It’s no coincidence that the term “alt-left” seemed to come out of the national ether around the same time that anti-fascist movements—“antifa” for short—were growing in prominence. Members of antifa groups have made appearances at demonstrations since Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, but it wasn’t until the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August that they started to be referred to as alt-left. Three days after the rally—in which a man with white supremacist ties drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman—Trump reasserted his belief that there was “blame on both sides” for the violence. When pressed to comment on the alt-right’s role, Trump responded, “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
The Unite the Right rally will be remembered as the moment that it became impossible to frame Trump’s refusal to condemn the white supremacists who helped put him in the White House as anything other than tacit approval. His attempt to justify the unjustifiable remains not just his lowest point in the highest office in all the land, but one of the most abjectly shameful moments in contemporary American history. I’ve been meaning to write this piece since that day, but I didn’t know how to. Until now.
Two recent events motivated me to finally put my thoughts into words. First, The Stanford Review published a piece entitled “Antifa Thugs Find a Champion and Leader in Stanford Professor” earlier this month. Days after the Unite the Right rally, David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of Comparative Literature, co-founded the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN). The Review called Palumbo-Liu “an antifa ring-leader” and his organization “undeniably a chapter of a terrorist group,” and called for him to resign. It’s true that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have allegedly classified antifa’s activities as “domestic terrorist violence.” However, the Review goes too far in calling Palumbo-Liu a leader of antifa for creating a network committed to fighting fascism—a claim they reasserted in their response to Palumbo-Liu’s op-ed in The Stanford Daily, itself responding to the Review’s original piece. They also intentionally misrefer to Palumbo-Liu’s organization as the “Campus Antifa Network” in what appears to be an attempt to conflate Palumbo-Liu’s outspoken opposition to the alt-right with an endorsement of the group.
The second, and more upsetting, event occurred about a week ago. A good friend of mine confided in me that they had lost their mother to racism. They had been robbed of a parent because someone saw the color of their skin and decided that their life was inherently less valuable.
Reflecting on this, I finally realized how to articulate the fundamental difference between the alt-right and antifa. The alt-right is, at its core, rooted in a belief that runs counter to a truth that our Founding Fathers believed to be self-evident: All men are not created equal. This belief, which has been put forth by leaders of the movement such as Richard Spencer and lesser provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos, manifests itself in the forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism. While none of these behaviors are named in Spencer’s Charlottesville Statement—billed as a “manifesto” for the alt-right on a website named for the movement—it’s not hard to see how they permeate the alt-right’s ideology, as do homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia. (These –isms and –phobias are only alluded to in a guide that Yiannopoulos wrote during his tenure at Breitbart News, which effectively became the mainstream platform for the alt-right during Trump’s presidential campaign. Yiannopoulos’ guide is a fawning, self-serving piece that exaggerates the role of “intellectuals” and “trolls” in the movement.) Above all, the alt-right seeks a “White America” that is wholly European and Christian. Alt-righters have no qualms about turning to violence to fulfill the creation of a white ethno-state.
Antifa is, by its very name, a movement that exists to counter fascism, and by extension, the alt-right. This may draw criticism from those who do not see the alt-right as fascist; however, Merriam-Webster defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime […] that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader.” Between Spencer’s promotion of a “racially or ethnically defined state” as “legitimate and necessary” and his construing of left-wing politics as “an ideology of death,” Spencer all but admits to the alt-right as being a fascist movement.
This piece is also not meant to be read as an uncritical defense of antifa. I have my misgivings about the movement, and while I oppose fascism, I would object to being called an antifa supporter. I offer no justification for the property damage that often ensues from antifa’s participation in protests, which detracts from the message of the protests themselves. Though its use of violent direct action echoes the “by any means necessary” approach popularized by Malcolm X—a mentality that became more prominent in the final years of the civil rights movement—antifa is perhaps a little too quick to deem such violence necessary. Antifa’s political leanings are even murkier than those of the alt-right, with its members subscribing to anarchism and communism. When it plays to its critics’ worst conceptions of them, antifa is a gift to those who wish to discredit all left-wing movements—even those whose sole objective is to stamp out racism and hate.
However, the alt-left that right-wing politicians, conservative pundits, and alt-right leaders love to raise hell about doesn’t actually exist. It’s a boogeyman invented by the right wing, in an attempt to draw attention away from their failure to kill the alt-right in its cradle. They still refuse to disavow the movement, even as it threatens to burn the house down. But to claim that members of antifa are equivalent to the neo-Nazis of the alt-right is as much a logical fallacy as it is a moral one. These comparisons wouldn’t be valid even if antifa literally went by the name of “alt-left.” The alt-right utilizes violence as a means to an end for its goal of white supremacy. Antifa meets this violence with violence. It isn’t always justifiable, but it isn’t motivated by the belief that one’s identity makes one inherently inferior. Furthermore, it is possible to be anti-fascist without being in antifa. (The Review either fails to understand this or chooses not to.) One is a set of ideologies, and the other is a group. There is no such distinction with the alt-right.
But perhaps the most damning contrast I can draw between the alt-right and antifa is this: So far as we know, the latter has killed no one. (Yes, communist regimes were responsible for the deaths and suffering of millions of people. So were fascist states and Nazi dictatorships.) People die at the hands of alt-righters. They get crushed by vehicles. They get shot in bars and shot in schools. They get stabbed, all over the place–on mass transit, as they wait for an Uber, and in the streets. Sometimes they are executed in their houses. Antifa has racked up a sizable bill in property damages, but broken windows can be replaced. Those silenced by alt-right violence will stay dead.
Following the Unite the Right rally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the vehicular ramming attack that claimed Heather Heyer’s life an act of domestic terrorism. Despite Sessions’ declaration, it remains unknown if the actions of the alt-right are formally recognized by the FBI and / or DHS as domestic terrorist violence. The irony, of course, is that antifa’s actions are almost certainly classified as such. (They’re also reactive to a genuinely domestic movement; get rid of the alt-right and there’s no need for antifa.) One could argue that a terrorist group does not necessarily need a body count attached to it to be regarded as a terrorist group, but such an argument would be unraveled by the absence of a group that has proven to engage in often fatal acts of violence. Antifa protestors are many things, but they’re not the good guys. They’re also not the alt-left—and you’d be wrong to equate them the racists, neo-Nazis, and murderers of the alt-right.
Jacob Nierenberg ’17
Photograph: Silvio Meier Antifa 2011 demonstration in Berlin. Credit: Montecruz Foto