Trump turning words into weapons of ideology
In the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of disenchanted Trump supporters, terminology has emerged as an important battleground. Specifically, defining the “Antifa” movement — what it stands for, and who’s included.
The left is divided over Antifa. Few still use the label — an abbreviation for anti-fascist — as a big-tent term encompassing anyone protesting white nationalism. Most are eager to distinguish peaceful anti-racist demonstrators from a minority faction of black-clad counter-protesters wielding clubs.
Some feel Antifa tactics are a justified response to neo-Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric, which expose minorities to hate crimes. Others believe engaging with force undermines the credibility of a movement protesting hate.
At its core, the Antifa movement’s goal is to confront organized fascism “by any means necessary.” Self-appointed spokesperson Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist
Handbook, agrees force is justified to quell any resurgence of fascism, which he argues is not a political opinion to be countered with reason, but “an enemy to humanity.”
We might seek the wisdom of philosophers. They, too, are divided. Philosophy professor Samir Chopra writes: “Current critiques of Antifa fetishize physical violence ... they fail to address the violence present in a relentless pattern of intimidation and abuse and overt exertions of power.” In a Facebook post he queried: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Asking for a Virginian friend.”
On the other hand, elder statesmen Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer warn violence by counter-protesters only plays into Trump’s authoritarian hand, noting the perception of increased lawlessness heightens the appeal of a tough-on-crime candidate.
Time will tell how Antifa is judged by history. But some on the far-right are seizing the opportunity to characterize all anti-fascist protesters as thugs.
A new code word in the battle was provided by the president himself, at the infamous news conference where he described some Charlottesville marchers as “very fine people” and counter-protesters as “the alt-left.” The invented neologism mirrors “alt-right” — the hipper-sounding, recruitment-friendly term adopted by white nationalists to normalize their “alternative” views. Since they’ve been outed as hate-mongers, Trump appears to be using the prefix “alt” as a stand-in for hateful extremism.
The president has a history of repeating nonsense labels until they stick. When the term “fake news” emerged to describe election propaganda amplified through social media, he cleverly deflected attention by co-opting the term to mean something else entirely.
Faced with any question he didn’t like, the president began hurling the retort “You’re fake news” at established media outlets — a grammatical incongruity that made about as much sense as “You’re influenza.” With determined repetition, the idiom stuck.
Trump hasn’t had to work so hard to normalize the faux term “alt-left.” His followers are doing it for him. It’s been gleefully adopted by extreme right-wing outlets including Breitbart and Infowars. Meanwhile on Twitter, the hashtag #altleft is turning up on topics ranging from social justice protests to “libtard logic.”
Furthering the quest to tie the left to a discredited Antifa, agitators launched a smear campaign to make it appear Antifa promotes violence against women. BBC reports researcher Eliot Higgins traced several fake Twitter accounts to 4Chan, a message board used by white supremacists. The fake accounts circulated memes using Antifa logos, pairing photos of battered women with taglines such as “She said she was right wing, so I gave her a left hook. #punchanazi.”
In other words, fake news.