painful history of racism, but in action it is just as violent — tactically, at least, the two sides are ogreish mirror images of each other. It is also not representative of most leftists, as the peaceful majority in Berkeley demonstrated.
That’s why the appellation “alt-left” is so apt: it demeans the extremists as the counterparts of those they despise, and it distinguishes them from the bulk of liberals who protest peaceably. You’d think the left would be scrambling to adopt the label. Instead, their response has been mulish: “There’s still no such thing as the alt-left! People who fight Nazis aren’t the same as Nazis!” On Monday, Todd Gitlin, author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” a very good book about the 1960s, published a very bad op-ed in the New York Times that contended: “In truth, there is no symmetry between either ‘alt-right’ and either ‘antifa’ or ‘alt-left.'” Why? “Antifa is the backlash to the backlash, a defensive response to the growing presence of right-wing extremism.”
Because nothing says “self-defense” like clubbing an unarmed man with a flagpole, or starting a riot on a college campus, or wreaking $1 million worth of havoc in Portland the night after Trump’s election. Gitlin’s defense of antifa as “the backlash to the backlash” is equally unpersuasive. Just about everything in politics postures as a necessary response to something else, starting with the white nationalists who belched their way through Charlottesville on the grounds that they were pushing back against the alt-left. Antifa aren’t conscientious volunteers looking to defend their communities from Nazis; they disrupt the peace in search of selfish, violent catharsis.
In a country that, irrespective of Nancy Pelosi, still has freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, aggressive political violence is indeed an “alternative” — an inexcusable one. Those who excuse rioting on a technicality because they find the other side more noisome are digging us into a very dark hole indeed. Speaking of Pelosi, she’s been strangely silent on the subject of left-wing agitators, no doubt because she’s trying to separate the men from the boys who cried wolf. Whatever the case, it’s past time for the left to straighten out their analogies and denounce their extremists. Some of us on the right have been doing that for years.