U.S.

The Plot to Paper College Campuses with Racist Posters

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04/28/17
COVER STORY
Provocative poster art isn’t just for hippies and Occupy Wall Street folks anymore. The alt-right is finally getting into graphics in hopes of persuading the world to see things its way. Illustration by James Montgomery Flagg

You’ve seen her—the woman in the red-and-white polka-dot bandana and rumpled blue shirt, flexing her bicep and clenching her fist beneath the slogan “We Can Do It!” Maybe it was Beyonc é posing in that 2014 Instagram photo or Marge Simpson on the cover of Utne Reader in 2011. Or Pink in the music video for “Raise Your Glass,” her 2010 pop anthem. The origins of the “We Can Do It!” poster, however, go back to World War II, when it sold patriotism to American women taking up historically male factory jobs to support the war effort. Since then, the poster has become one of the most iconic feminist images in the world.

“Rosie the Riveter,” as she’s also known (a nod to a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell of a burly redhead on her lunch break, a rivet gun in her lap and a crumpled copy of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, wedged under her feet), has graced Hillary Clinton campaign T-shirts, Sarah Palin posters and postage stamps. In early February, two weeks after 3 million to 4 million people joined Women’s March events around the country, The New Yorker put a young, black “Rosie” on the cover, wearing a pink pussy hat instead of a bandana. Rosie has her own national park, a celebrity following and so many mugs, magnets and other doodads that a 2000 Washington Post article named her the “most overexposed” souvenir in the Washington, D.C., market.

Rosie’s latest incarnation: alt-right poster girl. In late January, America’s greatest feminist icon was seen pumping her arm alongside a new rallying cry: “Don’t apologize for being white!” The image was part of a “white-consciousness campaign” launched by alt-right impresario Jared Taylor on the eve of Black History Month. His mission was to inundate college and university campuses with pro-white propaganda. “The election of Donald Trump is a sign of rising white consciousness,” Taylor wrote on American Renaissance, his online magazine dedicated to white supremacy, adding later, “Now is the time to press our advantage in every way possible.”

Along with a 13-step video tutorial on how to hang racist propaganda without getting caught ( advice included wearing a hoodie and posting between midnight and 4 a.m. ), Taylor linked to 15 downloadable posters that co-opt some of the most powerful images of the 20th century, including James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You!” poster from World War I, only here Uncle Sam has a new message: “I want you to love who you are. Don’t apologize for being white.” And there’s Thomas Jefferson in front of a tattered American flag, with the slogan “Men of the West, don’t give in to hate…. Embrace white identity today!”

Taylor’s posters drip with nostalgia for a whitewashed 1940s America and speak to those who believe they are losing control of “their country.” One poster looks like a Collier’s or Saturday Evening Post cover, with a butler in a tux offering an attractive, diamond-clad woman a cup of tea as she coyly glances at her audience. Tagline: “Women. They will try to shame you for being white. Don’t let them.” Another resembles a retro World War II poster, with two floating heads on a green background and a bubble that reads, “Free your mind from hate” and “Don’t be manipulated by professors! White guilt only hurts you!”

04_28_Propaganda_01 The original Rosie the Riveter sold patriotism to American women taking up historically male factory jobs to support the war effort. Now, the iconic feminist image is part of a "white-consciousness campaign" launched by alt-right impresario Jared Taylor. American Renaissance

For much of the 20th century, racists have waged their wars in the shadows, spewing pro-white agendas quietly, often anonymously. But when Trump promised to “make America great again,” which some heard as “make America white again,” the sheets came off. Taylor’s scheme—co-opting iconic liberal posters to convince bright, young minds that white Americans are under attack—feels more like a PR stunt than a legitimate attempt at recruitment. But as Ryan Lenz, senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center ’s Intelligence Project, points out, “ For Taylor to tap into cultural touchstones that have been unifying moments of American culture, and use them to divide groups of people, it’s quite a strategic move on his part.”

Taylor may be depending on an analog form of communication—the poster—but he’s doing so at a time when memes have come to define movements and anything can go viral. So that pro-white poster tacked onto a bulletin board at some college may get ripped down immediately, but a photo of the poster can spread online instantaneously, worming its way into our Facebook and Twitter feeds, our news sources and our social media universes, proving that Taylor’s approach may not be so dated after all.

