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.
“In a way, antifa is the political correctness that all kinds of conservatives dislike, in a really radical form,” said Scott Walter, the president of the Capital Research Center, a conservative-libertarian think tank that maintains a database of research on left-wing organizations. “And the most common place to find political correctness and antifa is on college campuses, where the essential thing is that you want to silence your opponents completely, and you want to have mob rule. That’s what, I think, almost all conservatives see.”
The term “antifa,” short for “anti-facist,” has strayed far from its origins in pre-World War II Germany, where it referred to a paramilitary group that used violence in its fight against the Nazi party.
Starting around the time Trump announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, “antifa” morphed into a phrase that was used to broadly paint liberal protest organizers as driven to destroy civilized society through extreme measures. Even groups like Black Lives Matter have been tarred with the brush in the past, with conservative writers and cultural critics like L. Brent Bozell associating BLM tactics with those of antifa. Attorney General Bill Barr has described violent protesters as using “antifa-like tactics” rather than the more generic term, “anarchist.”
“Antifa just became a term used by anyone and their grandma to describe somebody who was opposed to the open fascism that was being paraded around in all kinds of media,” said Alexander Reid Ross, an instructor at Portland State University and the author of “Against the Fascist Creep.” “I think with the popularization of the alt-right, there was sort of a counter-popularization of antifa, to the point where it simply describes people who are anti-fascist or people who are against racism and are willing to protest against it.”
In recent years, the Trump administration has sought to brand antifa as a terrorist organization, building it up in speeches and in appeals to voters.
And with Floyd’s death, Trump and conservatives have used that rhetoric to try and draw a line between what they describe as “peaceful” Black Lives Matter protesters and any violent instigators, instead of quibbling with whether the police officers acted appropriately — a stance that is difficult to take given the video showing the Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
“Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem,” read a fundraising email the Trump campaign sent out Tuesday. “They are DESTROYING our cities and rioting — it’s absolute madness.
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.”