“They’ve gone from dressing like beds to dressing like 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.