Why Trump Is So Obsessed With Antifa

The president strategically invokes the group in his speeches to stoke fear and shift discourse away from systemic racism.

Donald Trump has used the Nixonian vocabulary of “law and order” to paint himself as a bulwark against a descent into anarchy. (Getty / The Atlantic)

This nation has been roiled with anguish and anger this past week over the police and extrajudicial killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and yet the White House is engaging in the same old rhetorical tactics of divisive scapegoating. Only now that rhetoric comes in the service of ominous ends: President Donald Trump relies on the shadowy specter of “antifa”—a label for a diffuse militant movement unified by a drive to counter fascism through direct action—to evoke fear in the American people. Since his inaugural speech and its dark focus on “American carnage,” Trump has used the Nixonian vocabulary of “law and order” to paint himself as a bulwark against a descent into anarchy. Now he is manufacturing bogeymen.

As usual, the tweets came first. After railing against the “THUGS” of Minneapolis, Trump on Sunday praised the National Guard’s response in the city the previous night: “The ANTIFA led anarchists, among others, were shut down quickly.” Twenty minutes later, he declared on Twitter, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization”—despite the fact that, as many observers have pointed out, the president has no legal authority to designate domestic terrorist groups. And antifa, short for “antifascist,” isn’t even a distinct organization with central leadership, but rather a loose confederation of like-minded activists, often acting anonymously.

When Trump invokes antifa, he infuses the word with a vaguely foreign-sounding otherness, heightened by the fact that he never expands it to its full form, antifascist—a strategic, or at least convenient, omission that serves to detach the name from the group’s stated beliefs. That would complicate the simplistic dichotomy that Trump and his allies have been constructing, between right-leaning patriots and the far-left extremists who must be to blame for any violent eruption. By latching on to a nebulous and under-defined term such as antifa, Trump can ascribe all manner of ills to a scapegoat that shifts to satisfy his needs at the moment.

Trump doubled down in his remarks in the Rose Garden on Monday by enumerating a panoply of malefactors: “Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others.” The organizers of “domestic terror,” he said, were now “on notice,” and “this includes Antifa and others who are leading instigators of this violence.” Though some activists who identify with the antifa movement may very well have taken part in recent demonstrations, The Nation reports that the FBI’s Washington field office “has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” in the D.C.-area protests on May 31, according to internal documents. While inveighing against “Antifa,” Trump elided the violence that set off the protests in the first place: the police brutality that took the life of Floyd, just as it has imperiled the lives of other black Americans.

This kind of attempt to shift the political discourse away from issues of systemic racism has long been a hallmark of Trumpian rhetoric. The president’s response to the Unite the Right rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which descended into violence nearly three years ago, notoriously included the false equivalence that there were “very fine people on both sides.” (It was a white nationalist who drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing the 32-year-old Heather Heyer.) Antifa first entered his personal lexicon at a campaign rally in Phoenix on August 22, 2017, a week and a half after Charlottesville, where he said, “You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything,” before blurting out “Antifa!” Since then Trump has returned to the term often in speeches, reciting “an-tee-fah,” as he pronounces it, with an air of alien menace.

Both antifa and antifascist are, in fact, designations with extremely complex and commonly misunderstood histories, as explored in Mark Bray’s 2017 book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Bray gives the pronunciation as an-tee-fa, reflecting the word’s origins in a number of European languages, including German, where it abbreviated the noun Antifaschismus or the adjective antifaschistisch. As Bray explains, antifa was first used in Germany in the 1930s for a militant movement opposing the Nazi regime, and “Antifa committees” emerged toward the end of World War II with a revolutionary socialist bent. The modern antifa movement grew out of the punk scene in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when young leftists clashed with neo-Nazi skinheads.

On the American scene, the appellation antifa is fairly new, but antifascist has its own particular historical resonances, dating back to the 1930s when fascist organizations such as Friends of New Germany and the German American Bund were on the rise. In left-wing circles, those who had fought in the Spanish Civil War’s Lincoln Brigade, serving with the Loyalists against Francisco Franco, had antifascist bona fides. In 1943, however, reports emerged that Americans who had fought alongside the Spanish Loyalists were being persecuted by government officials for suspected communist leanings. One newspaper article at the time explained that the Army had discriminated against a Spanish Civil War veteran, using the bureaucratic explanation that he was “politically unreliable” and “prematurely anti-Fascist.” The peculiar label “premature anti-fascist” got even more attention that year when a congressional committee sought to root out subversives from the government and treated veterans of the Lincoln Brigade as suspect.

The current scapegoating of antifa has historical echoes in other countries as well. I checked in with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at NYU and the author of the forthcoming book Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, who recently tweeted a quote from Mussolini referring to antifascists and other “degenerates” in 1927: “We remove these individuals from circulation just like a doctor does with an infected person.” “During Italian fascism,” Ben-Ghiat told me via email, “when they needed to wipe out the political opposition, antifascists were first treated as terrorists and a special tribunal was created, as well as a special political police, to deal with them. At times they were lumped together with other ‘degenerates’ like alcoholics, petty criminals, the mentally ill, and others who were viewed as deficient and unable to be redeemed and normalized by the state.”

Other right-wing regimes, such as Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, declared “wartime” as “a continuing state of exception,” in which “the left were treated as terrorists and counter-insurgency methods were used against them,” Ben-Ghiat said. This was accompanied by a “moral discourse of healing the nation,” in which “the terrorist” is treated as a moral and political sickness. Ben-Ghiat sees similar rhetoric extending from Mussolini to Franco to Pinochet up to present-day regimes such as that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Trump’s Rose Garden speech bore all of these authoritarian hallmarks. It used protests over grave injustices merely as a pretext for an aggressive militaristic stance against the country’s own citizens—any of whom might now be branded as “domestic terrorists” by the state. Being alert to how language can be weaponized in this way is a necessary step in deconstructing Trump’s would-be strongman act.