How Rhetoric on the Left Fuels Bigotry on the Right

The latest disagreement dividing opponents of Donald Trump

Amr Alfiky / Reuters

Few questions divide opponents of President Donald Trump more than this one: Should those who hope to defeat the president exercise more care in how they talk about the American right to avoid fueling the most bigoted strains of populism?

Lots of liberals think so. Dozens of variations on that advice appear in books, newspaper op-eds, magazine articles, lectures, and conversation threads on social media. And while many of those variations are unconvincing, and ought to be refuted and rejected, even the strongest variations on the theme are met with hostility from the left. Such arguments are more likely to be mischaracterized (always uncharitably) and dismissively mocked than debated.

The latest example of this dynamic unfolded with these claims from Bari Weiss of The New York Times: “Failing to draw distinctions between people like Sam Harris and people like Richard Spencer strips the designation ‘alt-right’ of its power and meaning,” she wrote on Twitter. “When that label is used promiscuously, people start to take it less seriously … And when conservatives, classical liberals or libertarians are told by the progressive chattering class that they—or those they read—are alt-right, the very common response is to say: ‘Screw it. They think everyone is alt-right.’ And then those people move further right.”

Weiss’s concerns did not imply the need for any great progressive concession—merely describing people like Sam Harris accurately would suffice to address them.

Yet they were met with anger and mockery.

Among the many dismissive retorts:

  • “Anyone who moves further right bc they’re called alt-right was headed there anyway.”
  • “I remember when conservatives called themselves the party of personal reaponsibilty. Now they’re the party of ‘Its your fault somehow that I choose to be human garbage.’”
  • “‘If the left would just stop being so left, then the right wouldn’t feel the need to be so right’ is a SWELTERING take”
  • “I get that logic. Someone once insulted me in grade school by saying I waddle like a penguin. Now I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life naked in the Antarctic, plunging into the icy depths to catch fish, and warming eggs underneath my crotch everyday.”

An observer could be forgiven for supposing that the progressive left has always rejected the notion that promiscuous labeling can push people toward extremism. Yet progressives have long championed a variation on that same position.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, most progressives have argued that it is counterproductive to label violent extremism by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS as “Muslim” or “Islamic” or “Islamist” terrorism, despite the professed beliefs of its perpetrators, in part because doing so would make it easier for terror groups to gain converts and harder for us to win over moderate Muslims.

The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, summarized President Obama’s thinking on the matter after interviewing him. Obama took “a view opposite to that of Donald Trump: Bringing Islam itself to the forefront of the conversation about terrorism would create a backlash in the Muslim world that would do real harm to the armed anti-terrorism campaigns he was then leading.” Obama told him, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.” Obama’s supporters did not scoff.

After the San Bernardino attack, Obama said, “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” Progressives did not dismissively retort, Let’s be real, Obama, if the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ pushes them toward hate, they were already headed that way.

When New York magazine wrote about Obama’s approach and its critics, it cast those who believed that careful rhetoric could help reduce extremism at the margins as operating within an expert consensus, unlike their Republican detractors:

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush sought to keep terrorism and Islam separate in their rhetoric. Their assumption, which reflects the thinking of most counterterrorism experts, was that allowing the War on Terror to become confused with a war on Islam would hamper U.S. counterterrorism, both because such rhetoric would echo and aid the propaganda and recruitment efforts of jihadist groups and because U.S. counterterrorism efforts so often rely on alliances with Muslims and Muslim-led governments around the world.

On the other side, Republicans have argued that disconnecting terrorism and Islam signals an unwillingness to recognize the real threat of terrorism, though it’s never been totally clear how the alternative rhetoric would actually improve U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Vox published a lengthy article by Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, who explained that the aim of his colleagues was “to distinguish between radicals and extremists and the vast majority of mainstream Muslims, and to make sure the latter understood that we were not lumping them in with the former.” Bush and Obama both “correctly judged that the term ‘radical Islam’ was divisive and adversarial,” he wrote, “and would alienate the very people we wanted to communicate with.”

