The Left Needs to Take Ideology Seriously
“Do you think the alt-right is… ah… real?”
Richard Spencer was asked this question by a reporter for Vice News Tonight a few weeks after Donald Trump’s election victory. The reporter was Elle Reeve, a former New Republic editor and current correspondent for Vice. “I think you’re a fraud,” Reeve proclaims to Spencer. She continues to insist that the alt-right doesn't actually exist in any meaningful way—at one point she even describes alt-right members as “teenagers on 4chan who trolled themselves into believing antisemitic stuff.” In the released interview, she accuses Spencer of founding the alt-right for the purposes of fame. “The idea that I don’t do this for ideologic reasons is… I think, just totally off base,” Spencer asserts. Reeve confidently responds with proclamations of “no!”
Richard Spencer is, of course, the founder of the alt-right movement. He is also a highly influential white supremacist and anti-semite. His movement gained popularity and political influence during the 2016 presidential election. After Mr. Trump’s presidential victory, the alt-right’s chief propagandist, Steve Bannon, was made Chief Advisor to the president. As I watched the rise of the alt-right into mainstream American politics, I was infuriated by that reporter’s refusal to take the movement seriously.
I’ve thought a lot about this interview in the months since it’s broadcast. What I saw in that interview exhibits a pattern on the political left that I’ve been witnessing for quite a while. It’s a pattern of the left continually denying that their ideological opponents are actually sincere in their beliefs.
I see this pattern on display when many on the left insist that Islamic terrorists are driven by geopolitics, not ideology. In fact, when a committed muslim even dared to talk about the link between ISIS and Islam, he was placed on a "Anti-Muslim Extremist" list by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is also on display when many insist that climate change deniers are simply driven by money from “big oil,” not ideology. Whenever Bernie Sanders mentions climate change, it's only from the lens of stopping the political influence of the fossil fuel industry, rarely addressing that millions of Americans are still willfully ignorant of the issue.
To many on the left, political opponents are either all liars or frauds. I see this in comedy as well. Every time Saturday Night Live does a sketch involving Kellyanne Conway, she is portrayed as a reluctant indentured servant longing for freedom—not someone driven by an ideology. In fact, this is how SNL regularly portrays all of the women surrounding trump. I’m not surprised that this pattern is so often in full view when the left discusses women on the far right. If you subscribe to a political strategy drenched in identity and tribal signaling, the far right female is an enigma. Assuming that blowing a gender dog whistle will cause an electoral college landslide was proven disastrous on election day when a majority of white women voted for a man who gleefully confessed to committing sexual assault. This is why I often hear the phrase, “they’re voting against their interests”—a phrase which makes all sorts of assumptions about how opponents vote. It’s also why so many on the left resort to gender posturing instead of making actual arguments.
How does this relate to Richard Spencer?
The lefts obsession with denying the beliefs and intentions of their political opponents has now manifested in their treatment of the alt-right movement.
I suppose it helps the left sleep at night to imagine fourteen year old kids browsing reddit in their mothers’ basements as the foot soldiers of the alt-right. Meanwhile, the movement will continue to grow in new media and influence elections. The left will continue to assume that the only real enemies to liberalism are faceless corporations and micro-aggressions. They will continue to deny that ideologues like Trump and his enablers are actually sincere in their beliefs. We must not forget that there was a popular (insane) theory amongst those on the left last year that Trump was actually a Democrat plant to swing the election to Hillary.
Fortunately, it’s possible that the left is learning this lesson. The public assault of Richard Spencer on inauguration day ignited a debate in the left over the morality of sucker-punching a neo-nazi. The discussion surrounding the event may indicate that some on the left finally seem to realize that there are indeed dangerous ideas and that many people really do believe them. That acknowledgement is the first step to destroying these bad ideas. I hope this change of heart continues to permeate in the the left.
Alt-right enthusiasm propelled an autocrat to the white house. One of their own is now chief advisor to the most powerful person on the planet. Referring to them simply them as trolls, frauds, or teenagers is to concede the future to them. The marketplace of ideas is vast. The left must admit that many of those ideas are dangerous—and those who believe them are indeed sincere.
Brandon Clarkson is the Editor in Chief of Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.