“They’ve gone from dressing like beds to billboards,” New York illustrator and comics artist Mirko Ilić said, a hint of glee in his voice.
It’s an old joke of his about how you differentiate the racists of old from the racists of today, he told me. Your grandfather’s Klu Klux Klansmen might have enrobed themselves in bleached sheets to resemble ghosts and terrify Black Americans, but the discerning modern white supremacist prefers to sport T-shirts that scream out messages in shockingly bad taste, both visually and ideologically. “It’s disgusting, really,” he said.
Ilić, an expert on far-right iconography, watched last week’s march on the Capitol erupt into a full-scale assault with a mix of horror and chilling familiarity. There was no need for the rioters to parade around flags or banners, though plenty of that happened, too.
The insurrectionists served up their motivations on their chests like semaphores fluttering in the sea breeze, from the sweatshirt that read “Camp Auschwitz” above a skull and the words “Work Brings Freedom” (its alleged wearer, Robert Keith Packer, has been reportedly arrested), to the trio of matching sweatshirts emblazoned with “MAGA Civil War” in a typeface reminiscent of the Captain America sequel of the same name. (A photo of someone in a T-shirt with the phrase 6MWE, which stands—repugnantly—for “six million weren’t enough,” in reference to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, also went viral at the same time, but it was actually taken at a different event last year. There are now officially too many hate rallies to keep track of.)
The fact that there was “coup merch” shouldn’t come as a surprise. Humans have evolved to have strong tribal natures and we like to flaunt our allegiances. For right-wingers, pulling on a crewneck with an obvious racist message is a way of “flashing your colors,” Ilić said, similar to the way gang members signal their affiliation or sports fans telegraph which side they’re rooting for. People, after all, tend to see the clothes they wear as an extension of themselves.
“People want to express themselves and communicate who they are to others. The same is true for political T-shirts; they express how people feel and show solidarity with others in their tribe.”
— Jonah Berger
“Why do people cut their hair in a mohawk or spend $50,000 on a handbag? To signal identity,” said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior. “People want to express themselves and communicate who they are to others. The same is true for political T-shirts; they express how people feel and show solidarity with others in their tribe.”
Not to mention protests love a good uniform. It inspires camaraderie, creates a sense of belonging, and visually boosts the numbers in your group so you appear more menacing, Ilić said. Embedding symbols into that outfit—from the overt, like the swastika or the Confederate flag, to the less well-known, such as the Celtic cross or the so-called “dragon’s eye”—helps convey layers of emotional meaning with a single glance.
If the symbolism is more coded—say “88” for “Heil Hitler,” 14 for “the 14 words,” or Fred Perry’s yell0w-laureled polo shirt, as co-opted by the Proud Boys—it takes on an insider-y, If You Know You Know/secret handshake vibe, which is especially appealing to a demographic that thrives on conspiracies and alternate realities.
Adolf Hitler, in particular, understood the power of symbols. “Hitler was a big branding guy,” Ilić said. “He even sketched the swastika and gave it to somebody else to draw. He wanted a logo that everybody would recognize immediately.” (Like the Boogaloo Boys, who imbued the Hawaiian shirt with new, abhorrent meaning, so too did Hitler appropriate the swastika, which was originally an ancient symbol of peace.)
Whatever the design, it’s now easier than ever to order a custom T-shirt (or mug, or cellphone case, or BBQ apron) from one of a legion of print-on-demand websites.
Indeed, investigations by amateur internet detectives found that companies with names like Teechip, Teehands, and Teespring were lousy with racist offerings, including variations of the “Camp Auschwitz” design. Teespring received the brunt of the internet’s ire last week for hawking “Camp Auschwitz,” “MAGA Civil War,” and “6MWE” merchandise, which it later took down, because it had previously rejected “Antifa International” shirts due to what it described as a “recent increase of violent Antifa content.”
Redbubble removed a “6MWE” tee after being called out for selling “horrific Nazi merch,” and Etsy banned a shop, then issued a mea culpa, after the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum tweeted the DIY marketplace about a “Camp Auschwitz” tee it spotted on its website. Amazon removed at least one “Camp Auschwitz” shirt from its inventory after it was put on notice on Twitter, and I flagged another one sold by a third-party vendor called “Work Brings Freedom.”
Before it was purged, the design I spotted was available in men’s and women’s fits for $19.99 with free shipping through Prime. It had a single one-star review, from a user named Zeus, who “hated it because it celebrates the Holocaust.”
The commercialization of right-wing ideology is far from a novel concept, wrote Cynthia Miller-Idriss in The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany. For-profit companies have been cranking out souvenir-style products such as busts of Hitler or light bulbs with swastikas imprinted on the glass since the early 1930s, even though such touristic “kitsch” was viewed with a gimlet eye by Nazi Party leaders who felt they cast the National Socialist ideology in a cheap, irreverent light.
The trend gathered new traction with the rise of the right-wing rock music scene in the United States in the 1980s, which spread to Europe and dovetailed with the neo-Nazi skinhead aesthetic characterized by shaved heads, black combat boots with white laces, and bomber jackets.
