Read: The double standard of the American riot
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.
Read: Don’t fall for the ‘chaos’ theory of the protests
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.