Don’t follow leaders / Watch for parking meters
— Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965
It will be interesting to see whether President Donald Trump can get electoral traction from designating the activist group Antifa as the core agent of lawless violence in the current wave of anti-racism demonstrations.
Trump wants to declare Antifa a domestic terrorist organization, a move that may or may not be legal. In truth, Trump probably doesn’t care. Like most everyone running for any office, he needs a “them” to become an all-purpose threat from which his election can save us.
For all our national polarization at the moment, finding a “them” has become harder than it might seem.
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, it was easy. It was commies. After 9/11 it was easy. It was Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
Sure, plenty of people and organizations inspire fear and loathing somewhere, from Colin Kaepernick to Steve Bannon, Michael Moore to Mitch McConnell, Robert Mueller to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Americans quarantined by a pandemic can amuse themselves for weeks just by Googling “People I don’t like.”
Still, with an election less than five months away, Trump needs a “them” with A-list firepower. Hillary Clinton served that purpose for him in 2016 and she may be of some residual help this time, but he’s feeding a hungry crowd and he really needs fresh meat.
Antifa, in all likelihood, is a trial balloon. If it flies, great. If not, inflate the next candidate.
On the surface, Antifa seems to have promise: radical-talking people known for causing unrest in the streets.
The problem is that Antifa is hard to pin down. Not just for Trump, but for people who might embrace its general goals and views. Who and what, exactly, is it?
Traditionally, an activist organization had a small number of founding or designated leaders at the top, a formal or informal mission statement and a modest bureaucratic structure that would handle critical functions like promotion and fund-raising. You could become a member and probably get a card.
Antifa has little of that. It fits more into a new wave of activist organizations bred in the social media age that serve less as physical hubs and more as umbrellas to acknowledge a shared general philosophy. The goal is to create a brand like-minded people can embrace and the model is ideologically agnostic, helping spawn groups as diverse as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
Members may congregate for a planned demonstration, like a Black Lives Matter march or a gun rights rally, but this week’s George Floyd demonstrations underscore that they are just as likely to come together in what is loosely known on social media as a flash mob.
As adopted through social media, it is important to note, the word “mob” has no ominous undertone. It just means a lot of people coming to one place.
Still, people who fear Antifa doubtless see their members as an old-style mob, dangerous people who mean no good. That’s the potential positioning opportunity for Trump: I’m for the cops, they’re against the cops.
That argument has been a frequent winner throughout human history. The X factor here is whether enough Americans perceive Antifa as important and dangerous enough that they need Trump’s protection from it.
It might be easier for Trump if Antifa had a leader or two with name recognition, someone who could put a menacing face on the organization.
Antifa doesn’t want that, any more than Occupy did. Reporters would go to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York asking for a spokesperson and be told there was no spokesperson. No hierarchy of any sort. Just The People. No management.
As strategies go, it’s an interesting gamble.
For lefties, it helps sidestep a decades-old argument about whether white patriarchies have wielded disproportionate influence over policy and actions.
It also means forfeiting opportunities to sell the group’s message through traditional media like television. No spokesperson to summarize message, less attention to message.
The experience of both the Tea Party and Occupy suggests they feel they can spread the message other ways. Old-style word of mouth and grass-roots organizing. New-fangled social media.
The long-term question may be whether these new groups can have impact similar to that of old-school organizations.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the civil rights coalitions of the 1950s and 1960s, to cite two rather diverse organizations, both had considerable success spearheading the change they sought. Both also took heavy criticism, becoming lightning rods for opponents and critics looking for a “them.”
President Trump is betting Antifa doesn’t have to have that much influence to become that big a target.