Among the many strange associations and accusations that came out of the mouth of Donald Trump during his August 22 “speech” to his base in Phoenix, Arizona, was the correlation of Democrats, the “media” and antifascists. According to Trump, the Democrats have “no ideas” and have constantly obstructed him and the “media” are “bad people” who give a platform to hate groups. The antifascists, meanwhile, are described thus: “they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything — antifa!”
Trump’s gambit, of course, is to criminalize those opposing his racist, white nationalist base. He seeks to tar and discredit all forms of protest against racism and xenophobia, including the beautiful, massive march of 40,000 people in Boston on August 19.
Trump’s fans have helped spread the message. A petition to label “antifa” as a terrorist group, started by what Politico has described as a “pro-Trump troll,” has gathered more than 250,000 signatures. Politico says the instigator of the petition “said the submission has already done its job: help shift the narrative toward decrying ‘leftist violence’ and galvanize conservatives.”
And Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham has now amplified that message over the airwaves.
We should be deeply concerned by these efforts to label “antifa” as a terrorist organization, which would open the door to criminalizing and harassing a wide range of antifascist actions. Under such a dispensation, one could legitimately say that the 40,000 people who marched in Boston were all “antifascists.”
Trump’s Arizona speech was an attempt to join two of the most dangerous strands of American political history: virulent racism and McCarthyism. Trump was not merely attacking those opposed to him, he was clearly targeting the left, and specifically trying to criminalize left-wing politics.
He is attempting to consolidate his right-wing base by liquidating social justice movements into a Twitter soundbite: antifa.
It won’t work. Those who marched against Nazis and white supremacists in Boston recently did so under a united front banner of standing with and defending the most vulnerable. It is precisely the targets and victims of fascism and the “alt-right” — Muslims, immigrants, people of color, Jews, women, LBGTQ+ people that the broad anti-Trump, antifascist movement seeks to consolidate and unite as a fighting force.
Trump’s targeting of Democrats and “the media” is of course to be expected, and the addition now of antifascism as the object of Trump’s anger is consistent with his deeply reactionary politics. What is of deeper concern is that one of the most energetic and unequivocal movements against white supremacy, ethno-nationalism and fascism is also being targeted by liberals.
For example, in essays published this week, both NYU Professor Todd Gitlin and independent journalist Chris Hedges warned against antifa tactics. Hedges went so far as to discourage people from confronting fascists in the streets. Both writers replicate Trump’s narrative of antifascist activism as outliers and threats to the social order.
The pairing of the far right and the moderate-liberal sector is enabled by the conflation of many aspects of antifascism into its most controversial elements — mostly those antifascists who take aggressive action to preempt violence emanating from the alt-right. This conflation reflects an age-old attempt of the political elite to divide a social movement into “good” and “bad” protesters. What is deeply disappointing is that many liberals and even some progressives continue to ignore the specificity and dangerous uniqueness of this historical moment.
It should signal that something extraordinary is happening when a president can pardon Joe Arpaio, a sadistic, criminal “officer of the law” whose actions included detaining undocumented immigrants in detention centers Arpaio himself described as “concentration camps.”
This egregious act has led people like law professor Ian Haney Lopez to call for Trump’s impeachment. In his article in The Nation, Lopez wrote: “In pardoning an official who spat upon the 14th Amendment right to racial equality and who treated the federal courts contemptuously, Trump abused his presidential powers. He enabled a racist to trash our country’s core values and subvert the rule of law and face no consequences for these actions.”
Fascism in the US has never been so evident and has never enjoyed such freedom to act as it will, unencumbered by the rule of law or by conventional politics. Which is why we need organized antifascist action.
The urge to marginalize antifascist work was again evident in Chuck Todd’s “Meet the Press” segment with Professor Mark Bray, author of the book Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, and Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bray made the case that antifascist action was required to address a startling trend in fascism in the US, which seeks to normalize itself, hiding behind the mask of khakis and polo shirts instead of sheets and hoods. As even the fashion magazine GQ pointed out:
They could be from anywhere, and wouldn’t look out of place foisting martini shakers in Portland, or Nashville, or Brooklyn — they blend together so seamlessly that you’d be forgiven for checking WebMD for symptoms of white people face aphasia. Even if they are indiscernible, their expressions, taken together, suggested an emboldening. As Eve Ewing observed on Twitter, “They didn’t even feel the need to wear hoods. They’re all confident they’ll have jobs on Monday.”
Bray made the point that white supremacist organizations had asked that marchers adopt this “normalizing” garb while spewing hate speech and perpetrating physical violence. In such situations, Bray said there was nothing wrong with defending oneself and others from physical violence. Cohen agreed, saying there was nothing wrong with defending oneself. Yet Todd insisted that this be a “debate,” pressing the issue of “free speech” and avoiding the all-important issue of self-defense.
Two things need to be emphasized: First, many activists in Charlottesville, including Cornel West, said in the absence of police protection, the antifa “saved our lives.” This was confirmed by a long piece in Slate that included many eyewitness testimonials such as this one:
We tried not to break the line, but they got through some of us — it was terrifying, to say the least — shoving forcefully with their shields and knocking a few folks over. We strengthened our resolve and committed to not break the line again. Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let them through and asked what they could do to help. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou talked with them for a bit, explaining what we were doing and our stance and asking them to not provoke the Nazis. They agreed quickly and stood right in front of us, offering their help and protection.
Secondly, a large number of antifascists believe in nonviolent, mass action as the way to combat fascism. But this fact is being deliberately ignored by those on both the right and the left who want an expedient way to dismiss and disarm everything that would fall under the label of antifascist action.
People opposing Trump’s demonization of antifascism should recount and recite its history. The fight against fascism in Spain, Germany and Italy in the 1930s and 1940s was nothing if not politically broad and united in diversity: workers, soldiers, women, gays and lesbians, pacifists, trade unionists, Socialists, Democrats, Jews, whites, non-whites, writers, artists. People from all walks of life, with differing political viewpoints, found solidarity in fighting a common enemy. That fight against fascism, rightly and proudly called antifascism, was one of the most spectacular moments in broad solidarity the world has ever seen. In the end, it helped save millions of lives. It is that spirit of broad unity and defense of human life that was on display in Boston.
We need to reclaim the word antifascism, not disavow it.
Our fear is that some liberals will rush to condemn even the word “antifascism” in an effort to dissociate themselves from a Trumpian caricature of the concept and historical reality, and thereby form common cause with the “alt-right.” We need to reclaim the word antifascism, not disavow it, and embody its values. The fight against fascism in the US must be a “big tent” where people with diverse political points of view stand united against a single foe: fascism.
We must also not shy away from what the fight against fascism means: fighting everywhere, including in the streets, to defend the oppressed who are targets of fascist violence. Americans watched in horror as white supremacist Jeremy Christian murdered two people in cold blood in Portland. We cannot let that happen again.
And we must not let Trump’s Orwellian reversal of language and meaning — his notion that fighting fascism is “terrorism” — cloud our thinking about fascism’s violent menace.
Indeed, George Orwell himself was nearly killed by fascists while fighting against them in Spain. That legacy of fearless commitment to justice is the real meaning of antifascism.
Note: The authors of this piece are all part of the Campus Antifascist Network.
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