How racists cynically market hate by hijacking mainstream symbolism
The gun that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, showed off on Instagram this week was intended to grab people’s attention: An AR-15 semiautomatic rifle adorned with dubious Christian “Crusader” decorations, sold by a Florida gunmaker who assures buyers that they are “inspired by some of the most fierce warriors who fought in nearly 200 years of epic conflicts known as the Crusades.”
In addition to the pseudo-medieval decorations, the gun (called “The Crusader”) featured a magazine decorated with a caricature image of Hillary Clinton behind bars.
A Trump Jr. spokesperson told The Hill: “The Instagram post was strictly about him using a famous meme to mock Hillary Clinton, as he and many others have done on numerous occasions and will surely do again in the future, so long as it continues triggering humorless liberals.”
However, the gun itself and its decorations were what caught a lot of people’s attention, since the Crusades and medieval mythology are yet another field of mainstream culture that has been appropriated by the racist alt-right in recent years. The way alt-right activists deploy such symbology—ironically, with full awareness of its mainstream meaning, behind which the people wielding them cynically hide by claiming that the people offended or disturbed by their use are simply oversensitive liberals—is similar to the alt-right’s similar appropriation of such mainstream symbols as the “OK” hand signal, or the cartoon Pepe the Frog and its permutations.
As with all these ploys, it’s frequently difficult to discern the user’s motives. Is it an innocent display intended to invoke its established mainstream meaning? Or is it a surreptitious (and cynical) expression of affiliation with racist ideology?
The ensuing confusion has a twin effect: It simultaneously creates chaos within the realm of mainstream discourse, while it provides cover for the spread of that racist ideology and its organizing.
"The adoption of these symbols is meant largely as a way of signaling anti-Muslim sentiment in particular, but also this notion that Christianity needs to retake western civilization," Howard Graves, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told CNN.
Trump’s spokesman told CNN there was no connection, saying that “Symbols on firearms depicting various historical warriors are extremely common within the 2nd Amendment community.”
The gunmaker, Rare Breed Firearms, responded angrily: “It's objectively silly and dishonest for leftwing groups, like the SPLC, to claim that this symbol on our Crusader model has anything to do with hate or an extremist ideology,” said CEO Cole Lelux. “In other words, these people have no idea what they're talking about and should apologize for their outrageous smears.”
When Rare Breed first began making the gun, it explained the religious connotations of its decorations to the Orlando Sentinel in xenophobic terms: “They believe America and much of the world is threatened by Islamic terrorism and the Crusader is a symbol of shared Christian values and the right to defend themselves, he said. The safety selector that controls the Crusader's trigger has three settings: Peace, War and God Wills It.”
Trump’s gun featured an etching of a Bible verse as well as the Latin phrase "Deus Vult," another medieval term meaning "God wills it"—a phrase with an ominous quality, since the alt-right ideologues latching onto Crusader mythology have adopted it as their personal battle cry. It appeared on the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, and still crops up regularly in far-right demonstrations involving such hate groups as the Proud Boys.
It turned up recently at the scene of the attempted firebombing of a Planned Parenthood women’s health clinic in Newark, Delaware. An 18-year-old man named Samuel Gulick spray-painted “Deus Vult” on an exterior wall before he threw a lit incendiary device into the building, police said.
Police investigators were able to identify Gulick through a combination of video evidence and his social media posts, in which he frequently used “Deus Vult” and ranted against abortion. More broadly, Gulick eagerly participated in alt-right ideology, using a Pepe-esque “Groyper” cartoon as his online avatar and posting viciously anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT sentiments.
One post featured a link to an article about transgender girl, on which he commented: “Hans, get the flamethrower.”
"The Nazis said killing millions of Jews was a national health issue. Democrats are using the same excuse to kill American children," Gulick wrote in another post. "When will we start shooting? Its about time we kill these genocidal demons."
His social media posts were filled with references to the Crusaders, as were those of another teenager charged last August in a strikingly similar case. Justin Olsen, an 18-year-old Ohio man, was charged with threatening federal officers for posts fantasizing about the murders of FBI agents after the 1993 tragedy involving the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Olsen operated an iFunny page titled “Army of Christ” adorned with images of Christian Crusade knights.
White nationalist fanboys’ love affair with the Crusades dates primarily back to 2011, when Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik published a manifesto titled “2083—A European Declaration of Independence,” adorned with Crusader imagery and demanding a “Second Crusade” in which Muslims would be driven out of European nations—just before setting off a truck bomb in downtown Oslo that killed eight people, and then murdering 69 teenage campers at a socialist youth camp.
At his trial, it emerged that Breivik claimed to be a member of a modern-day group of “Knights Templar,” the 12th-century military order. According to Breivik, an April 2002 meeting of the “Knights” in London featured pseudonyms for the participants such as “Richard the Lionheart” and “Sigurd the Crusader.”
