Counterprotesters in Charlottesville tear a Confederate flag during a white-nationalist rally Aug. 12. The demonstration brought new attention to anti-fascists, or antifa. (Shaban Athuman/AP)
Media columnist

For many Americans, the first they heard of antifa was last month when a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville burst into the news.

Since then, though, it’s everywhere.

Trevor Noah did a comic riff on it last week, calling one wing of the group the "vegan ISIS." Sean Hannity's substitute, Jonathan Gilliam, lumped in Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville, with anti-fascists. And The Washington Post's editorial board suggested the group call itself "profa" because its tactics work against its cause.

Most notably, of course, President Trump denounced Charlottesville violence “on many sides” — equating the neo-Nazis there with the anti-fascists, who say they aim to fight back against the rise of white supremacy and totalitarianism. (With roots in 1930s Europe, antifa’s adherents believe in direct action, including force if they deem it necessary.)

Confusion reigns. But one thing is clear: The term has been quickly weaponized. Blended with some hazy terms like “alt-left,” it became politically useful to the right, and certainly to the president.

“Trump was playing into a meme about violent leftists that was well developed on the right,” Peter Beinart, a journalism and political science professor at the City University of New York, told me. “Those on the left had heard much less of it.”

For months, the likes of Hannity have been using “alt-left” to trash mainstream journalists. Then along came Charlottesville, and the ubiquitous image of the black-clad, shield-wielding leftists.

“What about the alt-left that came charging at, what you say, the alt-right?” Trump asked a few days after Charlottesville’s confrontation. “What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”

He was comparing things that aren’t the least bit equal, neither in scale nor in intent.

"It's no coincidence that it was a Nazi sympathizer — and not an antifa activist — who committed murder in Charlottesville," Beinart wrote in the Atlantic, citing figures from the Anti-Defamation League that deserve widespread repetition:

Right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.

Meanwhile, one white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan leader, Chris Barker, said last month that his movement would destroy immigrants: "We killed 6 million Jews the last time. Eleven million is nothing." As Paul Blest wrote in the Outline, "To pretend that the alt-right and Antifa are comparable is like equating the danger of playing Russian roulette with taking a walk."

Nor can the two be compared in the political arena.

“They have no political allies,” national political reporter David Weigel of The Post observed of antifa, asking rhetorically, “Who is the Corey Stewart of antifa?” (Stewart is the Virginia politician who unfurled Confederate flags at rallies as he ran unsuccessfully in the recent Republican primary for governor and who says he will challenge Sen. Tim Kaine next year.)

But the fuzziness around antifa — and its hazards — should come as no surprise to those who remember how the news media first grappled with the term “alt-right.”

As attention to white nationalism rose during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, newsrooms struggled with how, or whether, to use “alt-right.” Some decided against it, believing it sugarcoated white supremacists and neo-Nazis; the phrase sounded harmless, even cool — kind of like “alt-country.”

Meanwhile, a prettied-up celebrity status accrued to white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer, who was profiled everywhere with flattering photos and reasonable-sounding quotes.

There certainly was no question that the alt-right had political ties — at the highest level. Stephen K. Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, who would would become Trump’s chief strategist, once described his news organization as the “platform for the alt-right.”

These days, mainstream news organizations and liberal politicians are quick to criticize antifa — doing so vehemently has become a badge of honor — but less quick to explain the group's ideology, tactics or goals.
And when Dartmouth College professor Mark Bray tried to do so, he was publicly slapped back by his university president. Meanwhile, few have heard the activist author Cornel West give credit to anarchists and anti-fascists for saving the lives of peacefully protesting clergy members in Charlottesville: Given the weak police response in protecting them from the neo-Nazis, West said, "We would have been crushed like cockroaches" otherwise.

After the Charlottesville crisis, some news outlets did a good job of explaining Trump's references to the "alt-left," as CBS News did on its website with a question-and-answer piece.

But it’s safe to say that most news consumers, if they know anything about antifa, know what the president has told them, and what they’ve gleaned from the club-wielding protesters shown endlessly on TV: that it’s roughly the left-wing equivalent of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

That’s not only untrue, but it has the effect of tarring everyone who protests Trump, as well as those who peacefully march for climate-change awareness or rally against hate-mongering speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, the onetime Breitbart provocateur.

The best thing journalists can do is to relentlessly explain the beliefs, scope and scale of antifa, and to resist conflating it with liberal groups. And most important, to challenge politically motivated efforts to create a false equivalency between antifa and the rising tide of white supremacy. There is no comparison.

This story has been updated to clarify Trevor Noah’s quote.

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