This weekend we were treated to the latest installment of a new kind of political performance art created by Antifa and their white nationalist rivals. It may seem strange to call it art, but really that’s what it is. Neither of these groups is an actual political force in America with policies or representing large constituencies. Neither are they true revolutionaries who are engaged in some war they can win.
Both groups are, more than anything else, performers. They have costumes, they have painted signs, and they have scripts. Also, like any true artists, what they crave more than anything else is attention — not votes, not money, not even influence, mostly just to be looked at and admired, or even hated.
I struggled over whether to write this article because I believe both groups represent such an insignificant threat to the country that they should probably just be ignored. Stop pointing cameras at them, and they might just go have dinner or watch Netflix or something. But obviously, for myriad reasons, that isn’t going to happen. So if this weird new strain of performance art is something we have to deal with, we should try to understand it.
The connection between protest and art is easier to see on the left than the right, but it exists in both. It’s easier to see on the left because progressive protest art, specifically songs, have often filtered into the mainstream culture. But sometimes it goes the other way, as with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” a Southern response to leftist protest music.
What is different here is that art is not just a component of the Antifa or Proud Boys protests. It’s the whole thing. It is all the there that is there. Let’s take each in their turn, starting with Antifa.
One thing that happened this weekend after the unpleasantness was an eyeroll-worthy attempt at gaslighting by many on the far-left saying that Antifa simply means anti-fascist, and if you are against that, you must be a fascist. To call this reductive is an insult to reductivists. In the common parlance, Antifa refers to mask-wearing, violent black bloc protesters who engage in and defend the use of violence.
The term does have a longer history, but this idea being floated by progressives that they have all been calling themselves Antifa for decades is nonsense, especially in the American context. What we think of today as Antifa goes back at least to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, also in the Pacific Northwest, that time in Seattle. The enemy then was capitalism, not fascism, which it still is since Antifa believes the two ideas are synonymous.
What emerged more than anything else was a style: a bandanna over the face, a helmet, some kind of makeshift weapon. Over time, the script developed. They would take over a public space, and insist they had the authority to permit or deny entrance to it. They began to fancy themselves the self-appointed state police of the progressive movement.
Over time, the rituals became commonplace: shouting over reporters, physically pushing those they disagreeing with while chanting, “This is not violence.” Their frenzied fury became well rehearsed. It is now as predictable as the final scene in “Hamlet.” It’s their show. They don’t have another one, but that’s okay, because we keep buying tickets.
As mentioned above, the artistic stylings of the white nationalist right are harder to spot, but they are there, and are in many ways very modern. There is of course the costuming, whether khakis or more dramatic outfits with Nazi or Roman overtones, a look steeped in some stereotype of the West. Then of course there are the memes, and characters like Pepe the frog.
The Internet provided these crackpots a safe space, and what emerged is full of artistic imagery, characters, and storylines. Just as with Antifa, these are essentially artistic direction choices meant to draw maximum attention.
So these are the players, one troupe on each side, both intimately aware that all the world is a stage. And they put on a show for us. Most of it is play violence, but occasionally it gets out of hand, especially for journalists and others caught in the middle who don’t know stage combat choreography. The proof of this is something that you never see. You never see both sides go into total combat, a melee involving everyone, because they don’t want that. It’s just a show.
So if this is a show that entertains us, and more, one that absurdly lets us pretend that Antifa and the white nationalists are the logical conclusion of the ideologies we oppose, how should we watch it? We have to understand that it is farce. It is all exaggeration and absurdity. It is an entertainment steeped in ridiculous hyperbole.
In that sense, it should really make us feel a little better. These comical clowns on both sides, so ludicrously removed from anything even approaching reality, should remind us that they don’t represent anyone except their attention-starved selves. We should laugh at them. They won’t mind — attention is attention. So, if you must, then watch these poor fools humiliate themselves. Then turn off Twitter, remember it’s not the real world, and move on with your life.