How ‘antifa’ became a Trump catch-all

Source: Politico | June 2, 2020 | Tina Nguyen

Antifa doesn’t appear to have any organizing structure, but it has become a potent term for conservatives — a quick way to brand part of the opposition.

Antifa has become a conservative catch-all under President Donald Trump. Any left-leaning protest that grows unruly is antifa. A mob of people protesting the president could be antifa.

Over the last few years, Trump, his base and the authorities have blamed antifa for everything from protesting the president’s inauguration to, most notably, the recent looting and vandalism that has occurred amid peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed by a police officer while repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” Trump allies in Congress are tweeting a desire to “hunt” antifa. Right-wing commentators are citing tweets from fake antifa groups as proof of mass fomenting violence.

Yet antifa doesn’t appear to have any organizing structure, and is connected only by an amorphous political ideology. There’s not much more than anecdotal evidence and blurry Twitter assertions that organized antifa groups showed up at the recent protests, executing any sort of “well-trained” tactics.

Still, the term is a potent one for conservatives. It’s the violent distillation of everything they fear could come to pass in an all-out culture war. And it’s a quick way to brand part of the opposition.


Trump on Sunday declared that he would formally designate antifa as a terrorist group. It’s a threat he made previously in the summer of 2019, when a Portland antifa group repeatedly clashed with far-right groups like the Proud Boys over several weeks of demonstrations.

Nothing came of those threats, though, and few legal experts think that the latest declaration will actually pan out. Antifa, they note, is a decentralized movement rather than a national organized group. It has no leadership, hierarchy, or centralized recruiting, propaganda or fundraising mechanisms — characteristics that would give the government the ability to prosecute these groups as if they were the Islamic State. In addition, current law prevents the government from declaring domestic groups as terrorist organizations.

“It’s like calling Deadheads or Red Sox Nation” an organization, said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Yet there’s a reason Trump, his allies and his base choose to promote the antifa threat, according to extremist researchers: it amplifies an amorphous danger, and allows Republicans to claim the mantle of law and order.

“I do think there’s a kernel of truth in what the president is trying to do,” Levin continued. “My issue is that I think he’s taking that kernel of truth and exploiting it, potentially for some political purpose that is decoupled from actually addressing extremism.”

It might also cloud narratives about the protests, serving to “destabilize the public understanding of what’s actually happening,” Ross added, noting that there have also been confusing reports about the presence of fringe conservative groups at the protests. The Nation on Tuesday also reported that an internal FBI memo indicated “no intelligence” that antifa was involved in protests on Sunday. “I think that [confusion] can really marginalize the whole motivation behind the protests.”


“It’s this kind of thing that he does, periodically; using the term as a sort of Boogeyman that can accumulate all those things that he hates, and take on these super powers that require the full force of law enforcement to neutralize,” he said. “And so, in this case, I think that pretty much the cardinal reason for trotting it out is to create a scapegoat.”

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