In one of his several press appearances addressing last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, President Trump asked, “What about the ‘alt-left’?” — a question that a few on the right have taken up, along with the label. A quick thought.
Obviously, “alt-left” is intended to suggest the existence of a faction on the left that mirrors the “alt-right.” But the comparison doesn’t hold up, and the reasons why not are important.
The alt-right — the white nationalists, neo-Nazis, 4chan trolls, etc. — christened itself the “alt-right,” because it envisioned itself as a political alternative to traditional, mainstream conservatism. That is to say, the alt-right thought of itself ultimately as a political movement that would get people elected, move legislation, and do broadly the things one expects of politics, and they had an affirmative agenda of sorts — albeit a repulsive, illiberal one.
By “alt-left,” Trump and others seem to be referring primarily to Antifa, the black-clad “anti-fascists” who rioted on Inauguration Day in D.C., at Berkeley shortly after (to forestall an appearance by alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos), and have made appearances elsewhere (most recently in Seattle). But Antifa has never cast itself as a political alternative to the Democratic party as currently constituted, and it has no positive agenda (“anti-fascism”). No one is running on the Antifa platform.
That’s in part because they don’t need to. Antifa (in its anti-WTO days, in its outbursts during the Occupy movement, and in its current form) has been largely tolerated by the Democratic party. Without coming to its express defense, the mainstream Left has nevertheless effectively accepted Antifa as a tool in its political toolbox. (The same can broadly be said of the violent fringe of the Black Lives Matter movement — whose membership overlaps more than a little with that of Antifa).
By contrast, neo-Nazis and the core constituencies of what became the alt-right have been around for a while — but they were largely anathema to mainstream politicians on the right. (The alt-right, in any organized fashion, was nonexistent before Donald Trump entered the Republican primary.) Because of Trump, of course, that has changed, and now Steve Bannon (who made Breitbart.com “the platform for the alt-right”) works just outside the Oval Office, alt-right leader Mike Cernovich has access to White House officials, and the president himself calls crowds making the Hitlergruß “very fine people.”
Which is all to say: “alt-right” and “alt-left” as labels may not be particularly helpful. There was never anything “alt-” about the so-called alt-left. And there’s not much “alt-” to the alt-right, either, now.