Chaos. Incivility. Lack of respect for authority.
But the measure is struggling to get off the ground, and the 20-year-old MAGA acolyte-turned-state lawmaker pushing it seems to be the reason why.
Days after far-right rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol, Montana state Rep. Braxton Mitchell introduced a resolution aimed at the opposite end of the political spectrum: “antifa,” the loosely affiliated left-wing anti-fascist movement. Nevermind that “antifa” is not a centralized group, nor that the United States government makes no such designations of “domestic terror.”
The bill is the latest attempt to push penalties on the left even as national-security experts plead with lawmakers to watch for new attacks from the far right. Unlike previous anti-anti-fascist bills, however, this one’s biggest stumbling block might be its own sponsor.
After Mitchell, a freshman lawmaker, introduced it in a contentious Montana House meeting on Feb. 16, most of the bill’s Republican co-sponsors yanked their names from the measure.
“He misbehaved. He got a little out of control in committee and I think most of the co-sponsors pulled out then,” one of those 32 former co-sponsors, Republican Rep. Larry Brewster, told The Daily Beast. “I suspect the co-sponsors pulled out as a way to censure him.”
Unlike some of his older peers in the Montana House, Mitchell comes from a hard-right youth movement. In 2018, he organized pro-gun marches in opposition to some of his classmates’ “March for Our Lives” demonstrations. He joined Turning Point USA, a well-funded student club, and went on to become an ambassador for the group. After Donald Trump disputed his 2020 election loss, Mitchell used Twitter to amplify a call for members of Congress to reject electors “from disputed states.” He also tweeted a picture and video of the far-right paramilitary group the Proud Boys at the pro-Trump “Million MAGA March,” a Nov. 14 demonstration.
“‘Proud Boys’ are outside of The Willard in DC singing the national anthem,” he tweeted. “#MillionMAGAMarch #ProudBoys *This tweet is not an endorsement*”
During Mitchell’s campaign, screenshots circulated of him allegedly tweeting an anti-gay slur. However, Mitchell previously told the Hungry Horse News that the screenshots were photoshopped. Reached for comment, Mitchell linked to the older story, and told The Daily Beast that “I do not wish to comment on the resolution.” His Twitter account disappeared around the time of his response.
The bill was incendiary even before it was introduced. The text is virtually identical to that of a dead-in-the-water bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2019 by Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Bill Cassidy. That older bill, which also moved to designate “antifa” as a domestic terror organization, did not provide a definition of the non-group, other than to claim that anti-fascists “represent opposition to the democratic ideals of peaceful assembly and free speech for all” and “believe that free speech is equivalent to violence.”
Michael Loadenthal, executive director of Georgetown University’s Peace and Justice Studies Association, said the Cruz-Cassidy bill and the Mitchell bill are part of a worrying trend.
“Certainly, over the last few years, we've seen a significantly noticeable spike” in bills attempting to criminalize anti-fascism, Loadenthal told The Daily Beast. Trump frequently called to designate anti-fascists as terrorists, and peddled baseless conspiracy theories about the movement. Following the Capitol attacks, many Trump supporters falsely blamed antifa for the break-in.
Loadenthal said Mitchell’s bill “fits very well into the post-January 6 insurrectionary attempt to shuffle or misplace guilt and accountability.”
But despite calls to designate anti-fascists as a “domestic terror” organization, no such legal framework even exists on the national level, Loadenthal noted. “We have no domestic terrorism law in this country. There is no crime of domestic terrorism at the federal level,” he said. “We have no ability to add anti-fascists to the list of domestic terror organizations because there is no list of domestic terror organizations.”
Instead, experts like Loadenthal say, such legislation could serve as a means to silence dissent or intimidate the left. The Cruz-Cassidy bill attributed a handful of incidents in California and Oregon to antifa or, more broadly, “left wing activists.” Mitchell’s bill, which borrows the same text, does not cite any incidents related to Montana.
Even former white supremacists who operated near Mitchell’s home district say his proposal misses the point.
In 2011, Scott Ernest became a co-leader of Kalispell Pioneer Little Europe (PLE), a whites-only settlement 30 minutes from Mitchell’s district. The position put him in conflict with anti-fascists, whom he now describes as significantly less dangerous than the white supremacists he worked with.
“There’s just no comparison,” he told The Daily Beast.
Although Ernest was involved in screening PLE recruits, and in moderating the white-supremacist message board Stormfront, he began experiencing doubts with the movement when members started defending the massacre of young Norwegian leftists—some of them children—by white supremacist Anders Breivik.
“People were telling me, ‘They’re communists, they’re antifa, so they deserved it.’ That was kind of the first time I questioned it,” he said. Ernest has since left the movement, and founded an organization dedicated to extracting people from white supremacist ideologies. The Kalispell PLE is now defunct.
When Mitchell introduced his bill in committee, some of his colleagues raised similar objections. Rep. Ed Stafman, a Democrat, noted an October 2020 report from the Department of Homeland Security, which highlighted white supremacists as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
“In the 28-page report, there’s no mention of antifa whatsoever as a domestic terrorism organization,” Stafman told Mitchell, going on to note Montana’s oft-documented white-supremacist problem. “I think your district is near to Whitefish, where neo-Nazis launched a terror campaign in 2018 against the Jews there, resulting in a $14 million court judgment, but not until Whitefish Jews had to endure numerous threats to their lives.”
A representative asked Mitchell whether he had consulted with law enforcement on the bill—he had not. Another questioned why Mitchell had claimed in his opening remarks that the bill was bipartisan, when no Democrats had signed onto it
“I was making a joke on the bill,” Mitchell replied. But not even his Republican peers were laughing.
“Representative, we don’t necessarily think that this is a joking matter,” the committee’s Republican chair replied. “This is a House bill being brought before our committee on behalf of the citizens of Montana.”
So far, 32 of those Republican peers—most of the bill’s original 53 co-sponsors—have pulled their sponsorship after the bill, as the Associated Press reported. Some may have bailed over Mitchell’s behavior, as Brewster, the Republican representative, suggested.
Others told the AP they’d consider supporting the bill if it were extended to include other groups, although Mitchell appeared adamant that the legislation only address “antifa.”
“This bill is specific to one group and the intent is to keep it that way,” he said in committee, when the chairman asked if he would be open to expanding the bill.
“So what you’re saying is you are not willing to host amendments,” the chairman said.
“Mr. Chair, if I could—”
“No, you can’t.”
And when another representative asked why Mitchell’s bill didn’t list a single incident in Montana, Mitchell replied that “the intent is to send a message that we as a state won’t tolerate a group like this coming into our state or being involved in such actions in our state… Yes, it states in the bill offenses from other areas, but, yeah.”
Ernest, the former white supremacist, told The Daily Beast that anti-fascists helped him leave the movement—and that Montana is already home to plenty of them.
They just aren’t doing what people like Mitchell say they are.
“All the ones I’ve met there are Montana natives,” Ernest said. “They’re a) not a threat, and b) they’re already there. They’ve been there a long time.”