Increasing acts of political violence committed by the far-right have put the conservative propaganda machine in desperation mode, as right-wing talking heads and politicians attempt to deflect their extremism problem by pinning anything they can on the antifa boogeyman.
Over the weekend, members of the far-right extremist gang Proud Boys were celebrating a rally they held in Portland, Oregon, as a win, largely due to a tweet by President Donald Trump, who said he was watching the event as he considered “naming ANTIFA an ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.”
“Go look at President Trump’s Twitter,” Florida Proud Boy leader Joe Biggs told The Oregonian. “He talked about Portland, said he’s watching antifa. That’s all we wanted. We wanted national attention, and we got it. Mission success.”
Trump’s tweets have been a welcome distraction for the Proud Boys, who have every reason to avert the spotlight from themselves: Two of their own were convicted of attempted gang assault, attempted assault and riot on Monday in New York, after attacking anti-fascist protesters outside a GOP event last year. They’re a violent, thuggish street gang that meticulously plots how to assault protesters in the street and then spin themselves as victims ― so the Proud Boys see any and all fingers pointed at their ideological opponents as an endorsement of their actions.
This is the current conservative playbook: downplay bigotry and violence while blaming leftists, by parroting biased and misleading reporting and punditry. Often, the plays are executed by politicians like Trump or conservative congressmen ― the Tampa Bay Times last week reported on a memo from House Republicans offering guidance on how to refocus questions about white nationalism and imply that both sides are to blame.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Bill Cassidy (La.) introduced a resolution that would label antifa as a terrorist organization even though no terroristic crimes or deaths have been linked to the group in the U.S.
Yet even as the far-right kill count rises, pundits are trying desperately to pin violence on antifa. Fox News dedicated at least 10 stories to “antifa” over the past five days; Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and other hosts stoked fears of antifa “extremism” with segments of their own; far-right blogger Andy Ngo, famous for getting punched at a previous extremist rally in Portland, tweeted several distortions of the truth to argue that protesters are more bloodthirsty than the fascist gangs they’re protesting.
Antifa ― that faceless group of anti-fascist protesters ― is often the right’s target of choice to ascribe violence to the left, because it requires no direct accusation against someone, and therefore little to no evidence of criminal action. And to them, “antifa” represents the political left, because they often demonstrate against the fascist right.
“Fox & Friends,” for example, published edited footage from the Portland rally to distort an incident of mutual violence into an act carried out solely by the antifa menace:
But like the Proud Boys, Trump and the pundits parroting his campaign against antifa have one big reason to do so: Deflection from their own bigotry, which feeds extremism. Tucker Carlson, for example, has lost 70 advertisers on his show since December, as Fox News’ resident loudmouth downplays the threat of white nationalism after acts of hate-fueled violence. He and Ngo have repeatedly teamed up to drive a misleading message about violence on the left (leading Jacobin to declare Ngo “the most dangerous grifter in America”). Trump himself is criticized for his inability to decry white nationalism and far-right violence, and his silence is often regarded as tacit endorsement of both.
Meanwhile, far-right and white extremist violence is surging. Domestic extremists, most of whom are white supremacists, killed at least 50 people in the U.S. in 2018 alone, and have been tied to a long list of massacres, including those in Pittsburgh; Santa Fe, Texas; Poway, California; Tallahassee, Florida; Jeffersontown, Kentucky; and Aztec, New Mexico. Pundits like Carlson and conservative politicians, however, wonder if white nationalism and far-right extremism pose a threat at all.