On May 31st 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted out his intention to designate Antifa — short for “anti-fascist” — as a terrorist organization. The tweet sparked outrage, and rightfully so. In being so vocal in his opposition to anti-fascists, Trump may have exposed something quite telling about his own political sympathies. And in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there’s something especially off-putting about trying to redirect anger at police brutality toward anti-fascist demonstrators.
But does Trump’s call to classify Antifa as a terrorist entity hold any weight? After all, you can tweet out anything. And Trump in particular has a well-known habit of tweeting out nonsense. He’s always saying he’s going to do things on Twitter that he never actually follows through on. A good example of this happened in late 2018, when he tweeted out his intention to eliminate birthright citizenship. Needless to say, two years later, it’s still on the books.
But let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that the ominous Antifa tweet wasn’t just red meat thrown out to the Republican base. In other words, let’s assume that Trump really intends on keeping this promise — and, in contrast with his typical laziness, is willing to do the work to make it happen. Is designating Antifa as a terrorist organization even possible?
Probably not. For one, Antifa isn’t even really an “organization”. It has no command center, no leadership structure, and no official spokespeople. Antifa is just a loosely-affiliated collection of, as the name suggests, anti-fascists. These people seldom even hold their own events. They mainly just stage counter-protests to the radical Right.
They’re also definitely not terrorists. Not only has no one aligned with the movement ever killed anyone, but even the Trump’s own FBI has concluded that there’s no evidence Antifa is responsible for any of the violence that has broken out at recent anti-police brutality protests. In fact, Antifa has saved lives — like when they organized flood relief in response to Hurricane Harvey. Compare that to white supremacists, who were responsible for 100% of race-based domestic terrorism in 2018… remember when Trump called them “very fine people”?
So it’s pretty clear that Antifa is not, in any way, a “terrorist organization”. But the government misclassifies things all the time. In 2011, in an effort to buck Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative, a Republican Congress ruled that pizza is a vegetable — that is, if it has enough tomato sauce on it. This brings us to the next pertinent question: Does Trump have the authority to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization?
Again, probably not. Not too long ago, a petition to designate Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization got enough signatures to warrant a response from the White House. In their response, the Obama administration clearly stated, “The White House plays no role in designating domestic terror organizations… The US government does not generate a list of domestic terror organizations.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice’s Faiza Patel, “there’s no legal process or meaning” for what Trump is calling for. And, if there were, Patel says it would “undoubtedly face a First Amendment challenge, which is likely to succeed.” After all, classifying an umbrella term for anti-fascist demonstrators as a terrorist organization would effectively criminalize all opposition to fascism in the public square. Again, Trump seems to be showing his hand here.
But there is a legal process for designating foreign groups as terrorist organizations. This power ultimately rests with the Secretary of State, though agencies other than the State Department are often involved as well. Perhaps the sitting administration could take action against Antifa through this channel. Antifa is, after all, a global movement. Historian Mark Bray dates its genesis back to the rise of European fascism in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Anti-fascist activists can be found all over the world. If the State Department were to condemn all of them as terrorists, it could come with some very serious implications. Such a designation could be used to justify military force against peaceful protesters in foreign countries. The fact that Trump would even put this possibility on the table perfectly encapsulates the recklessness and utter contempt for freedom of speech that has characterized his entire presidency. And with Joe Biden’s lead over Trump in national polls widening, it seems a good deal of the American electorate has had enough.