Trump inadvertently outs himself
Violent instigators have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations. — U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich
Early on in the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, Donald Trump, in a signature move, tried to shift blame onto a personal bogeyman.
“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left. Don’t lay the blame on others!” he tweeted on May 30. “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” he tweeted the next day.
It was just one of many conspiratorial narratives spread via Fox News and social media as public opinion changed dramatically, baffling Trump and his supporters alike.
Experts quickly refuted Trump, noting that Antifa isn’t even an organization, but rather an organizing philosophy — militant anti-fascism — much less a foreign, international organization, which it would have to be for that designation to apply. What’s more, the story on the ground was precisely the opposite.
“Violent instigators have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, including Nevada, exploiting the real and legitimate outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death for their own radical agendas,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich, the son of former Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, on June 3, as he announced charges against three rightwing extremists. “Law enforcement is focused on keeping violence and destruction from interfering with free public expression and threatening lives.”
The arrests came from the Joint Terrorism Task Force involving the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. A press release identified the three men as “alleged members of the ‘Boogaloo’ movement — a term used by extremists to signify a coming civil war and/or collapse of society.”
More precisely, most “Boogaloo Bois,” as they call themselves, look forward to a racial civil war — the exact opposite of the historic shift in public consciousness shown by demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
The arrests had been made on May 30, the same day as Trump’s baseless tweet. But the pairing of Trump’s conspiratorial Antifa fantasy and the cold hard facts of Boogaloo terrorism was hardly an isolated occurrence. Trump’s fantasy was all-encompassing, while the facts were all against him — despite a flood of false rumors about mythical busloads of bloodthirsty Antifa protesters out to pillage lily-white communities from Curry County, Ore., just north of California on the Pacific Coast, to Sparta, Ill., “where they will be directed to target rural white Americans by burning farm houses and killing livestock,” according to Mike Adams from NaturalNews.com and other equally preposterous targets.
Rightwing Terrorist Threat is Real
On June 16, the Department of Justice announced two more Boogaloo arrests for the May 29 murder of Pat Underwood, who was guarding the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland. Another officer was wounded in that attack, and a Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff was killed apprehending one of the suspects a week later.
Then on June 23, San Antonio Fox affiliate KABB announced the June 8 Drug Enforcement Administration’s arrest of a “Boogaloo Bois” body-builder for steroid trafficking, with further charges possible. Another “Boogaloo Bois” body-builder had been arrested two months earlier, on April 11, in a different part of Texas, after he reportedly used Facebook Live to show himself attempting to murder police.
But none of this was surprising to the consortium of 17 spy agencies collectively known as the U.S. Intelligence Community, according to a Department of Homeland Security report secretly published on June 1, and leaked to The Nation magazine six weeks later. It bluntly began:
“The Intelligence Community reports that Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs) who support ‘Boogaloo’ could exploit the current political and social environments to conduct attacks in the United States, and pose a potential threat to law enforcement.”
But the “Boogaloo Bois” are simply the latest variation on a much older theme.
In mid-June, the Center for Strategic & International Studies issued a report stating that “right-wing attacks and plots accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994. In particular, they made up a large percentage of incidents in the 1990s and 2010s,” and that “the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown substantially during the past six years.”
Specifically, they perpetrated two-thirds of the terrorist attacks and plots in 2019, and over 90 percent of them between January 1 and May 8, 2020.
Similar figures came from the Anti-Defamation League’s annual Murder and Extremism report, released in February, which found that 38 of the 42 extremist-related murders in the United States in 2019 were committed by right-wing ideologues, including white supremacists. They also accounted for “330 deaths over the course of the last decade,” 76 percent of the total due to domestic extremist-related murder.
The New Conspiracism
But Trump’s style of minimalist conspiracist assertion is ideally suited to disregarding facts. It typifies what’s described as the “new conspiracism” in the 2019 book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, whose authors I interviewed for Salon last year. This “new conspiracism,” co-author Nancy Rosenblum told me, “offers an opportunity for people to assent” not “to a theory, an explanation of something,” but “to the aggressiveness and the targetedness of the conspiracists’ claim.”