To paint Muslims with too broad a brush “is absurd, dangerous, and politically self-serving,” he continued––and while Trump may believe that he is only describing a tiny group of extremists when he uses the term “Islamic radicalism,” to Muslims, “or for anyone familiar with the many strands of Islam, the phrase connotes a direct link between the mainstream of the Muslim faith and the violent acts of a few.” What’s more, it is important for U.S. leaders to be careful to refrain from accepting “the characterizations that violent extremists give to themselves,” he wrote, “which inflate their role within their faith.”

He concluded that both Bush and Obama administration officials “refrained from using ‘Islamic radicalism’ and its variants not because of ‘political correctness’ but because of their nuanced knowledge of the diversity of Islamic ideologies.”

A lot of that logic is awfully close to what’s put forth by those who think some rhetoric on the left can fuel or unwittingly bolster or buoy extremism on the right. Yet I cannot recall any instance of progressives meeting any of those arguments, or the scores of variations that appeared in the mainstream media over many years, with dismissive retorts like, So it’s the fault of Americans that a terrorist chose to be human garbage? or I get that logic—if a jihadist called me Great Satan I’d rebel against God, descend to a nether world, and torture people for eternity.

Instead of indulging in facile demagoguery, most progressives treated the concerns as at least plausible, and grasped nuances, like the fact that alienating rhetoric was thought to matter on the margins, not as a decisive factor for most individuals; and that decreasing a population’s sympathy for adjacent extremists could be as useful as decreasing the total number of extremists.

In The New Republic, Brian Beutler even argued that Obama’s aversion to saying “radical Islam” was a plausibly good strategy. He pointed to how Republicans, who frequently criticized Obama’s approach, profess themselves alienated when they feel their own beliefs are unfairly conflated with extremism:

Liberals and conservatives frequently disagree about what constitutes racism, but there is a strong bipartisan consensus in the country that overt racism is anathema. Conservatives take incredible umbrage at any linkage—whether justified or trumped up—between conservatism and extant racism in America for precisely this reason. Call Dylann Storm Roof a neo-Nazi, nobody will object. Call him a right-wing extremist, and conservatives will balk. Some will take great offense. It turns out leaders of all stripes, including religious and political ones, are at pains to distinguish their ideological commitments from those who do violent or otherwise heinous things in their name. Neither Republicans, nor orthodox Muslims, are exempt.

Of course, while Dylann Storm Roof is as vile as any ISIS terrorist, there are a lot of differences between supporting right-wing extremism—let alone supporting Donald Trump, something millions of moderates do—and supporting al-Qaeda or ISIS. But some of those differences underscore the weirdness of finding rhetoric to be plausibly important in one instance and mocking that notion in the other.

To join al-Qaeda or ISIS usually requires people to betray their country, to violate the law, to embrace the barbaric murder of civilians, and to risk their very lives. In comparison, affiliating with Richard Spencer breaks fewer taboos. And that’s an extreme example—joining his execrable group of white supremacists requires much more of someone than, say, affiliating with the “alt-light” online while claiming to reject white supremacy; it requires still less to move from the mainstream of the Republican Party to its populist fringe; and much less again to decide that while you don’t like everything about Trump, you’ll back him in 2020. Millions of moderate swing voters will likely decide to back Trump in 2020, just as they did in 2016.

So it strikes me as odd that there are progressives who find it plausible that inflammatory rhetoric could influence the number of people who join al-Qaeda or ISIS, or become suicide bombers … but find it absurd to think the rhetoric of vocal alt-right haters could plausibly influence how many join the alt-right, or support Trump. Why this very different reaction?

One reason, I think, is a failure of many to distinguish between the proposition that the left’s rhetoric could unwittingly cause marginally more people to move right and the distinct proposition that the left bears moral responsibility for the choices that those people make. For example, to Weiss’s speculative argument that overusing “alt-right” robs the term of stigma and causes some people to move farther right, the feminist writer Amanda Marcotte retorted, “Republican voters are adults, not children. They are responsible for their own choices. Liberals did not force them to vote for Donald Trump.”

She added, “The argument is, I guess, that those who publicly decry racism and sexism are so obnoxious about it that they make conservatives double down on these bigoted beliefs. So progressives and liberals have more responsibility for electing Trump than the people who, you know, actually voted for him.” But that isn’t the argument, any more than the progressive argument about “radical Islam” is that those who use the term are more responsible for acts of terrorism by new al-Qaeda recruits than the suicide bombers themselves.

