Column: When Trump cries ‘antifa,’ it’s an obvious excuse to teargas his enemies

President Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after the park was cleared of protesters on June 1.
President Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, after the park was forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters on June 1.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press )

President Trump is using one of his favorite canards again: antifa.

He is threatening to label the anti-fascist cause a terrorist organization. It isn’t, and he can’t, but he and his lieutenants, Atty. Gen. William Barr and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, are still trying to brand the George Floyd protests with that scare word.

This off-kilter trio seems to think that by crying “antifa” they can distract from the sadistic murder of George Floyd on May 24, ignore the demands of Black Lives Matter for police reform, and consolidate a political enemy to justify what the president seems to be spoiling for, unleashing military might against leftists.

Barr released a statement about the protests over the weekend: “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”


On Wednesday, Cotton went a step further in the New York Times, calling for “an overwhelming show of force” to subdue looters, whom he identified as “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches.”

As Natasha Lennard pointed out in the Intercept, the charge that civil rights protests are insincere — driven by “outside agitators” in it for money or kicks — reprises old Ku Klux Klan propaganda. The charge also “contains a gratuitous insult,” wrote James Baldwin in 1961, implying “that Negroes can make no move unless they are manipulated.”

Far from a mysterious project run by esoteric forces, the orderly protests across the country over the last two weeks are mostly the work of disciplined, nonviolent Black Lives Matter activists.

Anti-fascists, or antifa, go in for more confrontational tactics developed in Europe to disrupt neo-Nazis. They are committed to self-defense, sometimes with clubs. Anti-fascists are no doubt involved in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but they’re not the organizers, and self-described antifa members are on the record condemning last weekend’s instances of mayhem.

And then there are the arsonists and looters, another crowd entirely, who piggyback on the protests. One 24-year-old looter told a New York Times reporter Monday that his tribe isn’t allied with any cause at all: “People are just using” the demonstrations, he said, “as an excuse to act crazy.”

But creating slippage among the protesters, looters, Black Lives Matter and antifa is exactly the point of Trumpworld’s latest campaign. It’s a move borrowed from one of the most putrid playbooks of the Nixon era. It reeks of overflowing ashtrays, Brylcreem and desperation.

The forces that President Nixon called “dirty hippies,” Trump now calls “antifa.” Where Nixon ginned up a “war on drugs,” Trump, Barr and Cotton want a “war on domestic terror.”

Nixon factotum John Ehrlichman spelled out his boss’ version of this strategy in 1994, in an interview in Harper’s magazine.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or [be] black but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Trumpworld is now lying about antifa. The president first tried to ignore hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets this week, and now he wants to portray civil disobedience as so menacing it needs to be crushed by soldiers.

But what worked for Nixon may not work for Trump, whose disapproval ratings have soared during his wretched mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis and now these protests.

On Monday, in a new low, Trump mobilized federal forces, including a Black Hawk helicopter, to scatter swaths of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park, next to the White House. He wanted a photo op, but it backfired: We saw orderly demonstrators routed by flash grenades and tear gas so the president could hold up a Bible as a prop. Mortifying for the administration — not to mention unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests have only gained momentum and support. On Wednesday night, former President Obama praised them for sparking an “awakening” about the dire need for police reforms. On Capitol Hill, Democrats, powered by the Congressional Black Caucus, are drafting a sweeping package of police reforms to overhaul the way law enforcement works.

In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who has taken the Trumpworld bait and believes that anti-fascists, and not police violence, are the enemy.

Even former Defense Secretary James Mattis — known to be so circumspect he strikes some as cowardly — eviscerated Trump on Wednesday for his disregard for the right of the people to assemble peacefully. Mattis’ words provided political cover for other critics: Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, for example. Murkowski admitted that she’s now “struggling” over whether to support Trump for reelection.

Mattis made clear his preference for American unity as opposed to Trump’s and Nazism’s “divide and conquer” tactics. I don’t want to overstep here, but it sounds like the general may be an anti-fascist.