When insurrectionists stormed the Capitol last week, many came armed with weapons, but even more were adorned in symbols that were designed to shock, intimidate and project hate. There was an enormous noose and gallows, confederate flags, and a hoodie emblazoned with the words “Camp Auschwitz.”
President Donald Trump has long courted white supremacists and those who feel left behind in a diverse, multicultural America. Increasingly, Trump’s followers have been emboldened to wear explicit symbols of hate and violence. “The dog whistles in conservative politics have become bullhorns in the Trump era,” says Robert Rowland, professor of communications at the University of Kansas, who studies Trump’s rhetoric.
Looking closely at images of the rioters, you see everything from Bibles and Nordic runes to animal costumes and white supremacist references. Experts say many of these symbols are rich in history and meaning, revealing a lot about the ideologies of pro-Trump extremists. “This is a response to America actually becoming a democracy, where the laws of the nation apply to everyone,” says Robert Sanders, a retired U.S. Navy judge and a professor at the University of New Haven who specializes in national security. “This has never been the desire of some. And this was their way of showing it.”
Here, experts explain some of the key symbols that Trump supporters brought to Capitol Hill.
A shocking image that emerged from the riots was a large gallows and noose erected outside the Capitol. To many, this was a reference to lynching and the history of violence against Black people in the United States. But Rowland says it could also refer to a scene in a white supremacist novel published in 1978 called The Turner Diaries, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as the “bible of the racist right.” At one point in the book, white supremacists take control of California and proceed to lynch “race traitors” including journalists, politicians, and women in interracial relationships. These murders take place on a single day, describe as the “Day of the Rope.”
One of the most common symbols among rioters was camouflage as well as uniforms from previous eras of combat, including faded green helmets from World War II and Vietnam-era camouflage. Sanders says these outfits have become increasingly common among the far right as paramilitary militias devoted to white supremacy have grown tremendously since Obama’s first term. Sanders points out that not everyone who wears camouflage is in a militia, but this symbol ties them to the more militaristic wing of the far right movement. “They are trying to say that they are warriors for the white race,” says Sanders. “They’re saying they’re prepared for the fight ahead to support the purity of the white race and a white America.”
The Kraken and Norse symbolism
The riots also featured flags with an orange octopus-like creature with the words “Release the Kraken” on it. This is a specific reference to the words of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who said she would release evidence that Trump had actually won the presidency by saying she was going to “release the Kraken.” The Kraken has become a symbol among people who believe the election was stolen, but it’s also a sea monster from Norse mythology. White supremacists often appropriate elements of Viking culture to symbolize a time of racial purity. “This is symbology you would have found among the Nazis,” says Robert Rowland, a professor of communication at the University of Kansas, who has extensively studied Donald Trump’s rhetoric. “It was a way of connecting themselves with the Aryan race.”
Scholars of Scandinavian history have taken pains to point out that there never was an age of racial purity in the Scandinavian past. But that hasn’t stopped Trump supporters from using Norse symbols. QAnon Shaman, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, stood out because he wore a horned hat, fur pelts, and had a bare chest covered in tattoos of Norse symbols, including Thor’s Hammer. “It’s a false perception that these symbols are 100% white,” says Rowland.
Just a reminder that yesterday @IvankaTrump called these folks “patriots.” After they had already stormed the Capitol and shut down the congressional meeting that was set to remove her father from power. One of whom was wearing this shirt. The back said “staff” pic.twitter.com/OWMqPAHpdN
— Shamus Khan (@shamuskhan) January 7, 2021
There were also explicit Nazi symbols. One of the most shocking was a hoodie emblazoned with the words Camp Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp where more than a million Jews were murdered. Even though Rowland has closely studied the pro-Trump movement, he says he was shocked to see this. But at the same time, he points out that anti-semitism is on the rise and these symbols have popped up at other events, like the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Confederate flags and MAGA civil war
There were several insurrectionists wearing t-shirts that said “MAGA Civil War” along with the date of the riot. Many carried Confederate flags, a symbol of slavery and oppression. “It’s a sign that there is a growing far far right movement that believes that we need a second Civil War,” says Rowland. “And in their do-over, there would be a different outcome.”
There were plenty of Christian symbols on display as well. Rioters carried large copies of the Bible, crosses, and signs that referenced Jesus. And they didn’t just stick with imagery. The Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, led a prayer session before they stormed the Capitol. This is a common strategy among nationalists, including the Nazi movement in Germany, says Rowland. “These are Christian fundamentalist symbols,” he says. “It’s a way of expressing their grievance that their culture is not being respected.”
Of course, underlying it all is the suggestion that Christianity belongs exclusively to white people, never mind that Jesus was a Jew. In some cases, the rioters also used the symbols to argue that God was on their side. In one particularly chilling moment, a group blew the shofar–a Jewish ceremonial horn–before taking on Capitol police, in an effort to reenact a scene in the Old Testament where God tells the Israelites to lay siege to Jericho.