If you got all your news from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, you wouldn’t know that Black Lives Matter marches, some with more than 10,000 attendees, have been taking place across the country for weeks. But you might think anarchists had ended the rule of law in Seattle.
The racial justice protests that emerged nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police are popular—more so than past movements for Black lives, like the demonstrations that swept the country in 2014 and 2015. Polling by Reuters and Rasmussen this month both put the movement’s popularity at over 60 percent among all Americans.
From the newest movement’s outset, however, Trump and some of his favorite media circles have overlooked the protests’ popularity—and their focus on Black life—in favor of fearmongering about anarchists and anti-fascists associated with the demonstrations.
“It's a distraction technique,” Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M associate professor focusing on political rhetoric, told The Daily Beast. “It's called the red herring.”
Mercieca, whose forthcoming book delves into Trump’s rhetorical maneuvers, said the president and commentators on media outlets like Fox News and One America News Network have sought to identify some protesters as an “aggressive, anti-American vanguard,” distinct from the rest of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Trump, this “vanguard” takes the form of leftists, anarchists, and anti-fascists. Although these movements often overlap with racial justice causes, Trump has tried to cast them as a separate, malignant presence. “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” Trump tweeted on May 30, apparently in response to property destruction at an early protest. (Arrests so far have overwhelmingly not implicated anti-fascists.) “Don’t lay the blame on others!”
The ploy lets voices on the right tar the Black Lives Matter movement without engaging with the cause’s central demands.
“Instead of focusing on the central concerns of systemic racism, you focus on this insurgency and insurrection,” Mercieca said, protesters whom Trump has characterized as “this terrible group of people who are determined to overthrow the government, who are using Black Lives Matter as cover.”
Writer Zoé Samudzi noted the distracting work of the “outside agitator” narrative in the early days of the protests.
“This paternalistic use of ‘outside agitator’ is doing some impossibly heavy lifting to mask your terror of black people,” Samudzi tweeted in late May. The tactic has previously been used to downplay Black activism, notably by the Ku Klux Klan.
“‘Outside agitator’ is also historically antisemitic,” Samudzi continued, “it suggested naïve, pliable blacks were being led astray into disruptive communistic thought and behaviors under the influence of anti-capitalist Jewish Bolshevism. So there’s that to beware of, too.”
Though Trump has tweeted little about racial justice and police brutality in recent days, he has repeatedly raged against Seattle, where activists (many of them anarchists) have set up shop in approximately six blocks that have been vacated by police. Those six blocks, called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), have dominated conservative media. On Monday, Fox News’s first “hot topic” tab was “Seattle.” “George Floyd” was only the second trending topic, despite inspiring the nationwide protests. Fox also issued an apology last week after it was found to have photoshopped a gunman into less threatening pictures of the CHAZ. (The outlet also used a picture of a fire in Minneapolis as the lead image of a story about the CHAZ, with the headline “Crazy Town”.)
Some of the negative media blitz around antifa fears have grown louder than the Black Lives Matter coverage. An analysis by DFRLab (the Atlantic Council’s digital research shop) found that antifa-related stories were a social media goldmine.
“Many of these stories are alarmist in nature, misrepresenting or fabricating violent incidents in order to maximize their digital traction,” DFRLab found. “Over time, they have begun to claim a larger share of antifa-related content. Indeed, according to Google Trends, total search interest in ‘antifa’ outperformed that in the Black Lives Matter movement between May 25 and June 7.”
Mercieca noted that many Black Lives Matter activists have radical demands, like police abolition, and that trying to pin the movement’s radicalism on anarchists and anti-fascists can make the rest of the movement look misleadingly mild.
“If you're hanging all of that on these antifa radicals, then that means that you're projecting a more moderate resolution than what Black Lives Matter protesters really want,” she said. “And I don't know that that's the case.”
While any attribution of rational political motives to Trump is a dangerous game, the right’s antifa obsession lets its leaders criticize protesters without stoking the ire of a population that seems increasingly supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Neither the Trump campaign nor the White House immediately returned a request for comment for this story.)
In a Monmouth University poll this month, 76 percent of respondents described racial discrimination as “a big problem.” That’s up from 68 percent of respondents in 2016 and 51 percent in 2015. Even 71 percent of white respondents, Trump’s base, agreed that racism was a “big problem.”
The poll also asked Americans’ opinions on the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death; 57 percent of respondents described protesters’ anger as “fully justified,” with another 21 percent saying the rage after George Floyd’s death was “partially justified.”
A Rasmussen poll this month found that 62 percent of respondents viewed Black Lives Matter favorably, a dramatic upswing from the meager 37 percent who approved of the movement in 2016. A similar Reuters poll conducted early this month found that 64 percent of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” with just 27 percent describing themselves as unsympathetic. (By contrast, 49 percent of respondents to a Rasumssen poll this month said they agreed with Trump’s comments that antifa should be labeled a “terrorist organization,” despite it not being an organization, but a political stance in opposition to fascism.)
The Black Lives Matter movement’s surging popularity is all the more astounding given that, in recent years, right-wingers subjected Black Lives Matter to almost-identical “domestic terror” accusations as the anti-fascist movement currently faces. A 2017 petition calling on the White House to “formally recognize black lives matter as a terrorist organization” was later uploaded virtually verbatim to apply to anti-fascists, the blog Defending Rights and Dissent noted.
But shifting overt animosity to the specter of black-clad anarchists likely won’t make Black marchers any safer.
Sanford, Maine, is nowhere near the former Confederacy. Nevertheless, when Black Lives Matter protesters marched down the small city’s streets this weekend, they were greeted by heavily armed men flying the battle flag of the slavery-defending states. The counter-protesters claimed they weren’t trying to threaten Black Lives Matter marchers, but taking up arms against potential anti-fascists. A local urban legend, like many circulating the country, falsely claimed anti-fascists planned on traveling to Sanford en masse to engage in activities like “firebombing businesses.”
Sanford’s police chief cited the rumors, without evidence, and later texted the city’s WMTW that, “apparently antifa and the rest of the anarchists stayed home.”
Either way, Black Lives Matter marchers found themselves staring down semi-automatic rifles and a Confederate flag.