Trump Can't Designate Antifa a Domestic Terrorist Group, and It's a Bad Idea Anyway

The radical left is an occasionally violent nuisance, not an existential threat.


President Donald Trump announced Sunday that he would designate the leftist "antifa" movement a domestic terrorist organization, following several days of peaceful protesting but also rioting and looting in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

Activists informally associated with antifa—which is short for "antifascist"—were responsible for some of the violence over the weekend. They have also committed crimes during previous protests: Trump's inauguration in D.C., the Portland demonstrations against the Proud Boys, and many others. This is consistent with antifa's ideology, which holds (generally speaking) that harsh tactics are necessary to combat the far right and does not believe in extending free speech to people who oppose its goals. (My book Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump includes an in-depth look at antifa's history, tactics, and goals.)

So antifa is well worth criticizing. But Trump's declaration is flawed in a number of ways.

For one thing, it's not actually possible for the president to label antifa a domestic terrorist group: There is no such designation. The U.S. State Department maintains a list of known terrorist organizations, but it includes only foreign groups—mostly radical Islamists.

Antifa is obnoxious, and it has been responsible for a fair amount of violence, but it's obviously not a threat to U.S. security on the same level as al-Qaeda or ISIS. It doesn't even have a leader, central organization, or formal membership.

For another thing, giving the government greater license to consider all antifa activities terroristic in nature would certainly result in civil liberties violations. The authorities would end up harassing and surveilling Americans who have professed sympathy for the far left but are not engaged in anything approaching criminal activity.

Attorney General Bill Barr said on Sunday that the Justice Department would investigate the "criminal organizers and instigators" who are responsible for this weekend's mayhem. The government already has all the authority it needs to go after people who committed violence, whether or not they consider themselves part of antifa. A domestic terrorist designation is a meaningless gesture: It gives a bunch of social irritants more legitimacy than they deserve.