After a self-proclaimed white nationalist killed a woman by driving his car into counterprotesters at a pro-Confederacy “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville two years ago this month, President Trump struggled with a response.
In the immediate aftermath, he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” in the violence that erupted, emphasizing “on many sides” by repeating it. The unsubtle implication was that it takes two to tangle, despite the obvious one-sidedness of the death of Heather Heyer. After a backlash at that equivalence, Trump read a prepared statement condemning racism — only to later declare that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the brawling that day. Those sides being pro-Confederacy/pro-white-nationalism and anti-those-things.
At a campaign rally a few days later, Trump put a name to the violent actors battling the racists: antifa.
“They show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything,” Trump said in Arizona. “Antifa!” (In an interview in April, Trump told radio host Mark Levin that Charlottesville was “the beginning of antifa,” though anti-fascist activism — the “anti-fa” in antifa — dates back decades.)
A month after Charlottesville, Trump positioned antifa explicitly as the counterweight to white-nationalist violence.
“I think especially in light of the advent of antifa, if you look at what’s going on there, you know, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also,” Trump said. “And essentially that’s what I said. Now because of what’s happened since then, with antifa, you look at, you know, really what’s happened since Charlottesville — a lot of people are saying — in fact a lot of people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump might have a point.’ ”
Notice the formulation of “the other side” — itself a tacit acknowledgment that the white nationalists antifa was fighting allied themselves with Trump’s politics.
In recent weeks, Trump has discussed the idea of formally declaring antifa to be a terrorist organization, an action with dubious actual significance and which is hampered by antifa being a loose collective rather than an organization. It’s certainly true that antifa has engaged in violence, but Trump has isolated them as exceptional, hinting that the actions of those claiming affiliation with the movement rise to the level of terrorism.
On Wednesday, Trump cut to the chase, stating that antifa is, in fact, a terrorist organization. Responding to a question from NewsMax’s John Gizzi, Trump said that “we’re looking at a lot of different things relative to antifa.”
“Antifa in my opinion is a terrorist organization,” Trump said. “You see what they’ve been doing. We’ve had great support on that.”
It’s not a coincidence that Trump’s emphasis on antifa has ramped up as of late. After the mass shooting in El Paso this month, Trump tried to equate the suspect there with the alleged perpetrator of a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. The shooter in El Paso appears to have posted an anti-immigrant screed online that echoed Trump’s hard-line rhetoric, so Trump told reporters that the Dayton shooter was a “fan of antifa.” The evidence for this is that the alleged shooter’s Twitter account posted tweets supporting the group.
“Any group of hate,” Trump told reporters on Aug. 7, “I am — whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa, whether it’s any group of hate, I am very concerned about it. And I’ll do something about it.”
With the exception of a few prepared remarks read from a teleprompter, Trump has never actually spoken out solely against white-nationalist violence. He peppered seemingly off-the-cuff references to antifa into his campaign rallies before the 2018 midterms, part of an effort to cultivate a sense of danger about the future of the country. But Trump has never spontaneously spoken out against white supremacist or racist groups or individuals — even though the Department of Justice detailed a number of examples of deadly violence committed on behalf of those ideologies.
Trump reiterated his antifa-as-terrorists line last weekend as the threat of violence hung over Portland, Ore., as antifa prepared to confront a demonstration in that city. Trump didn’t condemn the group antifa was preparing to confront, though: the Proud Boys, a group that the FBI has linked to white-nationalist extremism.
The Proud Boys marched in Orlando in June when Trump arrived to hold a campaign rally. A Republican operative told the New York Times’s Trip Gabriel that the Trump campaign “didn’t care” about their presence and were told to “treat it like a coalition they can’t talk about.”
The takeaway here is straightforward. Trump emphasizes violent acts undertaken by antifa — which have certainly occurred — as a form of whataboutism. Point to racist violence in Charlottesville, and Trump will point to antifa. Ask Trump if he regrets that an alleged mass murderer in West Texas mirrored the president’s “invasion of immigrants” rhetoric before massacring Hispanics, and Trump will point to some antifa-related tweets by a guy who killed people in Dayton apparently at random.
Racists have killed scores of people in the past few years, but it’s the loose collective that is antifa that Trump wants to focus on as a threat. Antifa, after all, is on “the other side.”