Donald Trump’s “Antifa” Hysteria Is Absurd. But It’s Also Very Dangerous.

Donald Trump is attempting to drum up hysteria about antifa to clamp down on protest and dissent in the United States. Don't let him.

WASHINGTON, DC — Donald Trump waves to journalists as he returns to the White House after posing for photographs in front of St John's Episcopal Church on June 1. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

For nearly two decades, the United States government has been waging what it calls a “war on terrorism.” Over the last several days, the United States has been engulfed by a wave of terror. But the perpetrators are not al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any other foreign adversary — the terror comes from the domestic forces of order.

After police murdered George Floyd in broad daylight on May 25 — the latest in a long list of police murders of black people, from Philando Castile and Eric Garner to Tamir Rice and Breona Taylor — the police and National Guard have run wild, in brutal ways that only serve to confirm protesters’ arguments about how out of control those police are. In Minneapolis, the National Guard fired rubber bullets on residents on their own front porches, while the Department of Public Safety tweeted about preparing for “urban warfare.” Horrifying footage emerged of New York City Police Department officers driving their vehicles through crowds of protesters. In Louisville, Kentucky, David McAtee, an owner of a barbecue restaurant — who frequently gave free meals to law enforcement — was shot and killed by police and National Guard, who then left his body on the street for twelve hours. Elsewhere across the nation, police attacked protesters, journalists and bystanders with a range of weapons, including batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades.

Donald Trump and his Attorney General William Barr have decided to ignore this very real spree of police violence, the root of the anger sweeping the nation, and instead double down on conspiracy theories justifying their calls for ratcheting up repression — most absurdly but also most dangerously, in their fulminations against “antifa.”

Beware the Sinister Cabal of Antifa

In the narrative Trump and Barr tell, the events that have unfolded in cities across the country are not rebellions or uprisings rooted in legitimate popular anger. They are not, as Martin Luther King, said, “the language of the unheard.” Instead, they are carefully orchestrated, preplanned violence carried out by a tight-knit cabal as part of a sinister master plan.

When Barr addressed the nation on Saturday, he announced “outside agitators and radicals are exploiting the situation.” According to Barr, “in many places it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics.” Barr then warned that federal law makes it a felony to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot and that the Department of Justice would be willing to prosecute such crimes.

Trump, reiterated these themes on Twitter. He falsely claimed  “80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE,” seemingly referring to a statement about the home states of the arrestees initially made by the mayor of St Paul but almost instantly proven wrong. Trump was also drawing on the trope of “outside agitators” that has been deployed to delegitimize the Civil Rights Movement and every other mass movement in American history. He referred to professionally managed protests and laid the blame for the violence on Radical Left Anarchists,” “ANTIFA led anarchists,” and “ANTIFA and the Radical Left.”

Finally, on May 31, Trump ominously tweeted,
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”

We should establish a few facts here. Donald Trump could tweet he was going to part the Red Sea, abolish gravity, or raise the dead from their graves, and much of the US media would devote time to discussing what such actions would mean for America as though they were a serious possibility. But they aren’t.

The same is true in this case. While the Secretary of State can designate groups as “foreign terrorist organizations,” the key word here is “foreign.” When the Obama administration was faced with an error-laden WhiteHouse.Gov petition by reactionaries to declare Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, they responded by saying, “The White House plays no role in designating domestic terror organizations.the White House played no role in designating domestic terrorist organizations. The US government does not generate a list of domestic terror organizations.”

Those on the Right salivating at the thought of mass roundups of leftists will be disappointed, as the government cannot proscribe a domestic political organization. Even during the Cold War-era Red Scare, the Supreme Court made it clear that the government could not criminalize joining an organization with both lawful and unlawful aims, unless an individual joins with the specific intent of furthering those unlawful claims.

When it comes to foreign terrorist organizations, the Supreme Court has upheld an extremely broad definition of material support that essentially allows the government to criminalize political speech. Nonetheless, the Court has stated US law does not “not prohibit independent advocacy [of] or membership” in such an organization.

On top of all that, it’s important to establish what antifa is and is not. Antifa is short for anti-fascism. It refers not to any single organization, but to a broad ideology (opposition to fascism). Of course, one cannot declare a broad ideology or political affinity a “terrorist organization” — “antifa” can’t be outlawed anymore than “feminism” or  “neoliberalism” can.

When Donald Trump or right-wing commentators invoke Antifa, they are not referring to an actual existing political philosophy. They are invoking a far-right conspiracy theory. In the minds of some, antifa is not only a political organization; it is the hidden hand behind a whole litany of supposed bad acts.

