President Trump chooses to blame antifa for inciting violence when other,...

President Trump chooses to blame antifa for inciting violence when other, more menacing groups continue to operate unnoticed. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

In response to nationwide protests over the shameful killing of George Floyd, President Donald Trump promises to go after antifa — as soon as he figures out what it is.

No, that's not exactly what the president announced. You have to read between the lines of his tweets, and not too deeply at that.

"The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization," Trump tweeted May 31, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the White House gates.

More such statements were made by the president and supported by Attorney General William Barr. "The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism," Barr said at the end of his statement on riots, "and will be treated accordingly."

On Wednesday, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton went a step further in a New York Times op-ed, calling for "an overwhelming show of force" to subdue looters, whom he identified as "cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches."

Curiously, that statement came as police in Washington and across the country were regaining control of their streets without further escalation in force. Furthermore, like Trump and Barr, Cotton makes no mention of any group, right- or left-wing, except antifa.

That's a lot to load on an "organization" that's not really an organization. Antifa, short for "anti-fascist," is an ideology and movement that rose in prominence in response to Trump's election.

Like Black Lives Matter, it's intentionally unorganized in a "leaderless resistance" fashion, which leaves both organizations vulnerable to whatever charge people want to lay on them.

Unfortunately, that means Trump, pro-Trump media and other conservatives can use both of those organizations as scapegoats for their anti-terrorist efforts and take public focus away from mostly right-wing groups that really have been linked to real terrorism.

Fox News has mentioned antifa almost five times more often than CNN has since May 25 and three times as often as MSNBC, according to a Washington Post examination of internet archive data.

The result of this sort of pick-your-own-reality marketplace of news is a lot of myths, half-truths and confusion. Trump has long been known to spread paranoid theories and lies via speech and tweet, but his latest antifa crusade is running headlong into competing conspiracy theories from other sources, known and unknown.

Amid today's social network explosion, a low-level media war has helped inflame antifa fears, particularly in the outer-suburban and rural reaches of Trump Country, where negative thoughts about city life abound.

One breathtaking example came this past week after fake news on a Facebook page for retired police announced a coming invasion of Idaho by "ANTIFA agitators." Scores of residents in Coeur d'Alene and other towns took to the streets with rifles to stand guard. The information about an invasion was not true.

But my biggest complaint about Team Trump's obsession with left-wing groups is the distraction from more clear and present dangers on the far right.

In midweek, for example, three self-proclaimed members of the far-right "boogaloo" movement, which purportedly dreams of a new racial civil war, were held on domestic terrorism charges in Nevada after federal prosecutors accused them of trying to spark violence during police brutality protests in Las Vegas.

According to the filing, the three former servicemen, who were charged with conspiracy to damage and destroy by using fire and explosives, had discussed "causing an incident to incite chaos and possibly a riot" in response to George Floyd's death.

Yet an FBI task force memo leaked to The Nation magazine found "no intelligence indicating antifa involvement/presence" in the protests that broke out May 31 around the nation's capital.

I don't bring this up to suggest that the far left never does anything wrong. I only call for equal protection under the law for those of us who feel no less threatened by the far right.

Clarence Page is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.


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