This week, The Economist, one of the most respected outlets in the world (and arguably one that is fairly centrist), falsely labeled pundit Ben Shapiro as “the sage of the alt-right.” Shapiro, and then seemingly every conservative on social media, expressed outrage at the accusation. Before long, The Economist corrected itself, instead labeling Shapiro a “radical conservative,” whatever that means.
In this case the misappellation was not just factually incorrect, it was unintentionally cruel. During the 2016 Republican primary when the alt-right came to the fore as shock troops supporting Donald Trump (seemingly without his consent) Shapiro was, perhaps more than any other public figure, a target for their hateful tweets and rhetoric.
Most journalists, especially those of Jewish descent, who opposed Trump at the time were inundated with anti-Semitic tweets depicting images of hook nosed Jews that had previously seemed to be relics of the last century. I myself received hundreds of these, at least, during the primary. And while I and others tried to shrug it off as a few anonymous trolls, many perhaps part of a foreign influence campaign, it took an emotional toll. They were difficult images to have to scroll through every day.
So how could The Economist have gotten this so wrong? How could the writer and editors have missed the fact that Shapiro is not associated in any way, shape, or form with the alt-right, and was, in fact, a central target for their harassment?
Part of the answer has to do with the fact that during the primary when this racist bile was almost exclusively being directed at conservatives, the mainstream and left-wing media just didn’t seem to care much. It wasn’t until later, when a handful of liberal commentators were targeted that stories about the harassment began to surface.
But a much more important reason why the left doesn’t understand the alt-right is that the left doesn’t understand much about conservatism at all. And why would they? Conservative views are so rare in mainstream media that there are few opportunities for liberals and progressives to truly understand it and see what an absurd claim the allegation against Shapiro is.
This isn’t particularly new. During the 2000s, a similar phenomenon happened with the term “neocon.” In the late 20th century, neo-conservatism had a distinct meaning in conservative circles. It basically described ex liberals who had moved to the right on the basis of hawkish foreign policy, but who retained fairly liberal views on social issues.
But as the George W. Bush presidency—the first deeply connected to the neocon movement—went on, the term changed meaning. It came to simply mean “very conservative,” or “far right.” Eventually the once specific term came to essentially mean nothing but “conservative.” Something very similar has happened with the term alt-right. But alt-right is not far-right, the “alt” is there for a reason. It is an alternative or a departure from actual mainstream conservatism.
Having been the target of these vile and vicious trolls, there are a few very clear things that identify the alt-right. First is white nationalism displaying overt racism and anti-Semitism; without that, it’s not alt-right. Another is the use of hyper-violent rhetoric and imagery, nightmarish visions of race wars to cleanse the republic. Finally, there is allegiance to its leadership, which includes figures like Richard Spencer.
None of this describes Shapiro. Nor does its describe outlets that have the name thrown at it such as Breitbart, Quillette, and The Federalist among others. The problem is that while this fact is as obvious to conservatives as a coffee stain on a bright white T-shirt, far too many on the left cannot see the distinction at all.
This creates two real problems: the first, as described above, is that it smears people like Shapiro in an absurd way. But perhaps worse, it gives cover to the actual alt-right, such as it still exists. When the left fails to draw a bright line between Shapiro and Spencer, when they, either out ignorance or malice, conflate conservatism and the alt-right, they embolden the latter and make it appear far more palatable to people the alt-right is trying to attract.
The best antidote to this problem is better literacy regarding the conservative movement in mainstream outlets. When Kevin Williamson can’t work at the Atlantic, when the very moderate conservatives at the New York Times are pilloried as extremists, and when the Washington Post pretends its ex-conservative columnists represent anything but a small cabal of die-hard NeverTrumpers, readers get a skewed and distorted vision of conservatives that blurs the very real and bright line between the right and the alt-right.
Favoring control of the border and more limited illegal immigration is not an alt-right position unless it is rooted in the belief that such immigration forebodes white genocide. Opposing affirmative action is not an alt-right position unless it is rooted in pseudo-scientific babbling about the racial superiority of white people. Opposing foreign wars is not an alt-right position unless it is rooted in the belief that Jews and Israel are pulling the purse strings that send American soldiers to their death.
Conflating these positions is a very dangerous thing. It creates an environment in which liberals and progressives feel it not only an option but also, often, a duty to not engage with very mainstream conservative ideas. Calling Ben Shapiro a sage of the alt-right is meant to do exactly what protesters who de-platform his speeches do: Keep people from hearing his ideas rather than simply disagreeing with them.
Mainstream outlets must start doing a better job understanding conservatism so that everyone can see what conservatives see so clearly—that people like Shapiro have nothing to do with the alt-right. Should they fail to do so, our broken national conversation will fall into even greater disrepair.