Erin Schaff / The New York Times

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, left, debates President Donald Trump in Nashville on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Biden criticized Trump, saying the president "pokes his finger in the eye of all of our friends, all of our allies." (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

November 3, 2020

What Trump’s Use of Nazi Imagery Indicate About His Campaign

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Trump’s visuals have been the centerpiece of some of the most controversial moments of his re-election campaign. The Trump campaign has managed their visual production in a way much different from anything we have seen before, often including many overtly racist and sometimes fascist undertones.

Impactful visuals are a huge part of any successful election campaign. The more ideas and visuals that stick with people, the more likely they are to pay attention to the campaign’s message. The images and motifs used in political signs, merchandise and advertisements are typically shaped by current events and what people will most likely gravitate toward.

Re-election campaigns in particular tend to harp on the images produced during the most evocative moments of the presidency. Bush used images from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in his 2004 re-election campaign. Likewise, Obama ran ads that centered around his successful killing of Osama Bin Laden. Both of these ads brought controversy, which ultimately brought more attention to the campaign. 

Unlike typical re-election campaigns, Trump is working from a position where the most striking images from his presidency come from moments of protest and national outcry against him, forcing him to take more unconventional routes in finding evocative images. 

The general strategy with campaign imagery is usually to cast as wide a net as possible in order to appeal to as many voters as possible. While some pieces may be more provocative and elicit stronger emotions to hit a certain niche, the goal is to never alienate potential voters. However, with this election, things appear to have been flipped. 

A quick visit to Trump’s campaign website, and you’ll find “__ for Trump” shirts and signs that follow every race, gender, religion and occupation: lawyers for Trump, Irish Catholics for Trump, Women for Trump. This hyper-fixation on the “diversity” of the Trump campaign is born out of a belief from 2016 that the only people who supported him were white men. The response was to create merchandise that would illustrate the different minority groups that still support Trump, and thus dispel the belief that every marginalized person would automatically vote for a Democrat. These products have been prevalent throughout the presidency and has expanded to include more and more specific groups, highlighting the way that the Trump campaign’s imagery is shaped by what best serves their support base.

However, this does not account for the number of Trump ads and propaganda that seem to strike an autocratic tone. Side-by-side comparisons of Trump’s ad of him flying home from Walter Reed Hospital with Hitler’s arrival at the Nazi Party Congress show eerie parallels in the way these video advertisements were shot, framed and edited to look nearly identical. Likewise, merchandise that had the American eagle holding a circular American flag looks much like the eagle holding a  swastika that was often featured in Nazi statues and propaganda. More recently, Trump used an image of an upside-down red triangle in a post on Facebook, reminding many of the Nazi markings that would be found on political prisoners’ uniforms.

The campaign, naturally, claims these parallels are unintentional. However, these missteps occur far too often and blatantly for them to be innocent. The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 represented the point of no return. At this rally, the world was re-exposed to Neo-Nazi and white supremacist imagery on a scale unlike any we had seen in recent times. The band-aid was ripped off, and we were all forced to look at hate symbols being reintroduced into the mainstream. 

It is a vicious cycle, as more attacks using these images occur, more people will post about it in order to retaliate and expose a problem, which then leads to more people seeing the images and becoming either desensitized or empowered to use it in their own attacks, continuing the cycle. 

Fast forward to 2020, and Trump is comfortable with accepting these hate groups as part of his supporter base that he needs to appeal to — think of his refusal to denounce the Proud Boys during a recent presidential debate, instead choosing to tell them to “stand back and stand by.” The number of hate groups across the country has reached a record high during Trump’s presidency, and that is no coincidence. He tells white supremacists to “stand down and stand by,” and has employed imagery reminiscent of fascism and ultranationalism. These images are very evocative, stirring up emotions in everyone, supporter or otherwise. To those who support him, they elicit excitement and appeal to the “America first” patriotic mentality.

The flip side is that it heavily reminds those who are marginalized that they are unwelcome. Choosing to use these images sends a strong message. Not necessarily as much to who they are appealing to, but to who they don’t mind losing support from. Rather than trying to be non-confrontational, they purposefully make these associations that will empower the bigoted to make attacks against those who have faced persecution in the past. 

The use of imagery as a weapon is nothing new, but the lack of caution and willingness of the Trump campaign to be perceived this way demonstrates a lack of care for those who may be vulnerable to the images and tells them that their basic needs to be protected from hate would never be accomplished by his presidency. 

Christina Ochoa is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at co234@cornell.edu.