In the movie the patient is comatose, lying stiff and motionless on a hospital bed. Suddenly he wakes up, disoriented but wide-eyed from built-up adrenaline and instinct, and starts fighting the orderlies. America is watching itself in that movie now, erupting in the streets after months of anesthetized lockdown.
The movie did not begin with the shameful police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In fact, it’s not yet clear whether the pandemic and the protests that brought the coronavirus lockdowns to an abrupt end are better understood as two separate events or as one rolling crisis. But, like the lockdowns, once the protests and confrontations with police and politicians started, they quickly took on a life of their own.
The first wave of protests spread out from Minneapolis and brought thousands and then tens of thousands of people into the streets. Rioting and looting followed, first in Minnesota and then in other states as the protests spread. The protests grew even larger, appearing in almost every major American city and spreading quickly upward, leveraging rapid changes from previously reluctant or disinterested local legislatures and elite cultural institutions. The de facto motto of the protests has become “defund the police,” though no one can agree on exactly what that means. The editors of Bon Appetit magazine and the Times’ opinion page have both resigned in disgrace, for different reasons.
With an incredible speed that seems at least partly connected to the lockdowns they are bringing to an end, the protests spread across the globe. In Brussels, London, Bratislava, Guadalajara, Lagos, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv, and in many other cities, thousands have gathered to affirm what the American movement had put into words, that black lives matter, and also to protest against police brutality and against their governments. In some places, again, following the American lead, the marches have turned at points into riots and mayhem. Yet in America, the protests show signs of entering their final act. In some places, local police appear to be bludgeoning people indiscriminately to exact their pound of flesh. But elsewhere, law-enforcement officials pose for viral images kneeling in solidarity with the protesters. Mayors, governors, presidential hopefuls, social media influencers, and corporate advertising campaigns enlist, symbolically, on the side of the marchers while the president mostly tweets his contempt for them and threatens to send in the military. The military signals, ominously, its unease.
The movie has a hero, the Black Lives Matter movement. And there is a villain: far-right-wing extremist groups including one called the Boogaloo Bois that no one seems to have heard of before last week, and that may on closer inspection actually be on the side of the marchers in some cases and in others on the side of groups with more direct political goals like the KKK and traditional white supremacists trying to exploit the chaos to further their own agenda.
It also has a mysterious anti-hero: antifa. The name antifa is an abbreviation, short for the aspirational title anti-fascist. Technically, it refers to a cause rather than an organization. In practice, it’s a network of anarchist groups in cities across the country, tied together by a subcultural lore, a set of common tactics, information channels, and shared enemies. While the main protests are carried out under the Black Lives Matter banner, both the far-right groups and antifa are mostly white.
President Trump tweeted that he would designate antifa a terrorist organization and U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused antifa along with right-wing extremist groups of “instigating” violence at the protests. Both Democratic and Republican officials across the country claim the protests are infiltrated by outsiders and agitators, responsible for the looting and violence that has ensued. Former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice stuck to her script, as she pointed to “foreign actors” and said this looked like something “right out of the Russian playbook.” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey blamed out-of-state white supremacists.
New York’s progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once ran for president, seemed to share the assessment coming from the White House, when he claimed to have evidence that the violence and destruction in New York City was the fault of anarchists. The NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, John Miller, said there had been “a pretty dramatic escalation in terms of rhetoric and propaganda from these extremist entities” and specifically mentioned efforts by far-right and neo-Nazi groups to create “more disorder, more violence, more mayhem.”
The argument over who is responsible for the wanton destruction gets one thing right: There are many different groups in America right now who want to see the country burn, each with their own reasons.
The secret to understanding antifa is not a hidden connection to Soros or the DNC or a map of clandestine brick deposit sites, it’s that the group’s influence is a function of its strange abusive romance with the media establishment and political elites.
Like Russian bots, antifa is real—but on its own not especially important or threatening. In healthy times, when specters of fascism, moral panics, suicides, and unemployment figures are not rampant, such phenomena are hardly noticeable. When Russian Facebook bots or a loose organization of crust punks, committed anarchists, college professors, and urban progressives with anxiety disorders constitute a real threat to American society, that is not a reflection of their strength but of the weakened state of American society. And, the same as with the ludicrous overreaction to the bots, Trump’s deranged remarks about antifa are a gift to the group.
Antifa is a useful catchall for those things people wish to blame or to praise without actually having to name. When de Blasio and Barr blame the group for the violence, they are invoking one version of antifa: a small band of militant, smash-the-state anarchists who operated as a vanguard element plotting acts of violence under the cover of large protests. This version of antifa exists in real life. In December of 2014, at what was then one of the largest Black Lives Matter protests held in New York City, an anarchist group called the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee (TMOC) tweeted out messages like “peaceful protest is just another form of collaboration with the pigs violence” and led a group of marchers in the midst of the larger protest, in a chant of “what do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now.”
