WASHINGTON – “Phenomenon” is a big word. Too big probably. What else can capture the radical transition from the presidency of Barack Obama to Donald Trump and the emergence, right in the open, of the alt-right, Nazis and what is known as antifa?
Antifa is like mercury, like quicksilver. It stands for anti-fascist. It has no headquarters, it has no agreed national leader. It has a sort of creed, and that is to “stand up” or “resist” whatever its participants see as the hard right, like the Nazis and KKK. But it is more than that.
We are not well-prepared for antifa. Our Constitution and our state laws, our traditions are not built for antifa. Antifa’s “creed” is confrontation and street violence. They tell folks right off they will use street violence in the name of liberalism. And they use thuggery at will.
Those who hate Trump from the bottom of their hearts, even those who will never forgive him for narrowly defeating 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, seem to give antifa a pass – either out of agreement with antifa or fear of it.
The dog whistles and hand signals that Trump has sent by himself or through former aides Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka to encourage the hard right seem to have emboldened antifa, even given it a kind of legitimacy. Antifa agents show up in platoons of men in masks, wearing all-black uniforms, carrying fat clubs, or worse. They have torn up Berkeley, Calif., a couple of times, and Portland, Ore., lately Boston, and helped inflame the competing demonstrations at Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. One of antifa’s websites even bragged that several of its “members” were arrested at Charlottesville for violence.
Antifa is not an American institution. It came into being in the 1920s and 1930s in Spain, Eastern Europe and Germany in league with communists. Like the Klan, and the American communists of the 1940s, antifa pushes to its very limits the Constitution, with its clauses supporting freedom of speech and assembly.
Antifa’s open, declared mandate for street violence makes it unique among radical groups on the right or the left. It offers an opportunity, though, for state and federal officials to invoke laws against unlawful assembly. The Constitution does not protect street thuggery.
Yet very few are willing to challenge antifa gatherings, much less denounce them out of hand. Trump has not. On the Republican side, only House Speaker Paul Ryan has so far called out antifa, through a spokesman, calling it a “scourge on our country.” The Ryan statement called antifa a collection of “left-wing thugs.”
Democrats were silent until last week about antifa’s brutality. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi finally spoke out, through a spokesman. She said antifa lawbreakers who took part in the violence at Berkeley, “should be arrested and prosecuted.” Through spokesman Jason Kaplan, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he agrees with Pelosi.
But there it is. Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez, raised in Amherst, has said nothing. His deputy chairman, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Wis., said antifa “is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious group that will stand up for the best values of our country when the president refuses to.”
Black masks, black uniforms, heavy clubs, beatings, intimidation and all. Does antifa represent the future of the Democratic left?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., refused to criticize antifa by name when persistently asked to during an interview with a radio station.
The FBI under Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is very bashful about taking on antifa. It’s possible that antifa is useful to Trump in stirring the civic pot and motivating his hard-right base in opposition. An article in Politico.com on Friday said the FBI “can’t get a handle” on antifa. Really? The handles are as long as antifa’s clubs.
There is the Old Testament saying that “he who troubles his own house will inherit the wind.” No. It is we who will inherit the destruction being sowed by all these groups.