After a journalist was beaten by members of Antifa in Portland, Trump decided he cares about journalists.
After a journalist was beaten by members of Antifa in Portland, Trump decided he cares about journalists. NATALIE BEHRING/GETTY IMAGES

Weeks after members of Antifa allegedly attacked journalist Andy Ngo in Portland, Trump took to his presidential squawk box to make an announcement:

Whoever could have predicted this outcome?

Antifa is known for their sometimes violent confrontations with those they consider to be fascists. Sometimes those fascists are actual white nationalists, like the Unite the Right protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017. Sometimes the “fascists” are journalists or bystanders. (Ngo, the gay son of Vietnamese refugees, is hardly the only reporter Antifa has bashed.)

I've disagreed with Antifa’s tactics many times. While I can see the fun in property damage (who doesn’t want to smash a Starbucks or two?) and rioting in the streets, which has always reminded me a bit of Black Friday at Walmart, the whole thing just seems like political theatre. As soon as some right-wing group holds a protest—often in cities like Portland, where right-wingers are vastly outnumbered and their ideology largely unwelcome—Antifa shows up in face masks and black costumes, the two sides trade insults and punches, and everyone goes home convinced they're a part of some kind of revolution. It's political cosplay, and if the goal is to effect positive change in the world, it just does not work.

Studies of violent political movements throughout the 20th century show that they are less than half as effective as nonviolent movements. There’s an obvious reason for this: Most people are turned off by violence, and so physically attacking people is a very effective way of alienating potential supporters. Even those who broadly support the cause of “anti-fascism” are appalled by seeing adults act like overgrown toddlers in the midst of a tantrum. If you want to build a successful coalition, the last way to do it is to use violence.

Of course, Antifa seems less concerned with actual political change than fucking shit up. But there’s a cost to this, because violent political movements are not just less effective, they are also more likely to result in government crackdowns on activists, as Donald Trump is now advocating.

The President, unfortunately, is not alone in making official attempts to cast Antifa as terrorists. Last week, in response to the beating of Andy Ngo, Sen. Ted Cruz sponsored a non-binding resolution to label Antifa a “domestic terrorist organization” and urged the FBI to start investigating them under the RICO Act.

This is ridiculous. Antifa is a loosely affiliated group with no official hierarchy, leaders, or membership. They are less a cohesive organization than my nonexistent book group. But by labeling Antifa “domestic terrorists” and invoking RICO, individual members could be prosecuted for the actions of other members who show up to protests. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in Reason, “Cruz did not suggest that the FBI look into particular criminal acts committed by particular criminal actors who identify as Antifa. Instead, he wants the FBI to define the whole movement as a criminal enterprise, making anyone who adopts the label potentially liable for anything anyone else using the label does.”

The FBI, however, does not seem interested. FBI Director Christopher Wray told Cruz at a Senate Judiciary Hearing that “the FBI doesn't investigate ideology; we investigate violent criminal activity." He also pointed out that the majority of domestic terror cases the FBI investigates are not perpetuated by leftists activists like Antifa but by far-right white supremacists like Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 and wounding seven at the shooting of a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. (To date, there are no known murders associated with Antifa.)

If even the FBI thinks a policy is too broad, you can imagine the response from advocates for civil liberties.

“It is dangerous and overly broad to use labels that are disconnected [from] actual individual conduct,” the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi told the Washington Post. “And as we’ve seen how ‘terrorism’ has been used already in this country, any such scheme raises significant due process, equal protection, and First Amendment constitutional concerns.”

She’s right.

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The government has a troubling history of prosecuting people not based on criminal actions, but on political thought, from the Red Scare in the 1950s to Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the 2017 Inauguration Day protests known as Disrupt J20. In that case, over 200 anti-Trump protesters, observers, and members of the media were arrested and charged after a small number of activists committed acts of vandalism. Some of the defendants were facing up to 60 years in prison, but after an 18-month legal battle in which prosecutors were unable to prove that the defendants were actually involved in property destruction, the charges were eventually dropped.

I have problems with Antifa's ethos and strategy (is there one?). I think their definition of the word “fascist” is so broad that it encompasses anyone they disagree with. And I think their ill-advised, counterproductive, and frankly unnecessary attempts to thwart the creep of fascism in America’s most progressive cities is both a gift to the right and to leaders in government inclined to stifle political dissent. (Noam Chomsky, by the way, concurs.) The backlash to their idiotic tactics is already beginning in Portland, where the city is considering banning protesters from wearing masks.

Antifa is a marginal group with almost no political power or popular support outside the militant left. But declaring these dorks a terrorist organization will not just curtail Antifa, it will curtail the rights of everyone who wants to protest in the streets. That’s something that should concern all Americans, not just the ones throwing punches and wearing masks.