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.”
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