Last night’s presidential debate left many of us in a deep depression over the state of our politics. Once again, the duopoly of power in this country has reduced a population of over 300 million to a two subpar choices. President Donald Trump’s conduct and comments have been rightfully denounced while Biden offered little beyond not being President Trump. There were however two clear and surprising winners last night: Proud Boys and Antifa.
When pressed by moderator Chris Wallace on why he has not been more clear in calling for Democratic mayors and governors to crackdown on rioting (including the use of the National Guard), Biden simply said that he was not the president. However, not only is that irrelevant, Biden has been forceful in calling for other actions on these protests and other issues like the pandemic despite his private citizen status. Yet, the most notable aspect of his exchange with Wallace was his reluctance to denounce Antifa. Instead, Biden referenced FBI Director Christopher Wray’s statement that Antifa was more of a movement than an organization. Biden simply dismissed the question with “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.” It was a telling and inaccurate statement.
We previously discussed Wray statement. Wray was adamant: “Antifa is a real thing. It’s not a fiction” and, while it is not a conventional organization as opposed to a movement, they have arrested people who admit that they are Antifa.”
I testified in the Senate on Antifa and its history of violence on our campuses and streets. As I have written, Antifa is indeed more of a movement than a specific organization, but it has members and associated groups. Indeed, it has long been the “Keyser Söze” of the anti-free speech movement, a loosely aligned group that employs measures to avoid easy detection or association. Wray stated “And we have quite a number — and I’ve said this quite consistently since my first time appearing before this committee — we have any number of properly predicated investigations into what we would describe as violent anarchist extremists and some of those individuals self-identify with Antifa.”
I have repeatedly emphasized that extreme right groups are also responsible for recent violence and Wray made clear that far right violence still dominates in terms of a threat profile. Moreover, I have opposed declaring Antifa a terrorist organization. We have ample laws to deal with such extremist violence from the far left or far right. We do not need to rely on terrorism laws or most recently suggested sedition laws. Yet, Antifa is more than some “idea.” The Antifa Handbook discusses how it uses an association of groups, including self-identified Antifa groups, to carry out attacks on critics and those with opposing views.
My greatest concern is that we need to take Antifa seriously as a virulent anti-free speech organization. There is a fair criticism of some politicians who have refused to denounce the group or even support it. Former Democratic National Committee deputy chair Keith Ellison, now the Minnesota attorney general, once said Antifa would “strike fear in the heart” of Trump. This was after Antifa had been involved in numerous acts of violence and its website was banned in Germany. His own son, Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, declared his allegiance to Antifa in the heat of the protests this summer.
During the recent hearing, Democratic senators also refused to clearly denounce Antifa and falsely suggested that the far right was the primary cause of recent violence.
Biden continued this bizarre reluctance of Democratic leaders to denounce Antifa, which includes specific groups like Rose City Antifa. It is not just “an idea.” It is a collection of groups, including self-identified Antifa groups, that carry out violence against those who oppose their anti-free speech agenda.
Antifa received a huge boost from Biden’s equivocal response. It wants to be dismissed as “an idea” while organizing violent protests and rioting. That is precisely what it got last night with Biden’s remarks.
Perhaps the most disturbing statement of the evening was President Trump response to Wallace on denouncing white supremacy and actions of far right groups. It should have been an easy question and answer, but Trump seemed to struggle to avoid an outright condemnation.
When pushed Trump declared “Sure, I’m willing to (tell them to stand down), but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.” Wallace and Biden pushed back and Trump said “Who would you like me to condemn?” Biden could be heard twice saying, “Proud Boys.” Trump responded “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem.”
The statement for The Proud Boys to “stand by” thrilled the extremist group. The group even shared a new logo online that included the phrase “stand back and stand by.”
The President has struggled after his statement that there were many fine people on both sides in Charlottesville. The President has maintained that he was not speaking of the extremists but the debate of the preservation of historical statues. However, he has repeatedly equivocated in such comments about far right groups. Last night was in my view far more serious than the Charlottesville statement. The President has offered an alternative meaning of his line of Charlottesville and he did contemporaneously denounce the violence on both sides. However, here was an opportunity to clearly denounce the far right violence and instead he told them to “stand by.”
As I stated in my earlier testimony, far right groups have historically been more lethal in past attacks and indeed there is some evidence of far right groups fueling violence after the George Floyd killing. Antifa has also been involved in the violence. Both should be denounced, but the Democratic candidate equivocated on Antifa while the Republican candidate equivocated on Proud Boys. The implications could not be more precarious for the country. As our divisions deepen and anger rises, both politicians are playing a dangerous game in currying favor with extremist groups on the left and right. By not clearly denouncing such groups, these politicians give them legitimacy or help them evade responsibility in their actions.
George Washington University student Jason Charter has been charged as the alleged “ringleader” of efforts to take down statues across the capital. Charter has been an active Antifa member on campus for years. Following his arrest, he claimed the “movement is winning.” It is winning. It is winning mostly since people remain silent. Silence kills free speech. Antifa knows that.
The same is true for The Proud Boys and other far right groups like Boogaloo. They do not want or need support. They need the silence and passivity of the public and those in power.
That is why the great winners last night were The Proud Boys and Antifa.