Or consider Gerard Alexander, a University of Virginia political scientist. He believes that liberals should use their substantial cultural power to oppose racism and sexism, but recently argued that they are going much further, gratuitously picking needless culture-war fights, smearing some potential allies as bigots, and inflaming opposition by harshly stigmatizing fellow citizens for holding very common beliefs that were only recently uncontroversial.

Jamelle Bouie of Slate reacted by writing, “What I want is for someone to just strip away the edifice and make the argument they clearly want to make: that liberals deserve what they get when they suggest anyone might be responsible for racism.”

I doubt that is the argument Alexander really wanted to make. And I know that my own view is distinct: As I see it, no one deserves racism or authoritarianism; no one is morally responsible for its ills other than its perpetrators; and liberals ought to probe what causes it and avoid doing those things, insofar as doing so doesn’t impose any significant costs or untenable trade-offs.

That doesn’t mean ceasing to fight racism or sexism, or refraining from telling the truth about them. It doesn’t mean thoughtlessly accepting every smug claim of “that’s how you got Trump,” or excusing the GOP for its culpability in elevating a misogynist bigot.

So what does it mean, exactly?

At the most general level, it means ceasing to indulge the fantasy that the left can say and do whatever most gratifies its impulses, without any trade-offs or costs or political consequences, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is just implicitly less committed to fighting racism or sexism or assorted other bigotries, or so dumb that the proferred counsel is better gleefully mocked than grappled with.

Grappling with strategic critiques of leftist rhetoric demands the hard work of taking each case on its own, as there will be all manner of weak arguments or untenable demands, including from folks on the right who really do want to reassign the responsibility their coalition has for Trump onto their ideological adversaries. Identifying the critiques that warrant changes in behavior requires adjudicating them on their merits rather than questioning the motives of those who advance them, and ceasing to conflate analysis of what effect rhetoric might have with who bears moral responsibility for beliefs, behavior, and outcomes.

Where to assign blame is not the point. There are too many variations on the argument that rhetoric matters to review them all on the merits here. But it’s possible to address the one that kicked off this round of the ongoing debate. Here’s what I think that Weiss got right:

The left should stop promiscuously labeling popular figures as ideologically diverse as Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro as members of the alt-right. Doing so is wrong simply because it is inaccurate. And strategically, if you want the term to retain any stigma, you could hardly do a dumber thing than expanding its scope to inaptly include very popular figures. Their fans will sooner conclude that they cannot trust the mainstream to apply the label, or that it doesn’t mean anything, or that they must be alt-right if it definitionally includes someone who likes Harris or Shapiro, than abandon commentators to whom they’re drawn.

Dan McLaughlin adds:

The problem of lumping the normal Right in with the alt-right is not that people will suddenly don white sheets, but that they’ll lower their defenses against letting the alt-rightists infiltrate their movement. Ideas have consequences, and words are the clothing that ideas wear in public. If you disable the words we use to distinguish ideas, you make it harder for people to tell them apart. The result of this is that people lose the ability to say, ‘those guys have ideas that are not like my ideas.’ As I’ve noted before, the left-wing war on conservative efforts to isolate the alt-right only serves to empower the latter.

Claire Lehmann‏ added a useful coda: “If you insult people they become defensive & are more likely to listen to people who don’t insult them. How is this complex? When you collapse the distinction between thoughtful classical liberals & centrists with those who ~openly advocate for a white ethnostate~ not only do you insult your readers, but you reward racists with prestige they don't deserve.”

And notice that none of that requires anyone to ignore any racism or sexism, or to accept that the left bears any moral culpability for the actions of the alt-right! Indeed, it is the easiest of cases: It merely requires being more rigorous about the truth.

Of course, there is much more to this conservation than the tiny part that Weiss, her critics, and her defenders have focused on. If I had my way, you’d all delve into the social-science research on authoritarianism, learn the hugely inconvenient factors that tend to trigger latent predispositions to authoritarianism, and understand why the estimable scholar Karen Stenner believes a liberal-conservative alliance in such moments is among the surest bulwarks a society has against coercion and repression that fall hardest on its minorities.