When the insurrectionists came at the Capitol, they came with symbols.
Some were immediately identifiable by most Americans watching the chaos unfurl on their screens. The Confederate flag, first swung on the country’s battlefields by secessionist states who saw their future in the enslavement of others; the gallows and noose, shorthand for the terrorization of African-Americans under Jim Crow as well as quick and dirty frontier justice.
But there were other symbols, obscure visual handshakes that acted as a wink and a nod among the motley crews of Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacist groups that wreaked havoc and death upon the nation’s capital on January 6. Whether paraded on flagpoles or tattooed on the skin of seditionists, these symbols shared a common call, harkening back to an idealized history with white Christian men at the front and center.
The self-styled “QAnon Shaman”—with his fur robes and horned helmet possibly the most photographed insurrectionist of the day—bore his position on his bare chest. Sloppy tattoos of Yggdrasil, or tree of life, covered his left pectoral. The Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, emerged from his waistband. The valknut, the Viking “knot of the slain,”was inked over his heart. These are ancient Scandinavian symbols revived and twisted by 19th-century European nationalists and 20th-century Nazis, and their appropriation infuriates contemporary pagans and Heathens.
To Matthew Gabriele, chair of the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, far-right use of Viking and Crusader iconography is a form of “double nostalgia.”
“They're jumping over a thousand years of history back to the Middle Ages or so,” he says. “But at the same time, they're also calling on the associations that have built up around those images in the modern era.”
In the riotous crowd that stormed the Capitol—and that was overwhelmingly white and male—the “militant masculinity” of the Vikings has appeal, says Gabriele. “It's very telling these are warrior images, at least in their heads,” he says.
“None of those guys want to go live in a longhouse or anything like that. But they want that kind of imagery.”
Among the flags hoisted at the Capitol by insurrectionists, some were expected: the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag; the defiant “Don’t Tread On Me” exhortation of the Gadsen flag, revived in the 2000s by the Tea Party.
But there were other flags, familiar to most Americans only through textbooks, now appropriated by the seditionists. The Join or Die flag, for instance, featuring a bisected snake first drawn by Benjamin Franklin. A variation of the Betsy Ross flag, where the 13 stars encircle Roman numerals for three, representing the three percent of Americans that anti-government groups believe fought against the British alone in the Revolutionary War. And in a particularly chilling video, an injured policeman lies curled on the pavement next to a discarded Betsy Ross flag.
The use of historical imagery functions both as a dog whistle to fellow white supremacists, and as a convenient out when dealing with people who don’t share their views, says Gabriele. “They're hoping that either other observers will get it and they'll agree. Or if they don't agree and if there's consequences, they can just shrug it off like, ‘Oh, I'm just referencing history‘ or something like that.”
Whether it’s thousand-year-old Viking runes or imagery celebrating the American Revolution and the Confederacy, white supremacists believe the historical weight of this symbolism lends credence and precedent to their cause.
“This isn't something new, [their claim that] they're being true to the actual past and that modern society somehow deviated from the way that we’re supposed to be,” says Gabriele. “In the case of the white supremacists, in case of the far right, it's a white Christian male society that doesn't leave space for women, underrepresented groups, etc. And that's something that they miss.”
Some of the symbols on display at the Capitol insurrection—say, the Kekistan flag representing an imaginary country helmed by a white-supremacist cartoon frog, or the co-opting of the OK sign—understandably felt inscrutable to most Americans. But that doesn’t mean they’re harmless, says Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The important thing to note is that whether or not the casual viewer can understand what it means, they need to know that it means something” Brooks says. “Because otherwise [the rioters] would not have it.”
Most Americans could also be confused by the bizarre appearance of some of the insurrectionists—for example, the QAnon Shaman, so visually remote from the disciplined masses we associate with, say, Hitler’s brownshirts. But this toxic combo of goofiness and fascism is implicitly American and has its roots in the Ku Klux Klan, whose members donned white hoods and robes as “ghosts” to intimidate African-Americans, who were seen as uneducated and superstitious. Klan members also dressed as jokers and even minstrels to mock their victims, says Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.
“It offered, first of all, cover for their political allies to dismiss them as unserious, even though they knew how serious the violence was. And it added insult to injury to their victims,” she says.
“It's sort of ‘We're just goofing around, right?’ Like the Proud Boys saying ‘We're just a drinking club.’ Right.”
Then there are the acronyms, the internet shorthand we’ve all adopted when we type “LOL” in reply to something funny. But these have spilled over from darker corners of the web: Capitol rioters wore patches declaring WWG1WGA, “Where we go one, we go all”: a message of solidarity between followers of QAnon, the conspiracy theory centered around the belief that the world’s elite are Satan worshippers who murder children and drink their blood. In December, a photographer captured a Proud Boy marching through the streets of D.C. bearing a shirt emblazoned with 6MWE: Six Million Wasn’t Enough. The Holocaust, the man’s shirt announces, is unfinished business.
What struck Brooks and Lavin most was the visual convergence of so many varied political symbols—a man in a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, for example, standing next to someone waving an American flag. “What we've seen is like a real crossover between the MAGA right, the Trumpist right, and the more insurgent factions: the Boogaloo Boys, the openly avowed white supremacists, the tendencies on the extreme right that have—to this point—not been particularly mainstream,” says Lavin.
Gabriele says the appropriation of historical imagery by the far right has also prompted a reckoning among those who teach history, particularly the medieval period he specializes in. “I think there’s been a really wonderful push within the academy to actually take account of this and to really think about the implications of our teaching and our research, because these things are being read and are being consumed sometimes in ways that we feel abhorrent. And sometimes, honestly, there are some academics who are aiding and abetting this. We need as an academy to wrestle with this and to deal with it.”
“The one thing is that I don't really have to explain the relevance of teaching a course on the Vikings or the Crusades anymore,” he adds, “because I'll just show a picture of Charlottesville or stuff that's going on right now.”