It makes sense of a sort, in a world of endless variety, endless complexity and endless fakery that the power of a brand name can be so great.
After all, what’s more uncomfortable than the unknown? So, for many the greatest comfort, the greatest confidence is in a name they know, the definition of a brand name.
Something else about brand names that is so close to being universal, it is almost defining. People know brand names much better than they know what’s behind them.
In other words, branding can mislead as easily as it can inform.
Take for example a brand name almost everyone knows, “Antifa.” Some people say it stands for anti-fascist, in other words, the opposite of another well-known if fuzzily-defined brand name, Fascist.
Attorney General William Barr, The Devil’s own giant garden slug, says “Antifa, and other similar groups,” are brands of “domestic terrorism.” President Trump has said he will officially brand Antifa as a terrorist organization, even though legally he has no such power. The groups a president can legally label as “terrorists” have to be foreign, and besides, most people who have studied Antifa say it’s not really a group, much less an organization.
What’s been called Antifa more closely resembles a lynch mob gathered for a particular violent occasion, than, say, the Ku Klux Klan, with its memberships, meetings, policies and long-range plans. The KKK has a brand name, for sure, and a history of organized terrorism, but Trump has never applied the label to it. In fact, he resisted rejecting the endorsement of the Klan’s brand-name leader David Duke.
From the branded banners and signs at the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the Klan was among the “fine people,” in Trump’s famous locution, who were carrying out violent and public intimidation for political purposes that day – the very definition of “domestic terrorism.” But the president kept his branding iron in his pocket and praised the right-wing bullies, even after one of them killed a peaceful demonstrator.
Instead, it was in the wake of the sporadic and largely small-scale violence that could be connected to the protests against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd that Trump reached for his rhetoric, and pulled out “domestic terrorism” and applied it to a brand name he and his base know – Antifa.
Funny thing, though, the same day that Trump made his Antifa outburst, the Washington field office of the FBI circulated an internal situation report that said the Bureau “has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” in the violence in Washington. Even the violence at the White House gates that sent the president fleeing to his bunker, security officials told the Washington Post, never put Trump in harm’s way, and shows no evidence of Antifa involvement.
Sometimes a brand name is just a name… in this case a made-up name applied to a few fools armed with sticks and stones.
Ken Klippenstein is The Nation‘s DC Correspondent. His reporting focuses on the machinations of the American national security state and documents under-the-radar politics and policies enacted by the Trump administration.
Klippenstein was previously senior investigative reporter for The Young Turks, and a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast. His reporting has been referenced by countless outlets and cited by Congress.