From their chinos-and-polo-shirt uniform to the "okay" emoji, America's so-called alt-right are weaponising the everydayby Philip Seargeant / September 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
The photographs showed a flock of white men wearing polo shirts and well-ironed khakis, brandishing tiki torches. They became one of the enduring images from the far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, when the so-called ‘alt-right’ marched on a university campus.
Every movement needs its iconography, of course. And as the events in Charlottesville illustrated, symbols—be they flags or statues—can act as powerful surrogates for political views. But while traditional symbols such as the Confederate flag and the swastika are still a prominent part of white-supremacist iconography, another very different style of emblem is also emerging.
A succession of utterly banal objects, from the khaki chinos worn by the demonstrators to the music of Taylor Swift, have somehow come to represent an extremist ideology; all of them unexceptional elements of mainstream culture, weaponized by the alt-right as part of their political message.
One of the fundamental principles of communication theory is that symbols are always arbitrary. They don’t inherently ‘mean’ anything until a community imbues them with meaning. In other words, pretty much anything can stand as a symbol for pretty much anything else.
What usually happens, however, is that meaning is motivated by some sort of historical or cultural precedent. For example, Hitler designed the Nazi flag to represent different elements of the movement he was shaping. The red background, he wrote in Mein Kampf, alludes to the social element of the movement, the white circle to its nationalist ideals, and the black swastika to “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”
The Confederate flag similarly draws on a specific colour-symbolism to create its meaning. It’s had slightly different incarnations throughout its history, but the second official version had the red and blue cross on an otherwise white background. This, according to its designer, symbolised the “Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”
So how about this new set of symbols? Does a pair of chinos have the same sort of grandiose racist narrative woven into its aesthetic? As a style of political fashion, pale beige slacks seem a long way removed from more classic white supremacist uniforms. The KKK’s white robes and hoods, for example, were used both to hide the identity of their wearers, and to suggest some sort of intimidating supernatural power. Likewise, the black uniforms, so beloved of fascist groups from the SS to the Italian MVSN and the British Union of Fascists, were also specifically meant to frighten and terrorize.
The polo shirt-and-chinos combination seems unlikely to create quite the same effect. But in this case that’s the point. The “uniform” worn by many of those demonstrating in Charlottesville was modelled on the average suburban male’s weekend dress code. It’s an all-American image which the alt-right are trying to co-opt. By dressing in this way they’re attempting to normalise their movement—make it look as if it’s an everyday part of middle America. And it doesn’t hurt that it also happens to be the preferred outfit for Donald Trump when he’s enjoying a day out on the golf course.
The co-opting of Taylor Swift as an idol of the far right is slightly different. It’s an amalgam of various elements of internet culture, involving inspirational quotes, purposeful misattribution, references to Hitler, and several layers of irony. The phenomenon began back in 2013 when a woman on Pinterest started a meme presenting quotes from Hitler as if they were inspirational sayings by Swift.
In the wake of this, a few members of the alt-right adopted the singer as an “Aryan goddess” and, because of her apolitical public persona (she never endorsed one side or the other in the last election, for example) were able to project their own fantasies onto her, suggesting she herself was a secret Nazi.
Suddenly, what had started as a slightly absurdist prank was gaining traction in the real world. Taylor’s record company wrote a formal letter of complaint; articles were written in the press urging her “to publicly condemn the racist anti-Semites who are claiming her as their queen.”
When her new single was released last month, alt-right favourite Breitbart News started tweeting fragments of the lyrics alongside news stories they thought were somehow relevant.
There are several other similar examples, from the now ubiquitous Pepe to the “okay” gesture ?. In each case, provocateurs from the alt-right have re-appropriated a mundane element of everyday culture, managed to bait the media into manufacturing a moral panic over it, and then sat back and watched as it actually morphs into an extremist symbol thanks to all the publicity it’s getting.
On one level, this new breed of symbol may seem far removed from traditional fascistic iconography. But there are more similarities than might at first be supposed. The Nazis, after all, also appropriated pre-existing emblems and then corrupted their meanings. The swastika was a symbol of well-being and good luck for at least five thousand years before Hitler stamped his own narrative onto it.
With the alt-right though, this perversion of the everyday is almost the main purpose. They understand that symbols can be completely arbitrary, and they exploit the idea in as many implausible ways as possible. In this case the symbols aren’t meant as a lasting legacy; they’re a means of trolling society, and infiltrating disruptive ideas into the mainstream.