Because there’s no specific content at the heart of Trump’s Antifa conspiracy fantasy, it’s impervious to factual refutation. And it serves as a perfect cover story for his own authoritarian scheming. At the same time he tweeted his Antifa accusation, he pushed farther, tweeting out a threat:
“Crossing State lines to incite violence is a FEDERAL CRIME! Liberal Governors and Mayors must get MUCH tougher or the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests. Thank you!”
Thanks, indeed for threatening to violate the 1877 Posse Comitatus Act, by using the military as domestic police. It’s arguably the favorite federal statute of Trump’s hard right white supremacist supporters, since it put an end to the use of U.S. Army troops to protect against racist terror in the South. But since the threatened violation was aimed at their common enemy — the militant anti-fascists of Antifa — there was barely a whisper of dissent.
Trump’s Jack-Booted Thugs
Six weeks later, on the streets of Portland, we saw what Trump had in mind: an unidentified secret police force, kidnapping citizens at will, like a Latin American dictatorship during the Nixon or Reagan administrations.
In justification Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf issued a July 16 press release condemning “The Rampant Long-Lasting Violence In Portland,” repeatedly blaming “violent anarchists” without any evidence of who they actually were, for a long list of grievances, including 20 incidents of spray-painting graffiti and 13 of setting off fireworks.
A unified chorus of state and local officials — including U.S. senators — condemned the actions.
“Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters,” Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley tweeted that same day. “These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end.”
“As best as I can tell, this is an effort — a last gasp effort — by a failed president with sagging polling data, who’s trying to look strong for his base,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro on July 19. “He’s actually using the federal police function in support of his candidacy.”
“We don’t have a secret police in this country. This is not a dictatorship,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told NPR on July 19. “Trump needs to get his officers off the streets.”
Rather than listening to others, Trump played misunderstood.
“We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” he tweeted that same day. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”
But again, this stood reality on its head. The size of protests had dwindled to a few hundred over the course of seven weeks, but rose to about two thousand in response to the federal presence, according to media reports. On July 19, a “wall of moms” aka “momtifa” formed to protect the protesters. It was organized by Bev Barnum, 35, after seeing videos of the federal forces in action.
“We are about protecting peaceful citizens’ right to protest,” Barnum told BuzzFeed News. “We wanted to look like we were going to Target, like normal people.”
The moms’ presence subdued the federal forces for several hours, but eventually, Trump’s troops attacked with tear gas, flash-bangs and pepper spray.
And the next day, Trump doubled down even more.
“We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York,” he said from the White House. “We’re looking at Chicago, and New York, and Detroit, and Baltimore, and all of these … Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country.”
What’s happening is mostly peaceful protests — the most broadly-supported protest movement in American history, according to recent polls. And Trump is on the wrong side, along with his white Christian nationalist base. His utter failure to protect the country from COVID-19 is only making matters even worse.
But the confusion he’s sown around Antifa remains a dangerous distraction that needs clearing up — first about Antifa itself and then about how his conspiracy mongering mixes with and supercharges other sources of disinformation.
In early July, Natasha Lennard wrote a useful introduction to Antifa, for Vice.
“Antifa is not an organization. There are no official ‘antifa leaders;’ there are no official members. There is no centralized leadership board or committee,” she wrote. “Antifa is best understood as a practice, or a set of tactics, which groups can take up and deploy; and sometimes certain collectives use the label ‘antifa’ to describe themselves.’” (This is far more common in Britain, where scores of such groups can be found online.)
Lennard introduced an analogy from historian Mark Bray, author of Antifa: An Anti-fascist Handbook. “To call antifa an organization, he wrote, is ‘like calling bird-watching an organization. Yes, there are bird-watching organizations as there are antifa organizations, but neither bird-watching nor antifa is an organization.’”