Scrolling through Taylor’s pro-white posters, graphic design authority Steven Heller ticks off their inspiration as if he’s reciting the names of his children. There’s Alexander Rodchenko’s famous pro-literacy ad from the Russian Revolution, and Dmitry Moor’s iconic Soviet propaganda poster, and another that combines Barbara Kruger’s typography with Stefan Sagmeister’s face painting. “This is a sophisticated way of propagandizing. The alt-right has not done this up until now,” says Heller, who co-chairs the MFA Design program at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts and spent 33 years as an art director at The New York Times. “I’ve collected white supremacist stuff for a long time, and it’s always pretty ugly. You know what you’re getting into: white Aryan resistance, white supremacist magazines…. But they’re limited to the audience they’re aiming at,” he says. “[Taylor’s posters] can mobilize people. They’re ironic enough where people can think, OK, I’m not gonna apologize for who I am…. That’s scary shit.”

The Only Way Out Is Within

“I’m certainly not a racist,” Taylor tells me over the phone from Oakton, Virginia, where he runs the nonprofit New Century Foundation, a pro-white group that he dresses up as a high-brow think tank—not to be confused with the New America think tank and the Century Foundation, which are both politically progressive. “I want my tribe, my people, to survive and flourish, whereas if the U.S. follows its current path, whites”—he pronounces it whhhhhhhites, as if he’s breathing life into the word—“will become an ever-diminishing minority, and chances are, a despised minority.”

His voice is a soft monotone, almost elegant. He is a trilingual (English, Japanese, French), Yale-educated white supremacist (he prefers “racial realist”) who believes that race is directly related to intelligence and that whites are superior to blacks. The New Century Foundation uses pseudoscience to promote the philosophy that whites ought to be the majority race. The organization has an annual budget of around $200,000, according to Taylor, and his American Renaissance website gets 400,000 unique visitors a month. He also hosts an annual conference that attracts everyone from white supremacists to former Klansmen and the suit-and-tie racist set. Asked why he launched his poster campaign, he replies, “We just got inspired…. The timing is good, given all of the controversy around the Trump presidency.”

Taylor’s pro-white posters may be derivative, but experts agree that the person who designed them did some homework. (Taylor would not reveal the designer’s name but referred to him as “a talented young person.” Asked to relay an interview request, he reported back that the designer had declined to speak to Newsweek.) “This is not a piece of junk,” Heller says, referring to a poster that reads, “We founded this nation,” set over a large silhouette of Uncle Sam in profile. “This is well-designed, seriously thought-out iconography…you wouldn’t mind putting up on your wall.”

04_28_Propaganda_03 Taylor’s mission to inundate college campuses with pro-white propaganda includes a 13-step video tutorial on how to hang posters without getting caught or beaten up (wear a hoodie; post after midnight). Pete Marovich/Getty

“That’s a very nice graphic, right out of an avant-garde design,” says poster collector Merrill Berman, referring to a poster with a large white maze over an orange background, with a small figure running toward the words “The only way out is within.”

“This one knows typographic hierarchy,” says Elizabeth Resnick, a professor of graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who curates sociopolitical poster exhibitions . She’s referring to Taylor’s “Men of the West” poster, which has three blocks of text in different sizes. “What to see first, second and third, except that third line is kind of stupid—this is where they show you they’re stupid, because it’s centered.”

But aesthetics only get you so far. A successful propaganda poster fires you up, whether you agree with its message or not. Legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, who created the I ❤ NY logo and an iconic Bob Dylan psychedelic poster and co-founded New York magazine, calls Taylor’s posters “ineffective,” “sloppy” and “anti-design.” Gesturing toward the Collier’s look-alike with the young woman and tuxedoed butler, he says, “I can’t imagine anybody being persuaded one way or another by this.”

Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann Auction Galleries and the longtime poster specialist and appraiser for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, also thinks the posters are ineffective. “They will not sway social discourse. They’ll go up on campus, maybe infuriate people and spark a discussion. But it won’t be about the posters themselves; it will be about posting them.”

That’s what happened on January 31, the night before alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. It was close to 8 p.m., and “Andrew,” 23, and “Daniel,” 26, were walking around campus with a binder full of Taylor’s posters, sticking them on trees, buildings and bulletin boards. (Both spoke on the condition of anonymity.) They’d been hanging posters for 90 minutes when, they say, a white guy in his 20s walked up to them and asked for a flyer. They were suspicious but handed him one. Then, according to Daniel, the guy asked for a copy of each poster, promising to “put [them] up around campus.”

“No,” Daniel replied. “We prefer to do that, if you don’t mind.”

Daniel says that’s when the guy got “noticeably aggressive. He started walking toward us at a very brisk pace, with a very stern look on his face, and started demanding that we give him everything.”

