How Rhetoric on the Left Fuels Bigotry on the Right

By Conor Friedersdorf

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:

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