While Antifa’s origins stretch back to anti-Nazi street-fighters of the 1920s and 30s, “Physical force is just one string in the antifa bow,” Lennard explained. “The whole bow is focused on doing whatever is necessary to render racist extremists unable to gather, organize, and spread hateful ideologies.”
Some liberals abhor this, under the banner of “free speech,” but Europeans — especially Germans — who have experienced the horror of fascism first-hand, have long seen things differently, and Antifa activists share that understanding.
“Antifa practices understand that the desire for fascism is not something based on reason, so it is not something to be reasoned out of.” Lennard wrote. “The point at the very heart of antifa action is to make unpleasant, real-life consequences for those people who would engage in fascist organizing. If the sense of power, domination and belonging is what makes fascism appealing—why young white men are jumping on board—militant anti-fascist action is about shutting down that appeal.”
One might disagree with this argument, but it’s clearly a principled one, and one that doesn’t sanction widespread violence, as it’s often mis-portrayed. Of course, it can be corrupted and abused — as any principled position can be. But it is not inherently lawless, irrational or senseless in a “mirror image of fascism” as too many ignorant critics allege.
New and Old Conspiracism Combined
So, what about Antifa conspiracy theories? Trump’s ‘new conspiracism’ is perhaps the easiest to understand, as noted above: there’s nothing to it but broad emotional/attitudinal appeal.
“They’re bad people” has no more real empirical content to it than racism does. “I don’t like them and you can’t make me,” is all that it really boils down to.
But there are also classic conspiracy theories to consider. The essence of them is that some small group of people are pulling the strings to secretly and malevolently control history, and that only a dedicated band of fearless truth-tellers can expose them and thus save the world.
Two canonical examples in the Western world are anti-Semitism — dating back at least to the Middle Ages — and the Illuminati conspiracy theory, dating back to the 1790s, when they were blamed for the French Revolution. Tellingly, the Illuminati did not exist, having been disbanded under severe criminal penalties almost two decades earlier. European Jews certainly did exist, but the power they had was extremely limited, defined almost entirely by powerful Christian elites, who used t hem as middlemen, intermediaries and scapegoats.
Conspiracy theories involving Antifa take on multiple forms, including both of these classics. First, a la the Bavarian Illuminati are claims about its very existence. Of course, unlike the Illuminati, Antifa does exist. But, as Lennard and Bray explain, not in anything like the way it’s assumed to. Antifa brings together people with diverse political and ideological views around a shared opposition to fascism. It typically comprises local groups, not top-down regional, national or international organizations — the most inhospitable way to run a conspiracy. And, its planning revolves around responding to specific threats, not long-range world domination. Because it’s a coalition of diverse ideologies it couldn’t possibly be otherwise.
Second, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are second nature where fascists are concerned, so naturally Antifa is a target for them. A good example in circulation today is that George Soros is funding them. He was also accused of funding the entire wave of George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests, so why not Antifa as well?
In fact, accusations of Antifa’s involvement opened the floodgates, so that any conspiracy theories about the protests could mutate or adapt to include Antifa as well. Rumors hyping Antifa’s supposed omnipresence and/or string pulling are examples of classic conspiracism in action, tropes that have been around for so long, they can be feed from a wide range of sources. The rapid, unexpected spread of Black Lives Matter protests — even to some overwhelmingly white communities — surely helped prime fears, which conspiracy-peddlers preyed on. And those peddlers, in turn, ran the whole gamut, from the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, whose role was spotted early on, to self-described democratic socialist Adam Rahuba, a prankster unmasked by The Washington Post, who recently explained that he antagonizes far-right extremists mostly for his own amusement.
Such is the nature of conspiracy theories: because they’re unmoored from reality, they can be harnessed to do almost anything — at least, in the minds of those who deploy them. But how they end up in practice can be a whole other matter.
Right now, Trump is using the fantasy threat of Antifa to justify the lawless deployment of federal troops in Portland—and who knows how many other cities to come. In doing so, he’s acting out the fascist playbook that first gave rise to Antifa almost 100 years ago. We can only imagine what this will look like 100 years from now.