As public disorder has swept across the US in protest against police brutality, many on the right have blamed "Antifa" for the disorder. Donald Trump pronounced on Twitter that he would be implementing an executive order proscribing Antifa as a terrorist organisation.
A number of people have pointed out that there is no legal mechanism for Trump to do this (there is a Foreign Terrorist Organisation list, but no such list exists for groups inside the US). In fact, Antifa is not an organisation; it is a moniker used to describe militant anti-fascism. Yet Trump had previously called Antifa a terrorist organisation in 2019 and there has been pressure by Republicans for law enforcement to treat Antifa as such.
Figures on the hard right across the English speaking world have taken up Trump’s portrayal of Antifa as terrorism, with Conservative Party of Canada candidate Derek Sloan announcing on Twitter that he would also designate Antifa as terrorists if made prime minister. In the UK, the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage said this week that he had first labelled Antifa "domestic terrorists" in 2017.
This rhetoric builds on right-wing attempts to characterise a range of social and protest movements as extremist, and possible akin to terrorism. Last year the home secretary, Priti Patel, defended an inital decision by counter-terrorism police to include Extinction Rebellion, the climate activist movement, in a report on extremist ideologies. Outside the UK, Australia’s home affairs minister Peter Dutton conflated Islamist terrorism with left-wing politics and decried "leftwing lunatics" as a possible security threat in February this year.
Left-wing terrorism has been labelled a potential threat in North America and Europe since the 1970s, when the Weather Underground, Red Army Faction and Red Brigades were active. But that same threat does not exist today, even though some commentators and politicians have tried to raise the spectre of an "alt left" or "ctrl left" as a counterpart to the ‘alt right’.
The characterisation of opposition to fascism as terrorism is not new. It was a regular feature of fascist rhetoric in the 1930s. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists routinely referred to anti-fascist actions against them as "red terrorism" while portraying themselves as the defenders of free speech. A 1936 edition of the BUF’s Blackshirt newspaper declared that ‘"organised red violence has been swept away" by Mosley’s men. Another edition from the same year proclaimed: "In two years, the Blackshirt spirit has triumphed. In two short years Red Terrorism and its Jew and Soviet inspired gangs have lost their dominion of the streets of East London… Fascism won the freedom of the streets."
This passage not only attributes the violence to red terrorism and hooliganism, but also highlights the history of blaming foreign forces for domestic disturbances and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of Jewish manipulation of protestors (both of which have been seen inonline depictions of the US riots today).
While anti-communism was rife in Britain at the time, there was a worry about the reach of these fascist tropes. Politicians such as the Liberal MP Robert Bernays raised in Parliament concern about Mosley using this term to describe anti-fascist activism, with his party colleague Isaac Foot observing in 1934 that the Nazi press in Berlin had also taken up Mosley’s characterisation of anti-fascism as a form of "red terrorism".
The right-wing talking point that the left are a threat to free speech and that action needs to be taken to protect free speech was also found within fascist discourse during the inter-war period. The education secretary's special advisor, Iain Mansfield, recently wrote of the "tyrannical silencing of free speech" while Spectator journalist Toby Young pleads that free speech "is currently in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War". Back in 1933, Blackshirt argued "we have reached a point in this country in which free speech is a thing of the past", claiming terrorists would close down events they didn't agree with.
In 2019, Nigel Farage told an event hosted by the Young America’s Foundation: "I mean frankly the real fascism these days, the real intolerance isn’t Matteo Salvini or Donald Trump, it’s those on the left who wish to shout down the other side and indeed on campuses like this, across America and across the whole of the UK, attempt to no platform speakers who’ve got ideas they don’t like. That’s the real modern fascism, the attempt to close down free speech."
This is what Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter have described as the mainstreaming of far-right ideas. Fascist tropes that have a history back to the inter-war years have been revitalised and repurposed ever since, but the line between liberalism and illiberalism has become increasingly blurred.
As the hard right seems to be making headway in an era of global crisis, the push by the right to portray opposition to it as either terrorism or a "threat to our freedoms" is an increasingly common refrain, no longer a view relegated to the extremes. That's why recognising the origins of these contemporary right-wing talking points is an important part of combating the rise of the hard right as it tries to take advantage of the current situation.
Evan Smith is a research fellow at Flinders University in South Australia. His latest book is 'No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech' (Routledge, 2020)
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