This past weekend saw Donald Trump’s first post-presidential appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando.
Days before Trump took the stage, CPAC was already trending on Twitter. This was partly because of a weird golden statue of Trump wearing what looked like American flag swim trunks, and partly because many people had pointed out that the stage was clearly shaped like an Odal rune, an insignia used by the Nazis and more recently, as the logo of the American Nazi Party.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the stage. As people began to tweet about the stage shape, many news organizations stepped in to cast aspersion on the notion that the stage was built in the shape of a Nazi sign on purpose. Peter Suciu wrote for Forbes, “while [the symbol] was in fact adopted by Nazi Germany, and has been used by various neo-Nazi groups in recent years, it seems dubious to think that the design was intention (sic)”.
Let’s back up even further. A favored tactic of the far right—which has played itself out over and over and over again over the past four years (seriously, how are we even still debating this in the Year of Our Lord 2021)—is trolling. For those who have been living under a rock since 2016, here’s how it works: someone will throw an OK hand sign in a photo. Or update the heading of a Department of Homeland Security web page using wording that echoes a neo-Nazi slogan. People in far right communities know damn well what these signals mean, and will laugh at them amongst themselves. People who make a practice of closely observing Nazis also know damn well what these signals mean, and will point them out on the internet. However, these signals are designed to be *just ambiguous enough* that liberals will trip over themselves to give the people using the symbols the benefit of the doubt.
On the Snopes article about the CPAC stage, the question “Was the CPAC Stage Intentionally Shaped Like a Nazi Symbol?” is rated “unproven.” Of course it’s “unproven.” Do you really think someone is going to come out and say, “oh yes, we made the stage a Nazi shape on purpose”? The plausible deniability is what makes it trolling. That way, when people point it out, they will seem insane to people who pay slightly less attention to white nationalist memes.
In popular parlance, this tactic is known as gaslighting. I have written about this kind of trolling extensively, in the context of groups like Patriot Prayer and the OK sign meme. The bottom line is that the stage was unambiguously in the precise shape of an Odal rune, the Odal rune is used as a symbol by literal Nazis, and that CPAC is a multi-million dollar spectacle in which every detail was painstakingly designed to appear exactly the way organizers wanted it to appear. Obviously, the stage was shaped the way it was shaped on purpose. What’s more, getting people to argue over the significance of the shape of the stage was almost certainly part of the point of the shape of the stage. (We have to get smarter about this, ok? Please?)
Anyway, on Sunday night, Trump gave his first public speech since he was acquitted of his second impeachment. During this speech, he made it clear that his immediate goal is a purge of the GOP. From the Odal rune-shaped stage, he read aloud the names of all the Republicans who voted to impeach him, vowing to do everything in his power to remove them from office. Further afield, he also made multiple statements that suggest that he is planning to run for president again in 2024. “There’s never been a journey so successful,” he declared. “We began it together four years ago and it is far from being over.” Between his plans to establish a new super PAC which would allow him to raise unlimited funds for these endeavors, and aggressive GOP voter suppression efforts, it is not unrealistic to worry that he might be able to deliver on this promise.
And yet there was something decidedly pathetic about watching Trump still in denial over his loss, ranting about “cancel culture” before a half-interested audience. At his previous rallies, Trump’s rhetoric has always been filled with statements made in the future tense. This speech started that way, too. But then at some point, the tone shifted, as he concentrated on bragging about his past deeds, cracking throwback jokes about the “China virus.” He started to remind me a little bit of Uncle Rico from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, the former high school football star who attempts to relive his glory days by constantly filming himself throwing a football.
The potency of Trump’s brand has always relied on him being the most attention-grabbing thing in any given arena. But halfway through his rambling grievances about “radicalism,” “socialism” and “communism,” I got so bored that I stopped paying attention, and judging from the people in the audience at CPAC, I don’t think I’m the only one.
Even the trick where the stage is ~totally NOT a Nazi symbol~ feels like something we’ve seen before.
Trump’s power lies in his ability to arouse strong emotion, not just from those who love him but those who despise him. This is why, instead of fanning the flames, we would be well advised to be mindful of all the ways we are continuing to give him oxygen.