“The United States of America will be designating Antifa as a Terrorist Organization,” President Donald Trump tweeted on May 31, the morning after American cities were engulfed with protests decrying the death of George Floyd. In major metropolises including New York, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Dallas and Los Angeles, the demonstrations spiraled out of control, devolving into looting, vandalism and arson.
Trump declared the lootings were “being led by antifa,” a decentralized movement threaded together by its militant, sometimes violent opposition to fascism and the far-right.
Pittsburgh’s chief of police agreed. Attorney General William Barr also pointed his finger at the group, saying the protesters were using “antifa-like tactics.” However, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said, “A number of different groups are involved in these whether it’s antifa or it’s others, frankly.”
Whether you agree with antifa’s ideology or approach, the president’s announcement is shocking, given that many of the most violent hate groups in the United States aren’t designated as terrorists. One notable example is the Ku Klux Klan, which for decades has used bloodshed, intimidation and crime to terrorize Americans.
Whether you agree with antifa’s ideology or approach, the president’s announcement is shocking, given that many of the most violent hate groups in the United States aren’t designated as terrorists.
“White supremacist extremism is currently the most lethal form of extremism in the U.S.,” American University professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss told Congress in September. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the far-right was the source of 73% of domestic extremist-related slayings from 2008 to 2019.
However, Trump has been much more hesitant to declare these menacing groups as terrorists.
The first time the U.S. labeled a white supremacist group as a terrorist organization was in April. However, the Russian Imperial Movement was not American-based. The ultra-nationalist organization is widely known for plotting bomb attacks on asylum seekers in Sweden. Meanwhile, countless other home-grown neo-Nazi, Holocaust denial, neo-Confederate and Skinhead organizations remain undesignated.
When the United States labels a group as “terrorist,” it is not a symbolic gesture. If the State Department designates antifa as such, the Treasury Department will freeze any American property or assets the group has. It will be illegal for Americans to deal financially with antifa, plus facilitate a ban on its members from traveling into the United States.
Terrorist groups are under the purview of terror-related intelligence bodies such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is uniquely suited to handle these deadly organizations. Right now, the NCTC is prohibited from preventing violent anti-Semites like the Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., shooters. Trump’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism includes preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons. However, known neo-Nazis still are able to obtain firearms.
Unlike white supremacist groups, which explicitly call for victimizing racial and religious minorities, antifa’s mission is not inherently violent. One could argue that by opposing fascism, the group seeks to prevent mass violence. Antifa’s rampages normally end in property damage. It’s hard to argue that the group is lethal; the only recorded death related to antifa was in January 2019 when member Charles Landeros fired at police while being arrested. He missed and was killed by returning fire. Compare that to self-described white supremacist Robert Gregory Bowers, who is charged with walking into the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018 and killing 11 Jews. That incident was not isolated. Patrick Crusius is charged with killing 23 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in August, leaving behind a white nationalist manifesto.
Crusius had posted about his intent to kill on the website 8chan. If white nationalists were considered terrorists, the NCTC might have been able to track and potentially stop the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern American history.
Trump isn’t only ignoring white supremacist terrorism but actively pushing American institutions overlook it.
However, Trump isn’t only ignoring white supremacist terrorism but actively pushing American institutions overlook it.
According to Reuters, Trump attempted to rename the Countering Violent Extremism program to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” — erasing white nationalist violence from its mission entirely. Under the current administration, federal prosecutors are limited in how they can bring white nationalists to justice.
“White supremacy is a greater threat than international terrorism right now,” David Hickton, a former U.S. Attorney, told Time. “I’d have to pursue a white supremacist with hate crimes, unless he interfaced with al-Qaeda. Does that make any sense?”
One thing that certainly does not make sense is cracking down on antifa instead of more pernicious groups.
Whether you approve of antifa’s message or tactics, it is not nearly as consequential a threat to Americans as the vast number of white supremacist groups in this country. Although it might be more politically advantageous for Trump to rail against the anarchy-loving movement, he is driving this nation, and his blind spot endangers all Americans in his backseat.
Ariel Sobel is the Journal’s social media editor.