From the Republican National Convention to social media, antifa has gotten a lot of attention. To clear up the misinformation, we’re unpacking the common questions you might have about it.
Over the past six months, the United States has experienced a historic period of unrest. This has included a once-in-a-generation pandemic, historic economic collapse, and the largest civil rights protests in more than 50 years.
Amid all of this, you’ve likely heard the term antifa being used by pundits, politicians, your fellow Americans, and even President Trump. Despite its ubiquity, though, the idea of antifa still confuses many. “Antifa” is, quite simply, short for activists who call themselves anti-fascists. While that may sound simple enough, the GOP has turned antifa into their current bogeyman.
Trump has spent years inaccurately attacking antifa as a violent collective of anarchists bent on destruction, but those attacks have ramped up in recent months. As his re-election prospects have slipped, Trump has recently pivoted to an evocation of Richard Nixon’s 1968 law-and-order themed campaign. And even though the ongoing turmoil in United States cities has occurred under Trump’s own watch, he has tried to argue that a Joe Biden presidency would lead to chaos and unrest.
Over the summer, misinformation has spread widely about antifa. Below, we answer some questions about antifa and dive into what’s really going on.
What or who is antifa?
Antifa is a small, loose, decentralized movement of anti-fascist activists who, simply put, oppose fascism and vocally seek an end white supremacy.
Fascism is a style of government characterized by extreme demands of patriotism and elevating one race above all others. The head of a fascist government uses his power to suppress any opposition or criticism. In other words, a fascist country is a dictatorship and a fascist leader is a dictator.
How did antifa start?
Anti-fascists have roots going back a century in Europe, when they fought against the rise of fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy.
The modern antifa movement in the U.S. was inspired by actions to counter the far right in the United Kingdom and Germany in the ’70s and ’80s, Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers University and author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” told the Washington Post.
Does the group have a leader?
No, because it’s not a group. Antifa, as Trump describes it, does not exist. There is no organized structure or leadership.
Why do Trump and Republicans keep talking about antifa?
In 2016, Trump demonized immigrants, the media, and Democrats—among many others—en route to the White House. In 2020, Trump is running for re-election in a year in which he’s overseen the least successful response to the coronavirus pandemic in the world. The pandemic has killed more than 175,000 Americans, caused massive unemployment, and exploded the nation’s existing inequities along class and racial lines.
Instead of focusing on managing the pandemic or working to address the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, Trump has doubled down on his divisive instincts. One of his latest targets is antifa, and he has sown disinformation about anti-fascists to delegitimize the protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to blame antifa for occasional acts of violence during this summer’s protests against police brutality. However, the FBI and other federal law enforcement officials have found no evidence of their involvement. Despite this lack of evidence, Trump and his allies in Congress and the right-wing media have continued to depict antifa protesters as violent extremists that destroy property for no reason and want to stage a revolution.
Trump even said he would designate antifa as a terrorist group—a label which ordinarily can only be applied to international groups, not domestic entities. The president has yet to follow through with his threat, and any such designation would likely be challenged in court.
Is antifa actually violent?
Anti-fascists have been involved in fights, vandalized property, and engaged in other questionable and confrontational tactics. But they have been linked to exactly zero murders in the past 26 years, according to a database assembled by researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a centrist think tank, and reviewed by the Guardian.
In contrast, right-wing extremists and American white supremacists have killed at least 329 people in violent attacks over the same period, according to the database, which included incidents from January 1, 1994, to May 8, 2020.
“Antifa is not going around murdering people like right-wing extremists are. It’s a false equivalence,” Heidi Beirich, a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told the Guardian. “I’ve at times been critical of antifa for getting into fights with Nazis at rallies and that kind of violence, but I can’t think of one case in which an antifa person was accused of murder,” she added.
Despite these findings, Trump remains laser-focused on antifa, and Republicans from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California have engaged in similar scare tactics.
They’ve done this all while ignoring the growing threat of right-wing extremists, including the recent emergence of the QAnon conspiracy movement, which the FBI has actually categorized as a “domestic terror threat.” In McCarthy’s case, he even embraced QAnon follower Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a history of bigoted statements and is running for Congress as a Republican in Georgia.
So what does antifa actually do?
Antifa protests against fascism and works to expose and defeat neo-Nazis in their communities.
“Most of what they do is really painstaking and boring and really awful, monitoring these neo-Nazi message boards,” Bray told The Washington Post.
Have there been real-world consequences due to Trump’s actions?
As lies about antifa spread across social media and the conservative media ecosystem, right-wing militias and ordinary citizens in predominantly rural areas panicked, expecting buses full of violent antifa activists to descend upon their communities, even though there was zero evidence of any such efforts.
Instead, these fears led to clashes between local activists and armed, right-wing militias and other civilians, which at times turned violent and ended with Black Lives Matter protesters being assaulted.