TMOC, to be clear, was not an official antifa organ, since there is no real organization, only “a kind of ideology, an identity, a tendency or milieu, or an activity of self-defense,” as the academic Mark Bray, author of the popular Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook put it. Only of course there is an organization, if a loose and networked one, in the same way there is an alt-right. But more importantly, what antifa has is a group of confused admirers, people like Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser Matt Duss and Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who both compared the self-declared antifa partisans protesting and rioting in American cities to the American soldiers who landed at Normandy. The sentiment, retweeted approvingly by maybe a million people, absurdly—perhaps pathologically is a better word—wants you to believe that the American state fighting a fascist regime is the same as a small, increasingly high-society led group inside the state fighting those they deem fascist.
But antifa is not whatever people Duss and Reich would like it to be, and it is not only a trap to make a fool of pundits, though it is certainly that. It is a group whose core belief includes the embrace of political violence against the liberal state because the liberal state—not just the police, but capitalist liberal democracy itself—is the handmaiden of fascism.
There were and are legitimate threats from the far right in America, which I have been writing about for years, but the bizarre culture-war theater of anti-fascist activists clashing with right-wing groups like the Proud Boys was never especially convincing. It seemed more like an attempt to reawaken history or at least borrow its costumes—let’s call it political cosplay.
The true defining characteristic of American political society at present isn’t widespread violence from either the left or the right, but a propensity for dramatic overreach combined with utter toothlessness; symbolic confrontations that provide a leitmotif of historical drama in service of a droning stasis.
Each of the three rolling crises that have played out so far this year have confirmed the same pattern. The culmination of the dramatic yearslong Russiagate saga that hijacked the entire government and media apparatus turned out to have no basis in reality. The coronavirus pandemic simultaneously produced a dramatic nationwide shutdown that has been catastrophic for the productive economy, the poor and working class, and the elderly—but not the stock market—while at the same time revealing the government as incapable of producing basics like tests and masks or competently delivering critical information.
The protests meanwhile have shown governments to be incapable of restoring order or meeting protest demands. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio provides one example: He issues curfew orders that no one follows after entire districts of the city are ransacked and local businesses destroyed. He dithers about the right to protest, while asking that marchers not stay out too late. He can’t account for why playgrounds are still closed on public health grounds and religious services are off limits, but protests are OK. He tries to make himself one of the protesters while maintaining the support of the police. He is neither fish nor fowl, and the result is that both sides loathe him. Meanwhile, Trump, the fearsome authoritarian, law-and-order president, spends his time tweeting.
It felt as if perhaps a great psychic weight was being lifted by the coronavirus. The state of emergency, long the sublimated dream of ideological movements, and of young people seeking their call to adventure, had finally arrived. And yet, what a disappointment the emergency turned out to be. Go indoors, get on Zoom, do not so much as breathe on your fellow human being but be sure to catch the latest episode of The Odd Couple with Trump and the press. What facial expression would Fauci, now far from the show, make next; how heroic, the snide chyron on CNN calling the president a liar—resistance as it was meant to be, delivered in daily sitcom installments to an audience entirely cut off from the outside world.
The pandemic validated no particular political point of view. It only wants targets, and it kills as many as it encounters. But if the virus authorized no program or partisan design, it did open the possibility, so long sought after in futile and periodic gestures, for sudden profound transformation.
Each great moment on its own has been overwhelming but together they tell a larger story. On the last day of February the campaign of the great change candidate, Bernie Sanders, reached the beginning of the end in the South Carolina primary. It was not only a loss for the candidate but for the hopes of the disillusioned and shortchanged young idealists who made up Sanders’ base and who believed their own revolutionary moment had finally arrived only to see it crushed by a seemingly decrepit Joe Biden, surging on the support of black voters—Biden, a representative of the same failed establishment that Trump railed against, while recapitulating its failures in his own key.
And only a day later, before the strangeness and magnitude of the loss could fully set in—“how could they vote for … him?”—it was March and the virus was becoming a markedly greater concern with every passing day so that by the end of the month, the elections were a fading memory, and all that mattered were masks, ventilators, shutdowns, medical workers, and daily press briefings. It was that way for two months, as the death toll rose and the unemployment figures went from grim to unimaginably grim, but still, what could one do but speculate. The protests in Minnesota started on May 26, the day after George Floyd’s death. On the last day of May, they turned violent.
If Freud was right that every civilization has a death wish, ours appears to be in overdrive right now as millions of people gather tightly in plague-ridden streets. Or is that not an embrace of death but a righteous sacrifice more like martyrdom? Or is it neither, but rather, a sudden uncontrollable outpouring of life in the support of life, after a long period of anesthesia? It’s hard to say. The only thing that seems sure is that those longing for a return to normalcy will be disappointed. What’s normal now is this.
Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.