Trump’s Sinister Appropriation of the Nazi Triangle Camp Badge

Trump’s Sinister Appropriation of the Nazi Triangle Camp Badge

Prisoners’ uniforms with red triangles of political prisoners, museum exhibition, Dachau concentration camp site, Dachau, Bavaria, Germany (image courtesy Adam Jones, PhD, via Wikimedia Commons)

For a short while on June 18, the Trump campaign published a Facebook ad calling for supporters to take a stand against “dangerous MOBS of far-left groups” and to sign a petition declaring Antifa a “terrorist organization.” Accompanying the call to action was a large, inverted red triangle. As those familiar with Nazi imagery and the history of World War II recognize, this same symbol denoted “political prisoners” within the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. While many may know about the use of the yellow Star of David, there were in fact many symbols use to mark various types of political prisoners: Jews, Gypsies, those imprisoned for sexual orientation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many more each had their own symbol assigned within the classification system for the camps.

While this ad had a limited reach, the use of the widely known Nazi symbol forms another link in a dangerous chain of words, imagery, and even numbers appropriated from Nazi Germany and reintroduced into American political culture by the Trump campaign. While Trump’s brand of fascism may be a local language, it seems to speak with a German accent.

Trump campaign Facebook advertisement (screenshot by the author)

As a Holocaust historian, I am conscious not to see a Nazi behind every bush or to make idle comparisons of current political leaders with Hitler. Professional historians should be careful about irresponsibly invoking the past to condemn the present. Yale historian Samuel Moyn recently proclaimed himself “doubtful about the fascism analogy for Trump.” He writes off this kind of comparison as a “political act.” Comparison is, however, an intrinsic part of understanding history. Indeed, just last year, a large number of Holocaust historians signed an open letter to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum condemning the museum’s attempt to reject present analogies to the Holocaust. The real political act is the mobilization of messages and imagery from white supremacist and Nazi catalogues.

And there is now enough evidence to conclude that there is an intentional connection being made between the past and the present. Even in this one moment, there are some disturbing coincidences that go beyond just the one-time use of the triangle camp badge. Even the campaign’s use of significant but coded numbers seems to refer to neo-Nazi symbology.  The ad with the camp symbol was posted 88 times on Facebook under Pence, Trump, and the Trump campaign header. In Nazi circles even today, the number 88 is code for “Heil Hitler” since “h” is the eight letter of the alphabet (HH). The first sentence, the same in each ad, had exactly fourteen words. The “14 Words” is a reference to the “most popular white supremacist slogan in the world” according to the Anti-Defamation League. These two number codes are often put together as 14-88, a shorthand uniting both messages. There’s no documentary evidence as yet that the 14 and 88 here were intentional, but they are certainly highly suggestive and profoundly test the limits of coincidence.

Trump, his supporters, and his fellow travelers traffic in a harmonic mixture of ideology, words, symbols, and imagery that are unmistakably fascist and often direct echoes of the Third Reich. The surge of these media into the common square serve two purposes: They speak openly to the base that is already familiar with white supremacist messages, and they draw on historically effective propaganda tactics for supporters who may not immediately draw connections with the past. It’s time to expose the skeleton of historical hate that provides the framework for much of Trump’s message.

Emil Scheibe, “Hitler at the Front” (1942) oil on canvas, 113.25 x 81 inches; Scheibe depicts a mythical visit to the frontlines with Hitler surrounded by adoring soldiers. Hitler liked this painting so much he bought it (courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History).

Tweet from official White House account, May 2, 2020. Despite never having served, Trump likes to be surrounded by military personnel and equipment to reinforce his imagined strength as commander in chief (screenshot by author).

Visual and textual imagery are shorthand for an ideology. In her insightful essay in the New York Review of Books, Sarah Churchwell makes a compelling argument for an American brand of fascism, the subject of her recent book. She notes that Robert Paxton argued that the Ku Klux Klan can be considered the world’s earliest fascist movement. She goes on to observe the difficulty of defining fascism itself, calling it “the unsplittable fascist atom.” Her point here is that America is fully capable of inventing its own form of fascism without relying on outside help. Recall the eerily prophetic words of James Waterman Wise who warned in 1936 that fascism would come to America “wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.” One need only look at the level of vitriol generated against kneeling during the national anthem to see this fascism in action.

The ideology of the modern conservative movement in the United States today ticks many of the boxes in the fascist checklist. It subscribes to a thinly veiled racist concept of “American” that does not include immigrants (predominantly people of color) in its “America First” slogan, borrowed from an earlier nativist movement. It peddles antisemitic conspiracy theory to willing buyers. It fetishizes an aggressive and abhorrent view of military power, while vengefully turning on military leaders who reject it in favor of homegrown militias of cosplay heroes. Trump’s propagandists demonize their enemies, political and racial, and yearn for a legendary past in which racism and sexism were the law of the land. It includes its own undeniable cult of personality convened around Donald J. Trump who it seeks to paint as a prophetic man of action, cutting the Gordian knot of decadence and corruption to return the United States to an imagined greatness. None of this is more Nazi than American, but I contend that the vehicles used to convey this ideology are also firmly rooted in the 20th century and they are easily recognizable.

Tweet from President Trump, November 27, 2019; the image, which the president had to add himself, depicts his head on the body of movie character Rocky Balboa. Trump provided no context, but this reflects a larger trend of the president portraying himself as a fighter and enjoying the kind of adoration images like this express (screenshot by author).

