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It’s really no longer controversial to state that Donald Trump embraces the ideas and thinking of the racist right; he’s been brandishing his bigoted credentials since long before he was elected. But the recent adoption of explicit neo-Nazi and white nationalist imagery and symbols by his campaign suggests Trump is going all out to attract every possible extremist vote he can get.
As polls consistently show Trump trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden, and with an economy in shambles and a pandemic raging across the country, it’s increasingly looking like Trump’s loyal GOP base may not be enough to capture him the White House for a second term. And as hopes dim for winning over vast swaths of independents or even moderate Republicans, his campaign now appears determined to expand its electorate by activating support from some of the most extreme elements imaginable.
This pairing of a white supremacist mobilization with a robust voter suppression effort targeting people of color means Trump’s desperate bid to hold on to power is escalating dangerously.
Too many coincidences
It’s no longer just Trump’s typical crowd of Confederate hangers-on and the subdued racists of polite conservative society that are being openly courted by Trump. Over the last few weeks, amid the uprising for Black Lives, it is the hardcore neo-Nazi and extreme right which are receiving overtures from the president’s re-election campaign.
In mid-June, Trump turned to Hitler’s concentration camps for marketing inspiration. In an ad appearing on Facebook, the campaign posted an image of a big red upside-down triangle with the words: “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem.” It was alleged that protests against systemic racism and police violence were being spearheaded by rabid “antifa” anarchists.
In Hitler’s death factories, the Nazis were diligent about categorizing and classifying their victims. Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David on their breast; for homosexuals it was a pink triangle, and for Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, and other left-wing political prisoners, it was the red triangle. In essence, by using the red triangle in his ad when discussing protesters, Trump symbolically marked his opponents for elimination.
A Trump spokesperson said the campaign didn’t know about the connection to Hitler’s human annihilation efforts; he lied and said it was simply a re-use of a symbol used by antifa demonstrators themselves. Though some LGBTQ rights activists have reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of resistance, the same has not happened at a widespread level with the red triangle
The use of the triangle garnered condemnation from many corners. An historian of anti-fascist movements at Rutgers University, Mark Bray, told the New York Times: “This is a symbol that represented the extermination of leftists. It is a death threat against leftists. There’s no way around what that means historically.”
The Auschwitz Museum felt compelled to weigh in as well, saying on Twitter: “A red triangle that marked ‘political prisoners’ was the most common category of prisoners registered at the German Nazi Auschwitz” death camp.
The use of the triangle was pretty explicit, but there was even more subtle winking at neo-Nazis involved in the Facebook ad affair. The campaign bought 88 versions of the ad; 88 is a number with major significance in the sordid fringe world of organized white supremacy. In the alphabet, the letter ‘H’ is eighth—HH is used as shorthand for “Heil Hitler,” thus 88 is a coded way of declaring one’s sympathies to fellow followers of Adolf.
The Nazi numerology didn’t stop there. A short time later, The Trump Organization was caught hawking a black baseball with Trump’s name embroidered into it for the unusual price tag of exactly $88.
Then there was the affair of the eagle t-shirt, wherein the Trump store offered a t-shirt for sale with an eagle perched atop a circle containing a U.S. flag with the words “America First” emblazoned across the top. Switch the stars and stripes with a swastika, historians and political observers noted, and you get another symbol used extensively in Germany under the Third Reich.
The response from some might be to ask whether Trump’s opponents are seeing things that don’t exist. Perhaps they are making chance occurrences into signs of a giant conspiracy. Certainly, the left must have gone crazy if they latch onto such things as hidden number signals to allege Trump is letting neo-Nazis that he’s on their side, right?
The best dog whistles, though, always have some level of plausible deniability built into them. If successful, they induce the uninitiated to think one side is being paranoid, applying false importance to mere coincidences. But of course, Trump’s continued actions put to rest any such notion that these were all just a series of unfortunate coincidences.
