Donald Trump has appropriated an anti-leftist slur invented by liberals. It's time to abandon the phrase as meaningless.
In a press conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday, the president blamed "both sides" for the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left one counter protester dead. "What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?" Trump opined. "Do they have any semblance of guilt?"
The alt-left has no semblance of guilt because the "alt-left" does not exist.
The alt-right is an amorphous movement with a fair amount of internal disagreement, but you can point to certain nodes and leaders: Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, 4chan, r/The_Donald, Richard Spencer, and so on. Some are explicit white supremacists and some aren't, but they have shared beliefs that include an anti-immigrant nationalism, a love for Donald Trump, protectionist views on trade, a hatred of establishment Republicans, and so on.
There's no corresponding movement on the left. Does "alt-left" mean violent anti-fascists? Black Lives Matter activists? Bernie Sanders supporters who are vocal online? People who think the Democrats should reject identity politics? The Democratic Socialists of America? Actual communists?
As Mark Pitcavage, an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, explained to the New York Times recently, "[The term alt-left] did not arise organically, and it refers to no actual group or movement or network. It's just a made-up epithet, similar to certain people calling any news they don't like 'fake news.'"
And the people who pioneered that epithet aren't right-wingers but liberals.
It remains unclear where Trump first heard about the "alt-left"—Sean Hannity talked about the dangers of the alt-left on his show in November, and the term has been used in conservative circles to denigrate leftist activists. But "alt-left" wasn't cooked up in some right-wing think tank as a brilliant rhetorical weapon to use against the resistance warriors. Rather, it was popularized by Hillary Clinton supporters as a slur to dismiss those to the left of them.
I know what I'm talking about, having been accused of being part of the alt-left myself. According to a cursory Twitter search, the first time someone threw that term at me was in October 2016, undoubtedly due to both my penchant for vulgarity and my outspoken support of Sanders.
Back then, the phrase was largely synonymous with "Bernie bro"—which, if you recall, was an invention of the Clinton campaign used to frame Sanders supporters as misogynists. The "alt-left" became somewhat of a mainstream liberal talking point in the summer of 2016, thanks to prominent pundits like Nation writer and MSNBC contributor Joan Walsh, Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, and Media Matters founder Eric Boehlert.
In March, Vanity Fair published an essay by James Walcott headlined "Why the Alt-Left Is a Problem, Too." In perhaps the clearest example of how the term equates the hateful rhetoric of the alt-right with the left's frustration with the centrism of the Democrats, Walcott writes, "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."
It's telling that Walcott lumps in such disparate figures as the socialist magazine Jacobin, Glenn Greenwald, and Mickey Kaus, a formerly liberal writer who is now a Trump supporter because of his views on immigration. It's also downright disingenuous to assert that disliking Barack Obama and Clinton—both centrist figures—makes someone an unhinged extremist. There are plenty of reasonable left-wing reasons to condemn Obama's use of drone warfare, Hillary Clinton praising Walmart and big banks in paid speeches, or the fact that the Affordable Care Act didn't do enough to ensure healthcare for all.
Leftism—actual leftism, as opposed to the kind of moderate liberalism that has defined the Democratic Party for a generation—is unmistakably on the rise. Sanders's primary campaign, along with the terrifying consequences of a Trump presidency, has inspired some formerly disaffected people to become politically active, and convinced others that the Democratic establishment isn't equipped to handle this moment. In the past year, membership of the Democratic Socialists of America ballooned from 8,000 to 25,000. Left-wing media outlets and podcasts have blossomed, and Democratic politicians have embraced leftists policies like single-payer healthcare.
For what feels like at least 600 years, Bernie and Hillary supporters of varying degrees of importance have been bickering about how far left the Democrats should lean. During the election, the centrist-left did an effective job of mischaracterizing Bernie supporters as woman-hating bigots who are a degree away from embracing the pseudo-populism Trump espouses.
Needless to say, there is a lot of bad blood between Democratic factions. But there is an iota of hope.
Neera Tanden, who is no stranger to feuding with leftists on Twitter, told me, "I've used [alt-left] to describe particular people who've used racially charged terms," like those who endorsed a Medium post imploring anti-establishment leftist activists to work with the alt-right. "Trump's use of the term to paint the entire left is obviously abhorrent— he uses it to attack those who are standing up for racial justice while I have used it for the opposite [reason]. But given his use, I won't use it again."
I hope other liberals follow Tanden's lead. After all, the alleged "alt-left" was on the front lines of the counterprotests in Charlottesville, and will continue to fight racism, corporate greed, and the toxicity of Trump—causes all progressives can endorse. To liken them to the alt-right diminishes their work, and hurts the resistance.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.