Lost amid deserved criticism from media outlets and Republican officeholders alike of the president’s failure to unambiguously denounce violent extremism on the fringes of the political right is Joe Biden’s failure to do the same regarding the left.
Pressed by Donald Trump to denounce the loose amalgamation of extremists that constitute Antifa, Biden dismissed this entity as something that, by and large, doesn’t exist. “His own FBI director said unlike white supremacist, Antifa is an idea, not an organization,” Biden insisted, “not a militia.”
Aside from the cavernous yawns this response generated among political reporters, it’s unclear why Biden would feel this is a sufficient response. It suggests that he has misread both the FBI director and this portentous moment in American history.
Biden is not wrong on the facts. That is the gist of what FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress during a September hearing on domestic security threats, which delved into the prolonged campaign of rioting, looting, vandalism, and harassment ongoing in American cities since late May. Antifa is “not a group or an organization,” he said. “It’s a movement or an ideology.” But Wray was not dismissing the threat Antifa and its allies posed with these comments. He was illustrating the challenge the agency has in confronting it.
The FBI director noted that Antifa was a “real thing,” and its activities prompted federal investigators to probe “what we would describe as violent anarchist extremists.” That does not make this phenomenon less of a menace—just the opposite. The violent idea is what begets the violent organization—not the other way around. And an animating philosophy has more potentially destructive power than an institution with finances you can freeze, leaders you can monitor, and an organizational structure you can infiltrate and disrupt.
In the hours that elapsed following this debate, some in the press went to great lengths to defend Biden’s timidity with a tendentious reading of FBI statistics. “Right now, the organized violence is coming from white supremacist groups,” NBC News reporter Ben Collins asserted. “Yes, Antifa is a violent ideology that pushes back against what they deem to be fascism, but the organized groups that are committing domestic terror in the United States, according to Donald Trump’s own intelligence agencies, that’s white supremacy.”
No one should dismiss the threat posed by violent, organized white nationalist groups. The FBI certainly isn’t. In February, backed by statistics showing that domestic terrorism incidents were increasingly linked to white supremacist groups, the FBI director assured Americans these organizations represented as big of a priority for the agency as preventing attacks from Islamist groups like ISIS. And yet, he also stressed that the FBI polices people, not ideas. That responsibility is the province of the political realm. And in that charge, the political realm has fallen on its face.
In the effort to quantify the “overwhelmingly peaceful movement” that swept across the country this summer, a Princeton University-affiliated study found that “violent demonstrations” “have been limited to fewer than 220 locations” around the country, many of which are major metropolitan areas, in the space of single summer. The study blames the “agents provocateurs—or infiltrators—instigating violence.” And, yes, some of those “provocateurs” were rightwing extremists. But to conclude that rightwing extremism is fueling this blaze requires a steadfast refusal to believe your lying eyes.
The hundreds of Atlanta residents who set fires, looted stores, broke windows, and laid siege to CNN’s headquarters holding “ACAB” (“all cops are bastards”) signs and chanting “I Can’t Breathe” weren’t members of a prepper militia. The thousands of organized looters in cities like New York City and Chicago, some of whom used dedicated fleets of vehicles to target specific locations and ram storefronts, weren’t Proud Boys. The $500 million in property damage that accompanied riots in Minneapolis, Minnesota, isn’t attributable to anarchic libertarianism. The militant separatists who took over a police station and the surrounding blocks in Seattle, the mobs that repeatedly attempt to torch courthouses, the crowds that are responsible for vandalism and assaults on police officers in places like Los Angeles and Oakland, California, Washington D.C., Richmond, Virginia, and Aurora, Colorado were not fans of this president. To claim otherwise is silly and self-discrediting.
This is an outgrowth of a phenomenon dubbed “anarcho-socialist extremism” by researchers affiliated with Rutgers University. Recently, this movement has been unusually organizationally active online and has adopted “the key tactical structures documented in libertarian-anarchist and Jihadi extremism.” It is “decentralized,” but its members are nonetheless capable of transforming a peaceful demonstration into a riot. Though this conglomeration of malcontents and instigators is for now “less lethal” than other extremist groups with different ideological predilections, that does not render it banal or anodyne. And it certainly doesn’t give American political officials license to turn a blind eye to the threat it poses.
But that is precisely what has happened in far too many Democrat-led municipalities. In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan ceded whole portions of her city to a mob, making excuses for violence and compelling her city’s police chief to resign in protest. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler instructed police to stop using tear gas to disperse violent demonstrators following a coordinated effort to set his apartment building on fire. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and his city council engaged in a (failed) months-long effort to abolish the city’s police force, which was itself a blinkered reaction to a riotous street action and rising violent-crime rates.
If all this is merely the product of an idea and not an organized effort by some duly constituted assembly, that’s more frightening, not less. Violent radicalism isn’t something we should accept in degrees, and two opposing phenomena can be dangerous at the same time. Every responsible public figure—Joe Biden more than most—has a duty to condemn this violent idea. His failure to do so is both discouraging and revealing.