In a new interview, Trump issued a chilling dog whistle to his extremist base that effectively legitimizes future violence before it occurs.
In late August, Trump issued a chilling statement warning of violence if Republicans lost their majority in Congress in the midterm elections.
A little more than two months after that, Republicans did lose their majority in the House of Representatives — and now, Trump is not only warning of violence, but tacitly endorsing it.
In an Oval Office interview with The Daily Caller, a right-wing news outlet founded by Tucker Carlson, Trump on Wednesday took aim at anti-fascist ("antifa") activists and warned that they "better hope that the other side doesn't mobilize."
"Because if they [the opposition to Antifa] do, they’re much tougher. Much stronger. Potentially much more violent. And Antifa’s going to be in big trouble," Trump said.
Trump added that although "the opposition to Antifa" has not yet mobilized, "[t]hey’re sitting back and watching and they’re getting angrier and angrier."
"These people, like the Antifa — they better hope that the opposition to Antifa decides not to mobilize," he reiterated.
Antifa is a term used to describe a movement of loosely connected anti-fascist activists and groups. The anti-fascist movement can be traced at least as far back as the 1930's, when it arose to fight the spread of fascism in Europe. Since the 1970s and '80s, antifa activism has resurged in both Europe and America to combat the rise of neo-Nazism.
In recent years, the term has also been used by far-right extremists in the U.S. to demonize anyone who opposes them.
Trump has taken to using the term "antifa" to refer to groups of protesters, activists, and Democrats — lumping together anyone and everyone on the left side of the political spectrum under one label, and then using a broad brush to paint the entire group as violent and unruly.
This is what he did in August, when he warned a group of evangelical leaders that violence would ensue if Republicans lost the majority in Congress.
"You’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got," Trump told the group of Christian leaders in a private speech that was recorded and later leaked to the press.
"They will end everything immediately," he said, apparently referring to Democrats. "They will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently. And violently. There’s violence. When you look at Antifa, and you look at some of these groups, these are violent people."
They're actually not violent people, at least not on a scale that is reflected in national statistics. According to one analysis, in more than three decades of anti-fascist activity in the U.S., only one fatality could be linked to a member of an organized antifa group.
In contrast, looking at two decades of far-right activism in the U.S., at least 670 fatalities, more than 3,000 injuries, and more than 4,400 violent attacks were attributed to members of far-right groups.
Unlike far-right extremists, anti-fascist activists abide by a strategy that is defensive in nature. They don't go looking for trouble, but rather form out of necessity after being targeted and victimized by the same extremists whom Trump calls "very fine people."
As one historian explained, "Anti-fascist resistance movements arise out of actual material conditions, like being attacked by fascist gangs and paramilitary groups, so it’s a self-defense response from a lot of different communities, including the leftist groups — and today it’s the immigrant communities; people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people; all these communities that are the targets of fascist violence."
By falsely portraying antifa as dangerous and threatening to Americans — and then suggesting that the "opposition" to antifa may soon mobilize and respond with violence — Trump is using the same rhetorical strategy that extremists use to incite violence among their followers.
Known as stochastic terrorism, the tactic involves using pointed and suggestive language that inspires random people to carry out violent acts, but without explicitly telling them to do so.
As law professor David Cohen explained previously, "Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog."
In other words, Trump doesn't have to issue a directive to his extremist supporters in order to signal his support for politically motivated violence.
With his history of calling for violence, condoning violence, and excusing violence when it's carried out by his supporters, the thinly veiled threat Trump issued Wednesday is a way of giving the go-ahead to his supporters who may be considering engaging in political violence.
Furthermore, given his use of "antifa" to describe Democrats and others on the left side of the ideological spectrum, Trump's warning of violence against antifa could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of violence against "the left" more broadly.
This isn't just a coincidence. When Trump and his Republican allies peddle conspiracy theories about antifa and push disinformation portraying Democrats and citizen protesters as unruly violent "mobs," they're fueling the same narrative that extremists use to justify acts of violence against "the left."
No one should be surprised when an extremist hears Trump's latest dog whistle and acts on it.
He may not be directly ordering violence, but make no mistake: Through his words — and in some cases, his deafening silence — Trump is legitimizing future violence before it takes place.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.