We should never forget what insurrectionists did at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. With President Trump’s encouragement, overwhelmingly white men and women stormed the building, hunted for elected officials, flew the Confederate flag, erected a gallows and killed a member of the Capitol Police.
We should also not forget what we saw, as they sported such disturbing and bizarre iconography —from KKK tattoos, Holocaust denial tee shirts and QAnon costumes to Pepe the Frog flags to crusader crosses- —that The New York Times published a “decoder.” More pernicious due to its very ordinariness, however, was their display of every type, style and color of “tactical” or paramilitary apparel and gear. In other words, the rioters dressed like many of us do when practicing yoga.
We need to stop wearing the costumes of the far right–now. Millions of Americans of all political stripes and economic strata unthinkingly don the same uniforms in everyday life that far right extremists have worn in violent, anti-democratic actions at state capitals over the past four years — and on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. What should rightly be called “militia-chic” is everywhere–from “camo” baseball caps, women’s underwear, and infant rompers.
For some, like Claire Gibson, who lost several friends in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wearing a used camo jacket is “an act of remembrance” or respect. Nevertheless, she contended in 2019, the vast majority of Americans consider camo merely a “style,” even a new “neutral.” After the events of Jan. 6, it is something far worse—and anything but neutral.
“Militia chic” is but one representation of the “militarization of everything” that we have experienced since the late 1970s. Post-Vietnam commitments to “support the troops” has morphed into the bipartisan embrace of all things actually and figuratively military — not to mention a reluctance to examine in detail the military budget itself. How else to explain that we attend fitness “boot camps” at local gyms? That we don’t question the military flyovers at professional, amateur, high school and Little League sporting events? That Rudy Giuliani’s expression “trial by combat”—taken literally by the mob—was introduced into popular lexicon through a hit HBO series?
If the past four years have shown us anything, it has shown us that militia chic has long been anything but a representation of respect, a mere style or simple metaphor. It is a politics, more and more closely associated with anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, misogyny and other anti-democratic ideas. Historian Kathleen Belew carefully documents the ways in which Vietnam veterans, bitter at the country’s loss to an Asian people, “brought the war home” by reigniting the KKK and other white nationalist groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’s groups say much the same: As one member of the alt-right put it, white men have “one biological duty: to wage war.”
Even if you think your camo boxers represent respect for the military, consider this: members of far right organizations are joining the armed forces at an alarmingly fast clip and finding quarter there. Up to one half of non-white soldiers have witnessed acts of racism and white nationalism. But why should this be a surprise when ten current bases are named for Confederate leadersAnd conflation between white nationalism in the military and the Confederate flag hardly remains within the borders of the slave-holding South. A Confederate flag flew for years above a Veterans Administration Medical Center in Hot Springs, South Dakota, less than one hundred miles from the site of the final massacre of the Native people of the plains near Wounded Knee.
While some domestic terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh and Ashli Babbitt, are themselves military veterans, the vast majority of active duty and retired military personnel are not extremists, not insurrectionists, not terrorists. Instead, they are real-life heroes like Rep. Jason Crow (D-Co), who refused to leave the floor of the House until his fellow members were safe, with his only tactical gear a suit and tie.
In fact, most domestic terrorists are wannabe soldiers like Dylann Roof, who killed 12 worshippers at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, S.C.in 2015, and other white men who may not even qualify for military service, but pretend to have the strength and courage embodied by the soldiers they have seen in video games, the internet and on television. Wrapped in an American flag —or a Trump flag–they call themselves patriots when they are in fact traitors.
Maybe you think your camo clothes look great. If so, you might want to consider whose outfits match yours. I’m throwing mine out.
Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ’72 Professor of History at Connecticut College. She is the author of Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain, Second Edition (2017) and Nuclear Country: The Origins of the Rural New Right (2020)