“Right-wing youth gathered, socialized, and radicalized at global right-wing concert tours and music festivals, while music CDs were sold in mail-order catalogs, from product sheets, out of the backs of cars at concerts, on folding tables, and eventually, on centralized clearinghouse websites,” Miller-Idriss wrote.
With these came low-budget, screen-printed T-shirts, pins, patches, and stickers featuring coded references to far-right ideology. The product quality would “develop in earnest” a few decades later, she said, even resulting in mainstream-style labels that are “virtually indistinguishable” from brands like Abercrombie & Fitch or Marc O’Polo, except they’re steeped in symbols that allude to or directly reference racist and white supremacist dogma. By proferring their bodies as “performative screens,” they can “literally embody extremism,” she added.
Despite the diverse forms these symbols, phrases, or even hand gestures can take, there is a kind of “fascist vocabulary” that unites them.
Many of these images—from the misappropriated Viking symbols that evoke a mythologized era of Nordic racial purity to the violent, militaristic imagery—stem from a combination of victimhood and hypermasculinity, said Carolyn Gallagher, a political geographer and senior associate dean with the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. “The far right tries to get people to join by saying you’re a victim of Jews or global elites or cosmopolitans or whatever it is, but [oh look], they’re [also] giving you a pathway to be strong and defeat those who are victimizing you.”
It’s why the people storming the Capitol were armed with molotov cocktails and zip ties, and why right-wingers are almost always obsessed with guns and threats of violence. “It’s almost like a display of dominance,” she added.
Shutting down hate merch is like trying to slay the hydra: chop one head off and more emerge in its place. Much of this has to do with the nature of marketplaces that are driven by their users.
“A lot of monitoring and assessment has to go on to weed some of those things out. And of course, as fast as you weed something out, something pops up somewhere else.”
— Neil Saunders
“There isn’t much curation; it really is an open platform on which [anyone] can sell,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData, a data analytics and consulting company. “So, a lot of monitoring and assessment has to go on to weed some of those things out. And of course, as fast as you weed something out, something pops up somewhere else.” Because sellers post their goods under aliases, it’s difficult to ferret out who is responsible for a design in the first place. (And even then, the use of swastikas and other symbols of hate is protected in the United States under the First Amendment.)
The burden of responsibility then falls to the website, which may or may not have the resources—or scruples for that matter—to screen out anything that falls foul of their terms and conditions or human decency. Or failing that, the online payment processors and web hosts that underpin those platforms and allow them to function, though such companies d0n’t always know who employs their services.
The response from the marketplaces caught in the “Camp Auschwitz” imbroglio have run the gamut.
Teechip didn’t respond to a request for comment, though the “Camp Auschwitz” and “MAGA Civil War” shirts no longer appear on its site. Teehands, which sold a “6MWE” tee, appears to have gone offline entirely.
Amazon gave a terse statement about how all sellers must follow its selling guidelines or be subject to the potential removal of their account, and though it is also stripping items from controversial groups such as the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and Qanon post-incursion, it did not provide details about the criteria it uses to evaluate product suitability or the lack thereof.
Teespring, which removed a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt after being ID’d on Twitter, was more fulsome in its apologies, noting that it “categorically [does] not allow or condone any content which promotes racist, anti-Semitic or hate speech messaging, including the Neo-Nazi designs currently circulating online.” It also made a donation to the Auschwitz‑Birkenau Memorial and State Museum to “continue the important education and to show our unwavering support.”
Similarly, an Etsy spokesperson said the company’s longstanding policies “prohibit items that promote hate or violence” and it’s “vigilantly monitoring” its marketplace for any listings that may have been inspired by the recent unrest.
The most detailed reply came from Redbubble, which said it has a dedicated team that wields a combination of human review and tech to cull content that does not meet its community guidelines and user agreement.
“Dealing with controversial content is a complex issue and the Redbubble team strives to find a balance between self-expression and our goal of being a respectful and inclusive environment.”
— Redbubble spokesperson
It complements this with onsite reporting functions that allow community members or anyone else browsing Redbubble to alert it of items that breach these guidelines. “Redbubble’s controversial content policies and processes are always evolving,” a spokesperson said. “Dealing with controversial content is a complex issue and the Redbubble team strives to find a balance between self-expression and our goal of being a respectful and inclusive environment.”
In light of “current events,” the website is also reviewing designs related to election fraud and squashing those that promote violence.
While none of the companies I spoke with offered specifics about how they’ll tighten their moderation nets beyond a general sense of heightened vigilance, Saunders thinks the events at the Capitol have created an inflection point with how non-fringe retailers deal with products that might have skirted the edge of offensiveness but could have been justified or excused in the name of free expression.
Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Walmart have long banned the sale of Confederate flag merchandise but it was only after the violent mob attack that ecommerce platform Shopify pulled the plug on both of Trump’s campaign merchandise stores, citing its policy against sellers promoting violence. Other corporations are putting political donations on pause until they figure out this new landscape.
“I think that something changed last week in the commercial psyche,” Saunders said. “And I think this year is going to be much more treading on eggshells, so to speak, because of the heightened sensitivity around the very undemocratic actions we’ve seen.”
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