On June 4, a Buffalo police officer shoved 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground as his colleagues attempted to clear an area, to enforce a curfew during a Black Lives Matter protest. As with so many similar incidents, the scene was captured on video, which allowed millions to witness the casual contempt with which the officer pushed the elderly gentleman, the sickening crack as his head hit the pavement, and the sorry spectacle of police officers hurriedly marching past his limp form, as blood seeped out of his ear. (Gugino’s lawyer said his client suffered a brain injury.) In mere minutes, the video captured so many aspects of the problem with police that have sparked protest—except, of course, that the victim was white.
Not all viewers were sympathetic. On June 9, President Trump offered his take: Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.” Apparently citing OANN, the right-wing news network for those who think the Fox News Channel has become overrun with liberal squishes, Trump alleged Gugino was “appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.” He also claimed Gugino “fell harder than he was pushed.” It’s the sort of addled conspiracy that is a familiar standby for Trump: Based on nothing, including an allusion to some vague but spooky technology (like the “acid-washed” Clinton servers), and phrased as a question.
Antifa is not an organization; it is a loose term covering all kinds of left-wing radicals and anarchists, some of whom are willing to use violence to fight fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism. Naturally, no evidence has emerged that any unrest or criminal activity related to these protests has come at the direction of an organization known as “antifa,” let alone Martin Gugino. The Nation reported that the FBI found no evidence that antifa was involved in D.C.-area violence on May 31, though it did find that a “far-right social media group” had called for attacks on federal agents and protesters. The New York Times reviewed dozens of arrest records and found “no known effort by antifa to perpetrate a coordinated campaign of violence,” notwithstanding “vague, anti-government political leanings among suspects.”
Still, the right-wing political-media complex, with Trump at its apex, continues to chase the ideological golden goose of antifa. It would simply be more convenient for them if these protests were the product of a bunch of bored, white trust-fund kids out to undermine America by busting up some windows, rather than a legitimate outpouring of rage at an unjust system of racial oppression. It’s a dream that’s not so easily given up. Fox News’s Lara Logan has repeatedly fallen for obvious hoaxes and jokes about antifa, even retweeting one post about where “juggalos”—the fan base of the band Insane Clown Posse—fall in the “antifa clown hierarchy.” (A side note: After Googling “antifa protesters,” the ads I was served, holding the prized top two search results, were for a right-wing think tank called the Acton Institute and Lara Logan’s Fox Nation program.)
Trump’s brain is filled with bizarre shadowy figures plotting against him and America, a sort of Haters and Losers Cinematic Universe haunted by people like former FBI agent Peter Strzok and CNN nepotism hire Chris Cuomo, or organizations like Twitter. These are the figures you are supposed to hate or fear if you believe in your president, and you are supposed to be intimately familiar with their list of crimes: If your response is “Wait, what … who, huh?” then I’m sorry to tell you that you are no patriot. Antifa fits neatly into this framework of MAGA nemeses.
Trump is a classic demagogue, of course, happy to gin up outrage for political purposes. He is also personally very concerned with enemies. Ten years ago, it might have been Graydon Carter or Bette Midler, or someone who was insufficiently complimentary of his luxurious taste at a party he threw. Now, his haters are America’s haters. There is always the question of whether these characters and theories began with him and filtered down to an obedient right-wing media complex, eager to provide legitimacy for his wild theories; or whether they began in that fever swamp and were picked up by Trump, given his absolutely terrible media diet of outlets like OANN and Breitbart, the equivalent of eating only Jimmy Dean breakfasts and broken glass.
But whichever direction the stream of sewage has flowed this time, the result is the same: The president has ended up baselessly accusing a 75-year-old peace activist of being an antifa provocateur, and his Department of Justice is prosecuting cases with no known antifa connection, even while his attorney general claims the department has some “very focused investigations [underway] on certain individuals that relate to antifa.” The desperation reached the point where a 24-year-old guy who tweeted sarcastically that he was an antifa leader got a call from the FBI, which turned into the agent asking the man if he would be interested in becoming an informant. (“Sure,” he told them—“just send me the information.”)
As blatantly insincere as it is, Trump’s campaign has made attempts to court black voters—criticizing Joe Biden for his work on the 1994 crime bill, for example. One remarkable thing about this recent outburst of attention to systemic racism is how many conservatives have been careful to pretend that they are just as outraged as liberals about what happened to George Floyd, a stark contrast with how conservatives reacted to the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Focusing on antifa allows Trump to criticize the protesters without directly addressing their core critique. He doesn’t have to say, “No, the police aren’t racist,” like conservatives did just a few years ago; instead, he can refocus the conversation on those largely white phantom agitators in antifa.
It is awful for poor Martin Gugino to have ended up as the face of this mad conspiracy. Of all the people who might have been served up to a guileless right-wing audience as the face of antifa, Trump settled on a peace activist who is older than the president himself and plainly about as threatening as a willow tree. There’s a whiff of desperation that clings to Trump’s attempts to turn him, and antifa in general, into a boogeyman. You can smell it, too, on certain right-wingers’ fixation with protesters who have toppled statues of old-timey genocidal racists like Christopher Columbus or even King Leopold II, the murderous, slave-trading king of Belgium. Ted Cruz has been particularly obsessed in this regard, describing those who took down the Columbus statue in St. Paul as the “American Taliban.”
The urge to describe protesters as terrorists, whether it’s antifa or the anti-statue crowd, is classic conservative culture-war nonsense. It will undoubtedly work on the same froth-brained Boomers who dutifully get hopping mad about whatever conspiracy rabbit-holes Trump references that day, the sort of people who know who Lisa Page is and who still bring up Solyndra unprompted. This sort of behavior surely makes life harder and more dangerous for anti-fascist activists out there, with the government intent on finding evidence of a larger organization that doesn’t exist. That said, the emergence of this conspiracy-mongering could be a sign that events are moving more quickly than the president and his allies ever anticipated, and that public consensus has swung so dramatically in the favor of protesters that it’s become genuinely difficult to demonize them from the bully pulpit. The right needs antifa to be behind every smashed window, lurking around every dark corner, because if it isn’t antifa—if the majority of the country really does now support the Black Lives Matter movement—the ground may be shifting beneath their feet faster than they can run.