In this sense, antifa occupies the role in the right-wing imagination as the Communist Party did in the middle of the twentieth century. While some on the Right associate antifa with anarchists, others frequently label them as communist or Marxist, highlighting continuity with Red Scares of the past. The Right doesn’t distinguish much between different left tendencies, viewing them all as a uniformed enemy.

Beyond drumming up Red Scares, right-wing fixation on antifa is the extension of another conspiracy theory: the myth of paid protesters and professional rioters. These claims were frequently parroted during both Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests, but they’ve now dramatically escalated with the president, key elected officials, and the less fringe parts of the right-wing media, all of which are now echoing this talking point and often overlap with antisemitic, George Soros-related conspiracy theories.

The protests across the nation are outpourings of outrage at the continuing police murders of unarmed black people. By meeting protests with violence, police are choosing to escalate. None of that works for the narratives Trump wishes to spew, so he’s tapped into the right-wing id by drumming up a shadowy left-wing villain.

Law Enforcement Will Get the Message

Still, even absent actual powers to declare antifa a domestic terrorist group, Trump’s statements are chilling. There may be no formal list of domestic terrorist organizations, but the FBI has repeatedly investigated nonviolent activists and organizations using its counter terrorism authorities. And right now, the FBI’s guidelines allow it to open investigations using extremely intrusive techniques without any factual predicate suggesting the subject is engaged in criminal activity or threatening national security.

In fact, we know the FBI is already on the case. In November, 2017 FBI director Christopher Wray, told Congress that while he antifa isn’t an organization, a number of domestic terrorism “anarchist extremist investigations” were underway, examining people “motivated by antifa ideology.” (In September 2017, I filed a FOIA request with the FBI seeking all files pertaining to antifa. I have yet to receive the requested files).

Local police will also receive the message that antifa is synonymous with domestic terrorism, impacting how they police anti-racist, anti-police brutality organizing, or any left-wing demonstration they deem related to “antifa.”

Beyond questions of legality, labeling antifa a terrorist organization in the public discourse paves the way for many more repressive proposals. In response to Trump’s tweet, we’ve seen not only right-wing commentators but members of Congress discuss such extreme acts as deploying the military against antifa or detaining antifa members at the US military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Trump invoked antifa in his chilling, fascistic address yesterday in which he pledged to use the military domestically against protests, labeling antifa one of the “leading instigators of this violence.”

Local police are also known to be steeped in right-wing conspiracy theories. Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, who is currently leading the charge that Floyd’s killers were fired without due process, in the past lobbied for anti-protest legislation. Asked about his doing so by In These Times, he claimed “George Soros … He’s a big funder of things like that.”

And Red Scares are never harmless. During post-World War I Red Scare, the Bureau of Investigation created a “Radical Division” (later called the General Intelligence Division). Headed by J. Edgar Hoover, they compiled dossiers on radicals and used them to arrest ten thousand people during the Palmer Raids. As FBI chief, Hoover continued the practice creating the Security Index, a list of subversives to be rounded up without trial in the event of an emergency. At its zenith, this index contained 26,174 names. In addition to the FBI’s lists, during the Cold War, the attorney general created a list of “subversive organizations.” Many of the repressive actions being fantasized right now in relation to antifa were real parts of the Cold War security state.

Trump may not be able to officially ban antifa, but with his bombastic rhetoric, he is greenlighting further repression. Law enforcement and legislators will read this as sanctioning their own attacks on dissent. And the president’s labeling of a particular ideology as “terrorism” will have chilling effects, whatever the intricacies of First Amendment jurisprudence. Many people who hear such rhetoric this will wonder if engaging in activism will subject them to state reprisals.

Ironically, many on the Right propagating conspiracy theories about antifa have also been stockpiling weapons while warning about FEMA death camps, martial law, and erosions of Constitutional liberty. But as we saw during earlier Black Lives Matter protests and are seeing again now, many such individuals side with militarized police who are crushing protests. Using contorted conspiracist logic, it is the police and now the military who are preventing tyranny, and their victims who are actually the instigators of martial law.

This is wrong. It is law enforcement who is to blame for the events that are unfolding across the nation. Continued police violence, especially racist police violence, has produced mass anger. When people join demonstrations against this violence, police try to provoke them and escalate tensions by attacking the protests.

Trump and others on the far right are, unsurprisingly, ignoring this. They are turning to an age-old rightwing conspiracy theory, which finds alien, outside forces as the real cause of all social discontent.

Trump is attempting to use the specter of antifa to clamp down on dissent. He’s bluffing, to a large degree, and we can’t let him scare us out of the streets. But the dangerous political climate he is trying to stoke can’t be ignored.