Last week, Facebook ads for the current U.S. president’s reelection campaign, which called on his supporters to sign on to a demand to label ‘Antifa’ a terrorist organization, were pulled down by the company, who cited their policy against organized hate. The offending ads ended with an upside down red triangle, a symbol that was used in Nazi concentration camps to single out those who had fought fascism from the left or tried to protect Jewish and other innocents targeted by their murderous nationalist cult.
The Trump campaign’s director of communications, Tim Murtaugh, dismissed the controversy that grew out of the ads, telling the New York Times, “The red triangle is a common Antifa symbol used in an ad about Antifa. Pretty straightforward.”
While a small number of European groups that identify as Antifa have used this symbol at times in an attempt to subvert its meaning, as mentioned in passing by Mark Bray in his book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, it’s better known in its original usage. Regardless, the use of the symbol in an American election campaign is chilling, reminiscent of calls for ‘free helicopter rides’ for leftists a couple of years ago, which referenced a technique of shoving blindfolded political prisoners out of the vehicles while in flight, used most famously by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to kill his political opponents.
Other designs, like the two overlaid flags, usually one red and one black (but also sometimes varied with violet to represent LGBTQ anti-fascists and pink for feminist ‘fantifa’, among others) are more common symbols of anti-fascism.
Bray’s book puts antifa (not capitalized in its proper form) within its mainly European historical context, showing that the designation has become popular in recent years in North America as newer generations of activists have brought the term more to the fore. This isn’t to say that similar groups with similar tactics didn’t exist in North America before, but they generally took names based on Anti-Racist Action or ARA in their battles with white supremacists from the KKK to skinhead crews in the 1980s to the (World) Church of the Creator in the 90s.
Even if the use of the red triangle by the campaign was a mistake or the result of ignorance, as Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League told NPR, “Intentionally or otherwise, using symbols that were once used by the Nazis is not a good look for someone running for the White House. It isn’t difficult for one to criticize a political opponent without using Nazi-era imagery.”
Further review of the ads by liberal news outlet Salon also showed that the campaign ran exactly 88 versions of it on the social network. While it may be another coincidence, this is a number that is very important to those on the far right who are sympathetic to fascism in its most nihilistic historical form, as ‘h’ is the eighth letter in the alphabet and this ‘double h’ is used to denote, “Heil Hitler”.
While this could be some kind of joke on the part of a low level staffer who wasn’t properly vetted, the initial statement in the most widely circulated ad is also exactly 14 words long, reading, “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem.”
This is the same number of words as the white supremacist slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
These two numbers are often combined as ‘1488’ in graffiti, on t-shirts, on stickers, in memes and other places to send the white supremacist message subtly enough that most moderates and even many on the right who might object to outright fascism are unaware of what’s being signaled.
Anti-fascists who physically confront the far right may be seen as misguided by some, even at times by this writer, but when they are needed, as they were by Dr. Cornell West, other faith leaders and community members in Charlottesville during the “Unite the Right” rallies of 2017, these self-declared Antifa defined solidarity by putting their bodies on the line to protect others from mobs of actual fascists and cosplaying trolls.
As the Rev.Seth Wispelwey told Slate.com at the time, “I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and Antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend. Incredibly brave students held space at the University of Virginia and stared down a torch-lit mob that vastly outnumbered them on Friday night. On Saturday, battalions of anti-fascist protesters came together on my city’s streets to thwart the tide of men carrying weapons, shields, and Trump flags and sporting MAGA hats and Hitler salutes and waving Nazi flags and the pro-slavery stars and bars.”
While it’s possible that the U.S. president is aware of the kind of symbolism his team put in the Facebook ads, his general lack of curiosity about things not directly related to him makes this seem unlikely. At the same time, it’s probable someone knew what they were doing and was sending a message to these potential voters in the same way Trump’s speechwriters put white supremacist dog whistles into his speeches.
As he slowly spirals under the weight of multiple crises, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania has increased his attacks on what he calls the ‘radical left’ and has tried to whip up hysteria about little-understood Antifa. The power of his platform and the willingness of those who support him to spread both misinformation and outright disinformation led to panics in many small cities, towns and rural areas that busloads of ‘Antifa’ were coming to create trouble and possibly burn down their homes and businesses in the wake of widespread protests after the police murder of George Floyd.
An additional sprinkle of anti-Semitism was added by some of those spreading this absurdity online, who claimed these fictional Antifa were being organized and paid by billionaire financier George Soros.
While the U.S. president filled his speech at a poorly attended campaign relaunch rally in Tulsa last Saturday with denunciations of Antifa and ‘anarchists’, tying them to the mostly center right Democratic Party that most of them despise, what he seems to enjoy most is putting left wing opponents, especially women, at risk of violence, saying of one such opponent, “… Representative Ilhan Omar is going to be very much involved in a Biden government. They will put this hate filled America bashing socialist front and center in deciding the fate of your family and deciding the fate of your country. I think she would like to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came, Somalia. No government, no safety, no police, no nothing. Just anarchy. And now she’s telling us how to run our country.”
Although Antifa is more of a label and a set of tactics than a hierarchical organization, there is a very real worry that the hysteria being whipped up over the name will lead to real world consequences for activists fighting white supremacy and the progressive left generally, as authorities accuse them of being terrorists by association. When police in Buffalo pushed an elderly man to the ground during a Black Lives Matter protest, cracking his skull in the process, the president went on Twitter to rhetorically ask whether the injured man was, in fact, part of “Antifa”.
What the current crop of rightwing ‘populist’ leaders like Trump, Boris Johnson in the U.K. , Bolsonaro in Brazil and their subordinates have proven during the ongoing pandemic is that while the style of endless campaigning and culture war they rode into power is effective at winning elections, it’s less than useless in a crisis. Unfortunately, the world will have to live with the lies politicians like these have spread about the left and the divisiveness they’ve sown among generally well meaning people long after they’re gone.