Trump’s Antifa Moment: Police Repression, Nonviolence, and Movement Building on the Left

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

Donald Trump’s train wreck of a speech in Phoenix was hardly unique.  It was similar to the president’s previous outings, which were also marked by rambling, Orwellian propaganda, random bloviations, and authoritarian media scapegoating.   But the speech was significant, nonetheless, as a sign of Trump’s growing attacks on leftist protesters.  The president, who never left the campaign trail, absurdly spoke of “all Americans” as playing “on the same team” and uniting in “love,” a week after he insulted sensible peoples the country over by referring to many of the white supremacists in Charlottesville as not so bad, and celebrating the symbols of America’s white supremacist past.

Trump’s demonization of reporters in the crowd, his incessant attacks on his political critics, and his singling out of a previously obscure, small leftist group – Antifa – for condemnation, suggests his agenda is driven by anything but unification.  Rather, and as we’ve long known, his entire persona is based on deeply divisive, and hateful, incendiary rhetoric directed against Trump’s political critics.  Vilifying protesters in the crowd as “anarchists,” the president spoke derisively of leftist anti-fascist militants who seek confrontations with the far right: “They show up in the helmets and the black masks and they’ve got clubs and everything.  Antifa!”

Normally, I wouldn’t be very concerned with a single speech in which Trump attacks his political critics.  But his decision to run interference for reactionaries and white supremacists in Charlottesville was an important moment in this presidency, suggesting that fascism sympathy is now a mainstay of executive politics.  The events in Phoenix are instructive in terms of spotlighting the dangers of the rise of reactionary politics and the role of police in protecting these groups.  It’s as clear now as ever that leftist demonstrators are not going to be treated fairly by the police.  A new video from “Real News AZ” documents in real time the escalation of violence between protesters and city police outside of Trump’s rally in Phoenix.  The video shows clearly that police first initiated violence against the protesters, charging at peaceful demonstrators, and firing tear gas canisters.  This blatantly contradicts police claims that they were merely defending themselves from protesters who initiated the conflict by throwing rocks at law enforcement.  Yes, the video shows, rocks were thrown at police, but it was not until after they had charged demonstrators and fired tear gas.  With great irony, Trump demonized “anarchist” protesters for seeking to stoke violence, while a police-initiated riot unfolded right outside the convention center’s doors.

The Phoenix police riot is merely one of countless stories in which increasingly militarized law enforcement have demonstrated their willingness to criminalize and suppress peaceful dissent on the left.  And if they’re willing to do this to non-violent protesters, imagine what’s in store for small groups of Antifa activists, who will be easy to isolate and suppress through state violence.  These activists now have a target painted on their back courtesy of the commander in chief.   One need look no further than a disturbing video clip from Phoenix of one protester wearing a gas mask, who can be seen kicking tear gas back at police after their unprovoked attack on demonstrators, to see what happens to those who reciprocate the violence visited on them by police.  The protester was quickly taken down, as police fired a rubber bullet into his groin, and as another demonstrator pulled the limping youth away from the police’s front line.  The video is disturbing, symbolically speaking, in demonstrating the savage repression of the American police state, as an ominous wave of riot police march in lock-step toward the overwhelmed protesters, firing tear gas and preparing to engage in more violence against the crowd.

Antifa’s revolution against the American police state and the reactionary right was over before it even began. The group has no mass support base, and its significance is primarily symbolic, as a representation of militant opposition to fascism, police, and capitalism.  Anyone who believes Antifa protesters will prevail against well-armed white nationalists, hyper-militarized militia groups, and the police state, is sorely mistaken. President Obama did little during his presidency to reign in an increasingly violent and aggressive right-wing militia movement, as the incidents involving Cliven and Ammon Bundy made all too clear.  And Trump has long courted the reactionary right by legitimating their protests and their concerns, while refusing to send a consistent message that hate groups and their violence will not be tolerated.

In this environment, I will not be surprised if militia groups escalate their aggressive tactics, thinking they’ve been deputized by the president to commit vigilante violence in pursuit of their political goals.  Even if these forces could be subdued by left militants – which they can’t – there is zero chance of violent protest succeeding against reactionary local police forces and national guard forces, who will not hesitate to put down Antifa leftists in favor of promoting “order” in the streets.

The question now is how to best build a mass movement against America’s creeping fascism?  Will that be achieved by punching neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the face, and by small groups of protesters throwing rocks and kicking tear gas at the police?  Or will mass-based non-violent protest be the way forward?

