They stormed the Capitol dressed like mayhem. Amidst the sea of MAGA hats and Trump flags, there were rioters in animal pelts and superhero costumes; they came dressed as Uncle Sam, Abraham Lincoln and Lady Liberty, and in tactical gear; one person wore Superman body armor, replete with muscles, and a plastic mask of President Donald Trump’s head. There was no shortage of face paint. There were pioneers, tons of camouflage and iterations of the Punisher — the Marvel character who has been co-opted as a symbol of the far right.
Amidst the sea of MAGA hats and Trump flags, there were rioters in animal pelts and superhero costumes; they came dressed as Uncle Sam, Abraham Lincoln and Lady Liberty.
Perhaps the most recognizable person of the day was conspiracy theorist Jake Angeli, also known as the “Q Shaman,” who was shirtless to expose numerous tattoos, most notably one of a Valknut, an old Norse runic symbol that has been turned into a hate symbol by white supremacists. Angeli, who has been arrested, also wore red, white and blue face paint and a fur headdress with prominent horns. He carried a spear with an American flag attached near the blade.
To many, the costumes at the “Stop the Steal” riot seem ridiculous. “We spend $750 billion annually on ‘defense’ and the center of American government fell in two hours to the duck dynasty and the guy in the Chewbacca bikini,” read a tweet liked hundreds of thousands of times. But when we actually read the T-shirt slogans and interpret the symbols — especially given the history of groups like the Ku Klux Klan — what the Capitol insurrectionists wore becomes more consequential and a lot more menacing.
When the Ku Klux Klan started in the mid-1860s, Klansmen did not wear the white hoods and robes we imagine them in now. They had no uniform. As historian Elaine Frantz explains in her essay “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan,” the early Klansmen wore something far more similar to the hodgepodge we saw on display at the Capitol last week: animal horns, fur, fake beards, homemade costumes that drew on traditions of carnival or Mardi Gras, masks, pointy hats, polka dots. For Frantz, who also wrote a book about the birth of the KKK, the parallels between the appearance of 19th century Klansmen and the Jan. 6 rioters were impossible to ignore.
“When I looked at this weirdo who was dressed as a Viking, I was like, ‘Does he know what he’s doing?’” Frantz tells NBC THINK about Angeli. “Is he aware of this tradition, or is it a coincidence? Or is it not just a coincidence and he’s not aware, but it’s something which travels through our culture in the background? Maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s doing, but he’s doing exactly what he would have done in the 19th century.”
But whether or not the “Q Shaman” knew exactly whom he was channeling when he put on his horns and fur, putting on the outfit is likely to have influenced his behavior.
Abe Rutchick, a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, explains that dressing in costume can affect how we act. “If we’re dressing in costume, we’re clearly trying to evoke a role or a character. It can influence people’s self-perception and behavior,” he said. For instance, Jake Angeli shirtless, with horns and fur on his head, quickly becomes the Q Shaman, similar to the way Jack Napier in clown makeup can turn into the Joker.
The fact that many of the outfits from the Capitol look comical is, historically, also not a coincidence. “Adopting this carnivalesque posture, they can actually say: ‘We’re not really hurting them. They’re just afraid because they’re fearful,’” Frantz says with respect to how early Klansmen argued away their crimes.
Frantz, who is a professor of history at Kent State University, sees parallels between past absurdism and the comedic element now. “Comic frames are very helpful, because it gave people a way to deny what was really happening,” he says. He cites using Pepe the Frog as an example of how that tactic is still used today. “The comic deniability of populist movements,” she calls it.
Take, for instance, the lunacy of a man waving for the camera as he walks off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern. How could he be doing something wrong — he looks so emboldened and silly? Or the brazenness of wearing your employee ID badge to the revolution. It must be noted that both of these men, like the vast majority of the rioters last week — and the 19th century Klansmen — were white. Race adds another element of deniability.
While not all of the rioters last week wore costumes, and indeed a majority of them did not, nearly all wore symbols or logos or insignias of some kind. There was Robert Keith Packer, who wore a gruesome sweatshirt that read “Camp Auschwitz” on the front and “Staff” on the back. Or Doug Jensen, who has been indicted on six federal charges, who specifically called attention to his QAnon shirt on social media. Members of the Oath Keepers, a militia movement that focuses on recruiting current and former members of the military, were also there wearing body armor and customized baseball caps. Numerous other extremist groups in attendance wore some kind of insignia or symbol declaring their affiliations in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There was, of course, a proliferation of the highly recognizable Confederate flag.
Rutchick explains that the purpose of wearing uniforms, insignias, tattoos or symbols that show allegiance is twofold; they create a sense of in-group camaraderie and a sense of out-group distance. We see (mostly) benign examples of this phenomenon at sporting events. As you get closer and closer to the stadium, you see more and more people wearing your team’s hat, and the more excited you get. Excitement grows as density grows; it’s human nature.
The purpose of wearing uniforms, insignias, tattoos or symbols that show allegiance is twofold; they create a sense of in-group camaraderie and a sense of out-group distance.
A more sinister version occurred in Washington last week. Rioters came together at the rally, gathering strength in numbers and by identifying with one another through their symbols and costumes. “As soon as you see someone in your group and in context, there’s a connection,” Rutchick says.
Members of the far-right Proud Boys — whom Trump famously told to “stand back, and stand by” during his 2020 campaign — were at the Capitol in large numbers, and they were characteristically organized. The group, which usually dresses in yellow and black — often in the form of a Fred Perry polo shirt — told members to dress all in black this time, as if they were part of the anti-fascist movement known as antifa. “We will not be attending D.C. in colors. We will be blending in as one of you. You won’t see us. You’ll even think we are you,” Joe Briggs, an organizer for the group, said in a video on Parler. “We are going to smell like you, move like you, look like you.”
It is easy to ignore or dismiss things that seem confusing or silly or over the top. But our clothing choices, like our tweets, can say a lot about who we are. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted Dec. 19. And perhaps in a choice of phrase that inspired some of the animal fur on display, “Be there, will be wild!”
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