More recently, the Christchurch shooter claimed a similar kind of affiliation in his manifesto, and the weapons he used to murder 51 people in March 2019 were scrawled with references to crusading knights. Fittingly, he also notoriously flashed the “OK” white-power symbol with his hands.
The Crusades have also been adopted by a broad range of alt-right activists, notably at neo-Nazi websites such as The Daily Stormer, where pro-Trump memes featuring Crusade imagery have been common. The debate has even made its way into academia. As Joseph Livingstone explained in The New Republic, all of these reinterpretations are travesties of history—and the internet has played a critical role in producing them.
Hijacking vaguely understood religious belief systems for their own ends is nothing new for the American radical right. In the early 1980s, a number of neo-Nazis—choosing to reject the racist “Christian Identity” movement popular among their ranks at the time, on the grounds that Jesus was Jewish and therefore tainted—instead decided to adopt certain ancient Nordic religions as their “true faith,” most notably the Odinist religion Asatru.
That trend has intensified in recent years, thanks in no small part to the increasing reach of far-right ideologies on the Internet. It’s also spread globally, and racists deploy it as a kind of cynical shield in much the same way as other appropriations from the mainstream.
Asatru recently turned up in news stories about a couple of Army National Guardsmen in Georgia who were given the boot after their activities as neo-Nazis were uncovered. Active in a local chapter of Asatru Folk Assembly, described by the SPLC as “perhaps this country's largest neo-Völkisch hate group,” the men complained that they were being persecuted for their faith.
Ex-Guardsman Trent East told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is not a racist—rather, he’s simply interested in his ancestry and worshiping as his forebears did.
“The whole race thing started with me finding Asatru or Odinism or whatever you want to call it and seeing that as a better option than Christianity as a spirituality,” he said. “I’ve just never been a fan of Christianity, and so seeing a faith that was about my ethnic roots was something I could get into a little more.”
However, as the AJC noted, East’s social media profile—much of it deleted after he was exposed—told a very different story. It included “numerous memes and slogans popular among white supremacists, and his contacts include neo-Nazis and other extremists. After his doxxing, East opened an account on VK.com, a Russian social media platform popular among the racist far right.” He also attended a speech by alt-right godfather Richard Spencer in 2017, toting a sign bearing white nationalist slogans.
For white nationalists, disguising the vile bigotry inherent in their ideology is critical to their ongoing project to normalize their belief systems within the mainstream of society—which is why so many of them go to such lengths to deny their involvement or the existence of the innate racism in their movement.
As social media’s wide-open global distribution of ideas has taken hold, the work of camouflaging their beliefs has become increasingly sophisticated—particularly the way it hijacks popular internet behaviors such as trolling and the use of ironic language as both vehicles for ideas as well as means of intimidating and threatening their critics. This is central to the alt-right’s appeal to its targeted core demographic—namely, young white males between the ages of 12 and 30.
Talia Lavin at GQ acutely observes that Donald Trump Jr.’s exercise in indulging this mindset on his Instagram account—intentional, accidental, or otherwise—fits in neatly with the White House’s current push to war in the Middle East, one in which the underlying premise is that “war is holy”: “It’s a Knight Templar with an AR-15; it’s Arabic script as a signal of enmity. That’s the signal Donald Trump Jr. was sending, with his snug Crusader gun-helmet. And it may be ensconced even deeper in the halls of power, with those formally entrusted with our nation’s security under the Trump regime.”
The machinery of hate thus encompasses both the individual nebbishes—hiding in the dark corners of the Internet, ever-fearful about revealing themselves as the face of hate even as they revel in it as trolls—and their willing, if not always conscious, enablers who walk the world’s halls of power, as well as everyone in between. Mainstream observers, particularly those working in media, often feel confused by the resulting crossfire—unsure about the meanings of the wielded symbology, most likely feeling “left out”—and so dismiss the talk as functionally meaningless.
It’s not, particularly for the racist ideologues who organize and spread their hatefulness behind the resulting fog and smoke they throw up for the rest of us. Donald Trump Jr. may not have intended to send an encouraging, approving signal to white nationalists—it’s likely it never crossed his less-than-a-steel-trap mind—but intentions matter little in this arena.
That’s not how things work in the world of white nationalists. Just as with his father, these kinds of signals are received rapturously as proof that the Trumps are on their side, and that their values are shared by people at the very apex of the social ladder: thus, they feel deeply empowered. Any later denials are laughed at and excused as “what he has to do.”
The key to the game, no matter who’s playing, is plausible deniability for everybody involved. The alt-right has mastered its use as a way to market and spread the movement’s hate.