I appreciate militant anti-fascists’ commitment to defending individuals who are physically attacked by far-right fascists and reactionaries.  I share their concern with the rise of fascism more generally, and their recognition of the role that the police state plays in reinforcing right-wing militarism and vigilantism.  And Trump’s efforts to single out Antifa protesters, as if this group represents a serious threat to American security, are absurd.  Available evidence suggests that this movement has never been more than a marginal force in American politics, so Trump’s attack on Antifa is really a red herring from a president who seeks to create a false equivalence between the very real threat of right-wing militia groups to social order, and the miniscule number of protesters on the left committed to fighting fascists through violence.

Antifa has became a news story because of presidential bloviating, coupled with sensationalistic news coverage of left demonstrations that focuses on the few committed to violent protest.  Almost no one knew what Antifa was a few months ago, and the group had little visibility even on the left prior to recent months.  Until Charlottesville, it was viewed (if at all) by most people I know as periphery to any serious discussion of politics.  But once the mass media – in pursuit of bigger audiences and profits – amplified the conflict between a small number of left militants and white supremacists, the public started to take notice of the group.  Antifa barely appeared in the American media prior to this month.  According to the Lexis Nexis news database, the New York Times devoted just three stories to Antifa from January through July 2017, while CNN had only 8 segments mentioning the group during this period.  But throughout the first three-and-a-half weeks of August, the group appeared in nearly two-dozen stories in the New York Times, and another six dozen stories on CNN.  And Trump’s decision to fixate on Antifa and left militants means the group will continue to serve as the boogey man of the left in “mainstream” political discourse.  For those lacking familiarity with the group, it’s important to point out: Antifa is not a mass movement.  Its main role today appears to be that of a punching bag for Trump in his efforts to stoke a war between the reactionary right and left-leaning Americans.

Despite Antifa’s fixation on white nationalists, we need to take care to recognize the primary threats to American security.  A few hundred neo-Nazis and KKK supporters running around Charlottesville yelling “blood and soil” and other white power slogans was quite disturbing for many Americans, including myself, who saw the event in the news.  But this small group is not the central problem, despite the fetishization of violence against these extremists embraced by militant left anti-fascists.  This segment of the far-right will never be embraced by the masses of Americans, and polls show as much, with only about 5 percent of the public holding sympathetic views toward “white nationalists” and “white supremacists.” The real dangers are two-fold: 1. that police forces across the country could use the foil of Antifa as an excuse to crack down on mass non-violent protest groups they have long sought to suppress, including Black Lives Matter protesters, anti-Trump protesters, and other left-wing activists; and 2. the legions of right-wing militias across America, who count in their membership hundreds of thousands of well-armed members, and who have been treated with kid’s gloves by the police.  This latter movement could play a significant role in suppressing progressive protesters, and has already intimidated and terrorized the general public and institutions of government in pursuit of its political agendas.   Small leftist groups like Antifa and Redneck Revolt are not going to defeat the dual threat of the police and paramilitaries on the right.

The Trump administration and right-wing pundits want to use Antifa to paint with a broad brush an image of the American “left” as committed to militancy, extremism, and violence.  Such depictions serve their political goals of marginalizing the left, while propping up the reactionary right.  Trump’s attacks on left militants will make it easier to suppress mass non-violent protests, considering reporters’ long-established practice of framing left protesters as violent agitators, and taking at face value police departments’ claims that they merely protect the public and order, rather than violently suppress constitutionally protected speech and assembly.  American law enforcement has never been shy about using violence to suppress minority communities, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that the American right – which has long been set on labeling Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist organization” – is chomping at the bit to justify violent state attacks on people of color.

All of this is quite dangerous and toxic to left movement building.  The elevation of a infinitesimally small group of militant leftists into the spotlight means “the left” is no longer in control of its own public image.  This is a significant turn of events, considering that our nation’s focus on political extremism until recently was directed at Trump, not “the left.”

I have little interest in bickering with fellow progressives about whether Antifa is a serious political uprising.  Recent polling suggests the movement is supported by just 5 percent of the American public – equivalent to the number who support white nationalists and white supremacists.  In other words, left-wing militants and their methods are rejected by almost all Americans – a sign of the irrelevance of this group, practically speaking, in building a leftist mass movement in favor of transforming American politics.

Those sympathetic to Antifa’s methods might argue that 5 percent public support is rather significant, in that it translates into 12.4 million people in a country of 249 million adults.  Aren’t social movements always made up of a small, but determined and passionate minority?  This perspective would be more convincing if the vast majority of “supporters” of Antifa were active in the streets, but they aren’t.  No serious political commentator or analyst would argue that millions, or even tens or hundreds of thousands of Antifa activists have been active this year fighting fascists and police forces in the U.S.  The actual number of these activists is a tiny fraction of this larger population of “supporters.”  Rather, what we have is a relatively large group of people in the general public who are telling pollsters they are on board with Antifa’s anarchist-Black Bloc tactics, but who do little to act on this sentiment.  I’m not surprised by this finding.  Societies have always had armchair revolutionaries, and the U.S. is no different.