The ideological connections are certainly not imagined. Trump’s ex-wife claimed that he had more than a passing admiration for the Führer and read a collection of Hitler’s speeches. Moreover, he has right-wing extremists working for him and advising him. His advisors have included Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, after all. Currently, Stephen Miller serves him as a senior policy advisor. Miller was a supporter of alt-right leader Richard Spencer as a college student and his continuing support for white nationalism was revealed last year in a series of leaked emails. It’s not hard to see the more coded messages as Miller’s work, an inside joke by someone too arrogant to imagine anyone could see through them.

The language of the administration maligns opponents with catchy nicknames, demonizes illegal immigrants as criminals, and distills complex issues into simple phrases such as “Make America Great Again;” “Build the wall;” and “Lock her up!” or the more obvious “Blood and Soil” chant from Charlottesville — itself a Nazi version of Manifest Destiny.  Or the “Free Helicopter Rides” trend evoking the “death flights” by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The words of Trump’s right form a repetitive drumbeat, uncomplicated, and pernicious. One need only scroll through a timeline of antisemitic remarks and actions by the administration and its supporters to see the continual barrage of prejudice just on that issue. As Parker Molloy, an editor at Media Matters points out, Trump’s dog whistles are always accompanied by a thin veneer of gaslighting that allows him to disavow the meaning of his words and to paint his critics as imagining things. But the preponderance of the evidence is clear the president and the campaign are mobilizing white supremacy for political ends.

Illustration, “Money is the God of the Jews” from children’s book, The Poisonous Mushroom (1938) (image courtesy the German Propaganda Archive at Calvin University)

As for the red triangle itself, the Trump campaign’s weak response claiming that the red triangle is an Antifa symbol and an emoji –– and not a symbol in the ADL’s database of hate symbols  –– fails to disguise the real origin of the symbol in the early concentration camps of Nazi Germany.  Indeed, Facebook, which is notoriously reticent to intervene in posts, removed the ads, citing the symbol’s origins in 1937, when the Nazis began systematizing and reining in the spontaneous and unregulated “wild camps.” Prisoners in these camps were marked with triangles of different colors based on their “crime.”  “Political” prisoners –– predominantly communists, socialists, and social democrats –– but also liberals and other political non-conformists received an inverted red triangle. It was political prisoners who were the first prisoners in these camps. The Nazi concentration camp was originally designed to intimidate and silence political opposition as Hitler consolidated power. Then as now, the triangle was not a random choice as a symbol. If the prisoner was also Jewish, a yellow triangle would be added creating a yellow Star of David.  These badges categorized what Himmler called the “forces of organized subhumanity.” In short, these symbols signified, organized, and classified the enemies of the state.

In the camps, these badges did more than just identify. They instructed. Even in the oppression of the camp system, they delineated a hierarchy of treatment. Those designated as “homosexuals” and “asocials” received additional torments since they were easily identified.  Jews did too. As Nikolaus Wachsmann writes in his book KL , the “color of the triangle shaped each inmate’s identity, whether they liked it or not,” and more importantly, “had a profound impact on prisoner lives in the camps.” By attaching this symbol to an attack on his political opponents, the Trump campaign is drawing a clear connection to the political violence of the early Nazi state. This is not an isolated message, either. President Trump’s calls for law and order and “dominating the streets” echoes the political violence in the Weimar Republic during the Nazi rise to power as rival political extremists clashed in bloody street fights.

Hubert Lanzinger, “The Standard Bearer” (circa 1935) oil on a wood panel (image courtesy the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The Nazi thread runs throughout Trump’s presidency and even before it began. During the 2016 campaign, he tweeted an image of his opponent, Hilary Clinton, depicting her in front of a pile of money, with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” written on what looks to be a red Star of David.  For many, the message unmistakably suggested a variety of antisemitic tropes from cheating to global financial conspiracy. It should not surprise us then to learn that the image itself was first posted on an alt-right message board.  The star was later edited into a circle, but the image remained. And Trump’s supporters knew what it meant.

A trickle of Nazi imagery became a flood as the 2016 campaign transitioned into a presidential term that made space for the return of Nazi sentiment. The torch-carrying fascists in Charlottesville in 2017, the massive Trump rallies, the president’s obsession with military power, his carefully posed cabinet photos, his unabashed enjoyment for memes featuring him as a hero: All are distinctly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda visuals. The torchlit terror parade held on the UVA campus owes its optical lineage to the Nazis at Nuremberg (as well as to the film Birth of a Nation). Trump adores spectacle and particularly the kind of mass spectacle popularized by the Nazis with aggressive crowds of followers.

Visually, at some level, Donald Trump is modeling himself after a fascist aesthetic. This should not surprise us.

Symbols have a power that can transcend space and time. Trump’s appropriation of Nazi iconography is not just disturbing on a rhetorical level; it also supports and encourages very real violence, from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, to the murder of a police officer in California by an extremist “seeking to ignite a race war. Sarah Churchwell points out: “It matters very little whether Trump is a fascist in his heart if he’s fascist in his actions.” That is to say, it may well be academic whether Trump has any ideology, is a crass opportunist, or knowingly allows his racist subordinates a free hand.  As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country (and the president lines up on the side of white supremacist monuments), more and more right-wing paramilitary groups seem to be hearing a Weimar-era call to arms in Trump’s messaging. One has already shot a protester.  While some may argue that the Nazi imagery surrounding the president doesn’t exist or at least isn’t recognized by most people, the more disturbing conclusion may be that it doesn’t matter — because the extremists are the ones who are reading his signs clearly.