As nationwide protests escalated over the weekend, most national media labored to track complex developments, both peaceful and violent, in cities and towns across the country. But on Fox News and across right-wing media, the narrative was simple: anti-fascist activists and vague “organized groups” intent on chaos were responsible for all the ills flashing across TV screens.
President Donald Trump has leaned heavily into this narrative, tweeting over the weekend that he would declare anti-fascists, known as antifa, as a terrorist group (which he has no clear legal authority to do; in addition, it’s also not a real organization with any centralized leadership or defined members). U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a statement on Sunday linking “Antifa” with domestic terrorism and a day later dispatched federal riot teams to multiple cities.
If one accepts that rogue domestic terrorists are the driving force behind any demonstrations that turn violent, then a strong police and military response might seem justified. Right-wing media and the Trump administration have worked in tandem to create that reality.
Fox News contributor Dan Bongino claimed that anti-fascist activists were conducting a “sophisticated insurrection-type attack.” Conservative radio and Fox News host Mark Levin railed against antifa and tweeted of the unrest that “it’s not about George Floyd ... time to put it down.” Disgraced former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, whom Trump pardoned of corruption and tax fraud earlier this year, told Fox News that antifa was behind the chaos and spread a conspiracy theory that liberal billionaire George Soros had funded the demonstrations. John Solomon, a right-wing columnist who mainstreamed shaky allegations against Vice President Joe Biden related to his son’s work for a Ukrainian energy company, promoted a poll asking if readers thought antifa was a terrorist organization.
Police departments around the country have responded to the demonstrations with often-militaristic force that has led to thousands of arrests. Authorities have tear-gassed, beaten and shot protesters with rubber bullets, driven vehicles into crowds of demonstrators and have injured and arrested journalists covering the events. Meanwhile, many peaceful protests have spiraled into scenes of chaos as some at the events have engaged in violent clashes with police, vandalized or destroyed property, and set fires to buildings or looted stores. The National Guard has been activated in multiple states, and curfews have been put in place in some of the country’s largest cities.
It is unclear what role anti-fascist activists have had in the unrest. Politicians, law enforcement and activists have all alleged that some far-right anti-government groups and far-left anarchists have joined in the massive demonstrations for their own ends. There have been several videos circulated on social media of protesters stopping black-clad white men from inciting violence and destroying property, as well as of far-right “Boogaloo” movement supporters carrying firearms at the demonstrations. But so far there is little hard evidence of the extent of these groups’ involvement, and although they may be active, the right-wing media fixation on antifa has effectively functioned as a distraction from the core issue of national outrage over racialized policing and the killing of Floyd, a Black man who died last week in Minneapolis when a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes.
Although Trump’s targeting of antifa has uncertain legal implications, its effect on right-wing media coverage is much more clear. On Monday, pundits heavily focused their coverage of the protests on condemnations of antifa and unproved statements about violence at the demonstrations. Fox News ran an op-ed praising Trump for the decision to designate antifa as domestic terrorists. “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade claimed without evidence that there was no white supremacist involvement in the chaos and that this was “an antifa organization,” a statement that Trump then tweeted minutes later in an example of the well-established feedback loop between the president and the cable news outlet.
Antifa has long been a right-wing media and Trump talking point, giving its activists outsized attention and using it as a means to make allegations of widespread left-wing extremism ― often in an attempt to deflect from the many white supremacists and far-right extremists who have aligned themselves with Trump in recent years.
Reframing the protests as an extension of antifa has also allowed conservative politicians and pro-Trump media to demand authorities escalate their use of force during the unrest, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who appeared on “Fox & Friends” to suggest the U.S. should deploy its military to contain the protests.
“Let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division,” Cotton said. Trump later retweeted Cotton’s message, saying he was “100% Correct.”
On a call Monday, Trump told the nation’s governors that they were “weak” and shouldn’t worry about using force to put down protests.