Antifa and the Perception of Radical Activism

by Stella D’Acquisto

The first time many Americans heard the term Antifa was in the words of former President Trump.  In the past year, this word has been utilized more and more as a representation of the radical left, portrayed as a violent and chaos-loving organization set on the pillaging of working neighborhoods, ostensibly with the goal of destroying law and order and the American way. They were said to be the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in some tellings, a militant cabal funding the Democratic Party. These extremes are largely understood to be exaggerations at best, and the real Antifa is not a major political actor in the country, so for our purposes, there is little to be gained from a genuine analysis of the Antifascist movement’s influence on modern politics. Instead, this commentary seeks to understand why the new public perception of Antifa has gained sudden power, and what purposes this might serve.

In reality, Antifa is not a singular, organized group, but a fringe philosophy found in a variety of local groups centered simply on fighting against fascism. This is made obvious in its unabbreviated name, Antifascism, which seems to have its origins as a counter to the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century. It is difficult to pinpoint how Antifa is currently organized, and there is no legitimate and easily-accessible Antifa website addressing their collective goals. Antifascism is perhaps best compared to concepts such as Anti-racism or feminism rather than to an activist organization. Antifa has been associated with violent actions in the past, so criticism of violence in the name of antifascism is not in itself incorrect or unwarranted. However, little to no evidence has surfaced of a large-scale presence of Antifa in any of the major political movements of 2020 and 2021. 

Although “Antifa” itself has only become akin to a household term in the past year or so, the reawakening of the same language in talk of the “alt-left” or radical left can be traced back to 2017, namely in President Trump’s infamous characterization of the Charlottesville rallies as having fine people on both sides of the clash. However, the term “alt-left” had little traction, perhaps because it was an invented term—“Antifa” was already in use, yet not well-known enough that the public understood its true meaning.

More recently, Antifa entered the zeitgeist as the purported group behind the Black Lives Matter protests, blamed for looting during the protests. Any leaders of Black Lives Matter, like many progressive movements today, are not clearly represented in the public eye. This can be beneficial in the sense that they cannot be targeted like past progressive leaders, but it also makes it more difficult for the public to determine, at least on the surface level, who is the face of such a movement. More to the point, it allows those with a political agenda to assign the movement a face without being easily held to task. 

If the Trump Administration had wanted to criticize the 2020 protests, they could have done so in a good faith manner by examining the philosophy of Black Lives Matter itself, whose mission statement can be easily accessed on their website, or any other affiliated organizations involved in planning the protests. Instead, the term Black Lives Matter (here referring to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation Inc.) is often replaced by the “Antifa” in right-wing criticism of the movement, often—though not always—synonymous with “rioters” or even “terrorists.” 

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that the name of Black Lives Matter itself is provocative—that the simple act of saying a phrase many conservatives find divisive could be political taboo enough—or perhaps the name, itself a recognition of the value of human life, is too incongruous with terrorism to create the appropriate narrative. One can only speculate as to the reasoning behind the use of the word “Antifa” in right-wing discourse, and of course it is possible, though unlikely, that it was not an intentional misnomer at all. 

The term reappeared in the public consciousness in the wake of the January attack on the capitol, once again giving a convenient new face to an entirely different group of people. Though this attempt was considerably less successful, it again revived this term which had previously remained within the confines of political counterculture. As the concept of Antifa takes on a definition beyond its previous uses, one wonders whether reality will shift to meet it, or whether the term will die out as quickly as it was reanimated.

The concept of a political boogeyman is hardly a revolutionary revelation, but Antifa does appear to be the perfect vessel for the image of the violent radical left. Because Antifa has remained in obscurity until recently, it allows anyone speaking about them to place their own views of the left upon the organization, and because it is not a fictional group, it would be incorrect to counter such rhetoric with the claim that Antifa does not exist at all. 

The examination of the peculiar revival of this term is interesting in itself, but it has broader political implications. This Antifa image allows people to resist supporting more radical reform by portraying those advocating most strongly for those reforms as unworthy of support. It allows for the argument that perhaps if a movement took a different approach—a more “respectable” approach—their grievances would be heard. Policy is intrinsically linked to the political discourse surrounding it. In order to gain national support for legislation, politicians and advocacy groups alike must portray themselves as deserving of attention and respect, while portraying their opponents as unworthy of the same.