When Andrew told the guy to back off, he charged toward him, saying, “What the fuck are you gonna do about it?” and grabbed the binder containing the posters. When Daniel snatched it back, the guy punched him in the face.

04_28_Propaganda_02 Taylor’s scheme is to co-opt iconic liberal posters to convince bright, young minds that white America is under attack. American Renaissance

He and Andrew say a second man in his 20s then jumped in and also smacked Daniel in the face. The four young men traded punches for nearly a minute—Andrew was slammed onto the ground, hard, his attacker falling on his left knee. When Daniel’s glasses flew off his face, one of the guys stomped on them. Daniel remembers one of his assailants shouting, “Go back to the internet. If you ever do something like this again, the same sort of thing will happen.”

By the time the two guys fled, Daniel had four or five small cuts on his face, and Andrew could barely walk because of his busted knee, so Daniel helped him hobble over to a campus phone, where they called Berkeley police. (The incident is listed as “attempted robbery,” and the crime report says both suspects wore plaid shirts and had beards.)

“This is a violent way to censor someone’s political speech that we all have a right to,” Andrew says. “They told us to never do this again, but in no way do I plan on stopping. Once I’m healed up, I’ll be out there again.”

‘Somebody Else’s Babies’

When Trump became the 45th president of the United States in January and started making good on his campaign promises, like introducing a controversial immigration ban, rolling back bathroom protections for transgender students and attacking the “liberal media,” white nationalists celebrated. “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” shouted alt-right leader Richard Spencer in front of a room full of supporters at the annual conference of the National Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., last November. They replied with cheers and Nazi salutes.

04_28_Propaganda_04 White supremacists have long moved in the shadows, but many of them heard Trump’s call to make America great again as a code for “make America white again,” and are stepping into the mainstream. Johnny Milano/Reuters

The day before, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke had praised Trump, saying, “He’s appointed men who are going to start this process of taking our country back, and I tell you, for the first time in years, our side is empowered, our side is enthusiastic, our side is excited, our side is hopeful, but more than hopeful, we are becoming confident.”

In mid-March, U.S. Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, tweeted his support for Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician who wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands and end Muslim immigration. King said, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Although he got hammered, he stood by his tweet. “I meant exactly what I said,” he told CNN. “I'd like to see an America that is just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”

Trump has never formally embraced white nationalism, which the Anti-Defamation League calls “a euphemism for white supremacy,” yet his “America first” policy has emboldened leaders like Taylor to take their messages to the masses. “Before Trump got elected, there was a sense that whites were losing their place in society,” says Marilyn Mayo, a research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen white supremacists feel so optimistic and emboldened as they do right now, in terms of being able to reach the mainstream.”

Since last fall, white supremacists have papered more th an 90 college campuses in 32 states with flyers, according to the ADL. Between September 2016 and April 6, the organization had tracked 126 incidents of white supremacist flyer campaigns, 86 of w hich occurred since January. “This is unprecedented,” Mayo says. Up until now, the internet has been the alt-right’s playpen—that’s how Pepe the Frog morphed from a beloved cartoon meme into an unofficial symbol of white supremacy.

Two groups are behind most of the poster campaigns: Identity Evropa, which launched “Project Siege” to attract recruits on college campuses and favors posters of Greek and Roman statues, and Vanguard America, which produces monochrome, text-heavy flyers for its “Northern Propaganda Campaign.” Last March, a self-professed “white nationalist hacktivist” named Andrew Auernheimer, also known as “Weev,” used a line of code to send anti-Semitic, racist flyers to 20,000 publicly accessible printers around the U.S. The one-page flyers, which suddenly appeared in printer paper trays at Princeton, Brown University and Smith College, among other schools, mentioned “the struggle for global white supremacy” and bore two swastikas.

04_28_Propaganda_10 Collectors of poster art say that even the best alt-right stuff is derivative, replicating iconic imagery. They say the movement is still waiting for the infusion of artistic genius that fuels the most compelling graphics. American Renaissance

“Images of Klanspeople burning crosses and committing lynchings—those were the advertisements of white supremacy historically in the U.S.,” says Stuart Ewen, a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and at Hunter College, CUNY, and an expert on media, consumer culture and propaganda. “ White supremacy doesn’t have a particularly rich aesthetic history that can be drawn upon today.”