In late June, he retweeted a video of a golf cart parade of supporters at a Florida retirement community in which a man screams out, “White Power!” as he zooms past a group of Black Lives Matter protesters. The president thanked these “great people” who were backing him and predicted the fall of the “radical left do-nothing Democrats” in the election. The tweet was later deleted, but an apology was never issued. His staff simply (and unconvincingly) said the president didn’t happen to hear the racist battle cry before posting the video.
The time for giving this president any benefit of the doubt is long past. His signaling to Confederate sympathizers and racists has been proceeding non-stop for a while now. Even the hints of Nazism are not totally new—recall his ad from four years ago showing Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of hundred dollar bills and a big stylized Star of David next to her head—a thinly veiled claim about the Jewish financial elite who, it was implied, were supporting the “most corrupt candidate ever.”
It’s a repeated theme that echoes across Trump’s life, both before he entered politics and since. There was the Central Park Five case back in 1989 when he called for the execution of five young Black men falsely accused of rape. The contrived “birther” controversy around Obama’s birth certificate. Claims that Muslims cheered for 9/11 or that Mexicans are all rapists and murderers. The praising of white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017 as “very fine people.” The condemnation of Black Lives Matter demonstrators as “thugs” and looters, and the revival of the war cries of the segregationist South.
Scrounging for votes
The only truly new thing about these more recent episodes is the apparent extent to which Trump is willing to sink as he appeals for white supremacist support. The president has stooped to plastering explicitly neo-Nazi and white supremacist imagery all over his propaganda materials and campaign swag.
Trump has long embraced the historically nativist “America First” slogan, but in the traditionally über-patriotic United States, that one was somewhat less eyebrow-raising. But the use of symbols and signals that come directly from Hitler’s murderous regime and the white supremacist movement are a step further down the dark path plied by Trump thus far. Stamping Holocaust death markers onto his opponents and slapping Nazi eagles on campaign t-shirts confirm that Trump exists in a place far beyond the pale.
But who’s behind all of this? Surely Trump himself can’t be sufficiently in tune with history and the inside lingo of the far-right fringe to think this all up on his own. There are good reasons to point to top advisor and chief speechwriter Stephen Miller. The New Yorker has called him “the true driving force behind this administration’s racist agenda.”
Leaked emails obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center have exposed Miller’s affinities for white nationalist figures and texts, including those that peddle notions of “white genocide” at the hands of immigrants. When he was working as an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller was regularly feeding Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News with material from white supremacist outlets like VDARE and the journal American Renaissance, which has declared in no uncertain terms that “the races are not identical and equivalent.”
Along with Bannon, Miller was one of those responsible for pushing Trump in the direction of enacting Muslim bans, building a wall on the border, and locking immigrant children in cages.
Miller was also the author of Trump’s fascistic strongman speeches at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and his inauguration in January 2017, in which Trump declared he alone could fix the nation’s problems and that “total allegiance” to his “America First” agenda was required of the people of the United States.
The cabal of extremists that have taken over the federal government under Donald Trump have repeatedly made fascist messaging and symbols a part of their policy agenda and their propaganda aesthetics. Now, as election desperation sets in, they are stepping up their appeals to the neo-Nazi fringe.
With polls predicting a possible collapse of Trump’s re-election prospects, joblessness in the tens of millions, and a health crisis spiraling completely out of control, perhaps the only strategy left open to them is to double down on white resentment and try to squeeze by in enough states to score an electoral college victory (a popular vote win seems totally out of reach by this point).
In order to do that, though, the one-third or so of voters who are unshakeable in their support of the president won’t be enough. The president must galvanize the typically politically isolated and electorally non-participating elements of the most reprehensible fringe. If enough of them can be welded to the Trump GOP base and a sufficient number of votes from Black Americans, other people of color, and youth can be suppressed, the Trump campaign may think it has a chance to hold on to the White House.
If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that eventually Nazis always lose.
C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People’s World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People’s World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.
First published in People’s World. Included in Vox Populi for noncommercial educational purposes only.