I’ve never cared for the term “alt-right,” because the noxious platter of racialist and nationalist politics that it signifies isn’t right-wing in the American sense and because it isn’t an alternative so much as a hostile takeover. It’s a bit like someone forcing you at gunpoint to munch White Castle burgers while lying in a tanning bed and calling it “alt-health.” But alas, “alt-right” has caught on, and its usage has caused a good deal of confusion.
Several months ago, after Hillary Clinton gave her ill-advised address tying Donald Trump to the alt-right, I wrote a piece condemning the movement. Afterwards I received an email from a previously friendly correspondent. He was irate. How dare I smear good conservatives like him as members of this alt-whatever, a term he’d never heard before Clinton popularized it? This conflation of traditional conservatism with the alt-right is convenient both to the alt-right itself, which seeks to remake conservatism in its own ogreish image, and progressives, who yearn for their intellectual opponents to appear as uniformly bigoted straw men.
Conservatism, which celebrates the vibrancy of individuals, is not the alt-right. But that hardly means the alt-right doesn’t exist—and that it doesn’t have a mirror image on the left. Sean Hannity made that point earlier this week when he played a clip showing Black Lives Matter protesters chanting in favor of dead cops—not isolated idiots, but entire crowds in resonating unison. “Aren’t those people that were chanting that, alt-left, alt-radical-left? And why would you accept that they can go the Obama White House?” His guest, Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray, responded, “You’re taking a couple isolated incidents to extrapolate about an entire group.” Pressed again about whether they can be termed alt-left, she said, “I think that you can say whatever it is you want to say.”
That’s a bit of a dodge. If the alt-right is a school of thought that’s obsessed with race and identity and that’s located more or less on the starboard side of our politics, then not only does the alt-left exist, it’s in a far more advanced stage. You hear it when demonstrators cry for pigs in a blanket, as Hannity observed. You hear it when a former Bernie Sanders aide says “we don’t need white people leading the Democratic Party right now.” You hear it when the Democratic National Committee seriously considers Keith Ellison, an admirer of heinous anti-Semitic crackpot Louis Farrakhan, to be its next chairman. You hear it and deplore it because it’s tarnishing groups like Black Lives Matter, which have genuine grievances that merit a public hearing.
The alt-right’s innovation during the campaign was to spur a segment of the right to ape the left, to make them far more enamored with identity politics than they’d been prior, to fight fire with fire, if you’ll excuse the cliché. Their enemy, as they saw it, wasn’t the left per se but what should be called the alt-left, a distinction liberals would be savvy to start making because it suggests separation between them and their most crippling zealots. President Obama hasn’t governed from the alt-left, but early on he was immersed in its milieu, from his tutor Frank Marshall Davis to his pastor Jeremiah Wright to his buddy Bill Ayers, connections Hannity has been hammering since 2008. Hannity can’t now do an about-face and act like he’s blind to these influences on the right, even if they weren’t as formative for Trump as the alt-left was for Obama.
The problem for conservatives is that they’ve been accused of being “far-right” for so long over such modest measures as deficit reduction—the gall!—that they hear the term “alt-right” and assume the latter has been subbed for the former, that this is just another way for liberals to call them extreme. But it’s not. It signifies something authentically dangerous: the advancement of identity politics into both parties at the expense of a pluralistic America, the attempt to refashion the right as a pro-white working class left. Fortunately, Obama didn’t really govern as an alt-left president, and Trump, at long last, has disavowed the alt-right. These strains must both be defeated and perhaps they will be.