A Gadsen flag flying above the crowd at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 (photo by TapTheForwardAssist, via Wikimedia Commons)

How did a mob of angry Trump supporters come so close to harming members of Congress on January 6, 2021? Capitol police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), two government agencies adept at suppressing dissent, have been conspicuously lenient compared to their interventions in leftist movements. Feigning ignorance to what the US really represents, politicians and mainstream media outlets still fail to connect QAnon with white supremacy and convey the ubiquity of racist hate groups, whose ideology is prevalent even in the federal government. Their slogans and symbols are out in the open, and we need to get better at detecting them.

From Proud Boys and neo-Nazis to anti-government militias, a broad fascist coalition has consolidated around Trump’s claims of election fraud and deep-seated white fragility. Fascism has no clear-cut definition, but it does have concrete symptoms: simultaneous claims of victory and victimhood, diligent beliefs in nativism, and what Umberto Eco called the “cult of tradition.” This last component covers the far-right ideological spectrum, which is why Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags appear alongside Ku Klux Klan (KKK) signs and posters of 4chan memes. Five years of neoliberal class reductionism created an illusion about Trump supporters: that they live in “flyover” states, work in increasingly obsolete industries, and struggle financially. While this rhetoric swayed swing voters in 2016, reports from Capitol Hill showed many insurrectionists were affluent business owners and off-duty police officers associated with these hate groups. 

Multiple Gadsen flags can be seen in the crowd of the pro-Trump mob at the Capitol on January 6. (photo by TapTheForwardAssist, via Wikimedia Commons)

Left-wing organizations have documented far-right dog whistles for years — perhaps most comprehensively by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League’s Hate on Display database. The Proud Boys are known for using anti-Semitic acronyms like 6MWE (Six Million Wasn’t Enough), a reference to the Holocaust, and one insurrectionist’s Camp Auschwitz shirt led to bizarre Twitter speculations that he was a potential Holocaust survivor. 

Cops and troops are frequently investigated for associations with hate symbols, tattoos of Nazi regalia, and the use of “White Power” hand gestures. The military’s ties to the KKK date back to the Confederate army, while the Blue Lives Matter movement has renewed discussions around the police’s origins as slave patrols. This might explain why the issue is frequently swept under the rug or dismissed as innocent misunderstanding. Meanwhile, Odinist symbols like Thor’s Hammer, the Life Rune, and the Valknot — all of which are tattooed on Arizona “QAnon Shaman” Jake Angeli — appear with prominent neo-Confederate, Nazi, and nationalist symbols.

Since the 1960s, American white supremacists have promoted racial purity and overlooked white cultural dominance by co-opting a perceived indigenous identity through an amalgamation of pre-Christian polytheistic religions like heathenry and paganism. Followers of Ásatrú, the neo-pagan religious movement associated with Odinism, lay claim to white indigeneity based on the “Vinland,” a segment of North America explored by Vikings before Christopher Columbus. This paradoxical belief instills a dual sense of victory and victimhood, with hypermasculine Nordics arriving first without receiving any credit. Odinists create faulty comparisons with Indigenous tribes to restrict their religious practices to only those of Northern European descent and, as researcher Shannon Weber writes, to “tap into the idea of Indigenous belonging while conveniently glossing over their status as settlers on stolen land.”

Heathenry isn’t inherently fascistic, but links between neo-paganism and white terror are evident. In 2019, Holden Matthews burned down three Black churches in Louisiana, claiming his goal was to raise his black metal profile. The attack drew comparisons to Ásatrú follower Varg Vikernes, who burned Christian churches for allegedly desecrating Viking graves. Fringe groups like Ásatrú Folk Assembly (which uses a Triskele in its insignia) recently took root in the South and Midwest, and National Guard members were discharged for ties to the assembly’s Ravensblood Kindred subsect. That an invented tradition can influence Third Reich leaders, as well as insurrectionists in fur pelts and horned helmets, speaks to its ideological entrenchment in the highest rungs of power.

Conservative media espouses Trumpian rhetoric and feeds a mythology perpetuated by internet trolls, all while Republican politicians signal to their base in coded language. In the House of Representatives, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has voiced support for QAnon and promoted carrying a gun at work, claiming her constituents were outside the Capitol building during the electoral vote count. Labor journalist Kim Kelly noticed eerie subtext in a tweet by another “QAnon Congresswoman,” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, that bears striking similarity to the “14 Words” slogan (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” vs. Greene’s “I’m here to fight for my children’s future and the next generation’s American Dream”). A commenter noted that the second sentence contained eight words, reflecting the 14/88 variant that repeats the eighth letter of the alphabet (HH, or “Heil Hitler”).

Perceived threats to white identity coincide with expansion of GOP state power, but this long-unified organizing structure is fragmenting into fringe power grabs. This explains the uptick in white supremacist violence and growing divide among Republican Party members. People are finally realizing what antifascists have warned for years: that these symbols are rooted in American culture, an extension of the terror wrought by settler-colonialism. This is why comparing MAGA chuds to ISIS jihadists feels wrong, because it obscures the role of white America in West Asia and feeds into the fallacy that white Americans face similar kinds of discrimination.

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Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

3 replies on “How to Recognize Right-wing Dog Whistles and Symbols, From Viking Hats to Flags”

  1. Excellent article. Should a series or a book. Directing readers to the documentary Feels Good Man would be a true service.

  2. This is important information, and I am glad it was published.
    I think the article should have underscored the appropriation from Neopaganism better, however. Neopaganism covers a very large number of different religions (not just viking religions), and many, if not most, consider themselves liberal, inclusive, and anti-racist. Including HEATHENRY – where the viking symbolism is appropriated from. The Atlantic published a fine article about it in 2017: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/asatru-heathenry-racism/543864/
    And from Wikipedia: “In U.S. Heathen discourse, these viewpoints are described as the folkish and the universalist positions, respectively. These two factions—which Kaplan termed the “racialist” and “nonracialist” camps—often clash, with Kaplan claiming that a “virtual civil war” existed between them within the American Heathen community. The universalist and folkish division has also spread to other countries; in contrast to North America and much of Northern Europe, discussions of race rarely arise among the Icelandic Heathen community as a result of the nation-state’s predominantly ethnically homogeneous composition. A 2015 survey revealed a greater number of Heathens subscribed to universalist ideas than folkish ones.”
    In the U.S., one organized, inclusive Heathen group is The Troth, https://www.thetroth.org/. “The Troth takes great pride in being an organization that welcomes all people without judging them. We believe that, no matter what a person’s religious or cultural background, ancestral background, physical ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation may be, if the Gods and Goddesses called to them, they are welcome.”
    In conclusion, if you see someone wearing a Thor’s Hammer amulet, or have a Vegvísir or rune tattoo, don’t jump to punch them in the face or throw a milkshake at them until you know for sure that they are one of these racist, misappropriating domestic terrorists.
    P.S. if they wear a helmet with horns, they are probably a jerk.

  3. I’m really, really, disappointed by the authors blanket association of Germanic Heathenry with far right abuse. Like… it’s not hard to find anti-racist heathen-people? Many of us try (read: have) to be actively anti-racist because of fuck-ups like the Q-anon creep. Go on the Longship or the Troth’s site if you need written proof. Its not hidden information!

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