It’s also not surprising that Black Bloc-Antifa tactics failed to win over the masses.  Recent research demonstrates that non-violent civil disobedience is far more effective than violence in achieving political goals.  This conclusion is documented in detail in Erica Chenoweth’s important book, Why Civil Resistance Works, in which she finds that non-violent activist campaigns are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.  The reason should be obvious.  As Chenoweth explains in a recent article, “Violence Will Only Hurt the Trump Resistance,” while non-violent protest is more appealing to the average American, bringing in the masses and expanding the support base of a protest movement, violence tends to depress mass participation, sour potential allies, encourage violent repression, and push previous supporters away.  In short, violence is a polarizing force that turns off the public.  It deters mass participation, and works against efforts to build mass or revolutionary movements.

The discussion of Antifa and whether it’s a serious political movement is a distraction.  The movement – if one could call it that – hides in the shadows; its members don masks at rallies, and its main arteries of information – websites such as “libcom” and “itsgoingdown.org” are entirely anonymous, providing no information about the identity of its organizers. The group’s anonymity speaks to its failure to cultivate mass support and legitimacy and to its irrelevance in the larger fight against the rise of American plutocracy.

Still, Antifa’s political structure offers some lessons to progressives, providing us a picture of what a legitimate mass movement should actually look like.  The lessons are threefold.  First, a genuine mass movement must be based on transparency of dialogue and membership.  Its members and the groups that comprise it must be publicly identifiable, so that they may be properly engaged with in public venues, so that they can be supported by the mass public, and so that they are accountable to people.  Secrecy in communication is toxic to democratic discourse, and it’s a recipe for irrelevance when it comes to selling a movement to the mass public.

Second, Antifa teaches us that it’s counterproductive to elevate methods of resisting oppression over substantive discussions of what the left stands for, rather than simply what it opposes.  Opposition to fascism is a valiant goal.  But that by itself is not a legitimate blueprint for societal transformation.  Does the left want to be remembered for bluster about busting Nazi skulls, or for offering a serious vision for societal change?  Should that vision be pragmatically driven by a push for social democracy, defined by a living wage, increased regulation of business, universal health care, re-unionization, and a stronger welfare state?  Or should we be pushing for participatory democracy in the workplace via worker ownership of the economy and other forms of grassroots, direct democracy?  Or some combination of both?  Progressives are not all of one mind in answering these questions, but the fixation on methods of resistance over the substance of change means we’ve put off a broader discussion about what our society should look like moving forward.

A final lesson: the contrast between Antifa militancy and non-violent mass resistance demonstrates what effective and counterproductive resistance to state repression and reactionary politics look like.  Violent resistance by the few is easy to dismiss and demonize, as Trump has recently shown.  Violent efforts to shut down reactionary’s events and rallies and commit assault against its members benefit from little public support.  These tactics are a distraction from more serious organizing and left discourse on how to achieve meaningful societal change.  Punching Nazis in the face may be cathartic those engaging in this tactic, but it is irrelevant to progressive mass movement building.

Rather than relying on an isolated, militant few to “lead” the left forward, we should be looking to more effective, peaceful opposition strategies.  The recent Boston protest against the right is instructive of what has gone right for progressives in recent months.  By bringing together 40,000 people to oppose America’s reactionary turn, demonstrators in Boston marginalized the small contingent of right-wing fascists who gathered, and shifted the public discussion away from the rise of hate groups, and toward the rise of mass resistance to bigotry.  Despite his initial attempt to denigrate anti-fascist protesters as simply “anti-police agitators,” Trump was eventually forced to “applaud” the peaceful “protesters in Boston speaking out against bigotry and hate.”

In the case of Laguna Beach, California, counter-protesters also came together to outnumber and overwhelm reactionaries who organized an “America First” anti-immigration rally.  Importantly, the rally remained non-violent, despite the presence of far-right white nationalists and a strong police presence.  In other words, progressive ralliers achieved their goal of marginalizing the right – without using violence. The lesson is clear from these protests: greater numbers of protesters, coupled with a commitment to mass non-violence, is an effective method of pacifying reactionary groups.

As progressives, we need to rethink our priorities moving forward. Rather than being told by Donald Trump and the media what defines us, we need to work toward developing our own mass movement in opposition to reactionary bigotry, government repression, and plutocracy.  This resistance needs to draw mass support from the political center, pulling it to the left, thereby creating even greater groundswell of pressure for social, political, and economic change. This won’t be accomplished by celebrating vigilantism and violence, which are both rejected by most Americans. There is a lot of work to be done, and little time to waste.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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