Perhaps that’s why Taylor’s posters co-opt Rosie, Thomas Jefferson and 1940s Americana, all of which have been recycled with furious frequency for left-leaning causes. “It’s kind of brilliant to re-appropriate your enemy,” says Lenz. “These posters are part of a larger global movement to push traditionalism and white nationalism further into the mainstream.”

‘Join, or Die’

Taylor may be trying to attract new supporters with his flyers, but historically, political posters did something much more nuanced: Through art and design, they validated and strengthened people’s feelings, uniting them around common causes. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin designed and published the first political cartoon in American history, depicting the early American Colonies as a snake chopped up into eight pieces. New England was the head, South Carolina the tail, and along the bottom read the phrase “Join, or Die.” The image, published in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, underscored the importance of the Colonies uniting against the French and their Indian allies.

During World War I, the Committee on Public Information hired artists and illustrators to create propaganda posters to mobilize support for the war. It was a pre-TV, pre-radio and pre-internet world, which meant designers had to create images so powerful they would convince Americans to enlist and turn the national conscience against the enemy. “Good propaganda is heart-stoppingly fantastic, even if you disagree with the message,” says Lowry.

H.R. Hopps’s “Destroy This Mad Brute” portrayed Germans as animals, with a barbaric gorilla storming American shores as he clutched a half-naked woman in one hand and a bloody club in the other. Fred Spear’s haunting poster “Enlist” depicted a mother caressing her baby as they sank, dead, into the depths of the ocean. The poster followed the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, which killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans, and was so successful that “people rioted in the streets and men lined up to enlist on that image alone,” says Lowry.

During the Vietnam War, printmaker Lorraine Schneider scrawled the phrase “ War is unhealthy for children and other living things” around a simple drawing of a sunflower, creating a timeless anti-war icon.

04_28_Propaganda_06 The market for political posters exploded in the ’60s, taking on everything from the Vietnam War to women’s rights to the use of recreational drugs. UNIVERSITY OF COLUMBIA, BERKELEY

Over the next decades, propaganda posters continued to combine emotional pleas with sociopolitical agendas, from AIDS epidemic posters that tackled fear and misinformation about the disease to the anti–Iraq War poster that replaced the dancing silhouettes in Apple’s iPod ads with a torture image from Abu Ghraib. Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” portrait of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, which New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl called “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You,’” has become an enduring image of possibility. It also spawned a crop of parodies featuring various politicians paired with the words Nope, Dope and Grope.

In the wake of Trump’s election, the left—like the alt-right—has leveraged the power of poster-making and poster dissemination on social media. At those women’s marches in January, propaganda posters got personal. More than 1 million people protested Trump’s presidency and what they saw as his racist, sexist and anti-immigrant policies. Rather than carrying mass-produced posters designed by famous artists, as protesters had done decades before, most people hoisted up DIYers that looked more like fifth-grade art projects than branded content. “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit,” read a sign held by an older woman. “If you build a wall, my generation will knock it down!” said a poster board held by a young boy. “This is what a feminist looks like,” read the posters hanging from the necks of two older men. A toddler sat on her father’s shoulders, holding a sign that said, “I count.”

Photographs of those signs and posters, put together on kitchen tables and living room floors in Washington, London, Paris and other cities around the world, flooded Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for days. This outpouring of political soul-baring not only boosted arts and crafts sales the week leading up to the marches (poster board sales increased 33 percent over last year in the U.S., and foam board signs were up 42 percent), but it also launched countless listicles of the best, funniest, nastiest and most badass signs. “This clever but pointed visual shorthand is easy to share and spreads fast,” says David Hajdu, an arts and culture critic and professor at the Columbia Journalism School. “It’s the lingua franca of 2017.”

The alt-right, however, speaks another language. Taylor’s posters are masterful in their appropriation, piggybacking on powerful impressions made by proven iconography, and yet they show that, so far, white nationalists understand creativity and innovation as well as toddlers grasp aeronautical science. “Taylor’s posters don’t even make whiteness funny or something anyone would want to be!” Ewen says. It took a left-leaning historian from New York City, who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a 1960s civil rights group, to jokingly suggest what an effective pro-white slogan might say: “Kiss my white ass.”

As Ewen says, “That would be funny.”

04_28_Propaganda_05 Wars are often some of the most fruitful topics for poster art, pro and con; the U.S. government hired artists to stir up support on the home front during World War I and enflame anti-German sentiments. H. R. Hopps/Swann Auction Galleries

A Net Full of Voodoo Dolls

Craig Brumfield was freezing his tail off, sitting at a table near the entrance of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, wearing khaki pants and a thick hunting jacket. It was January 2016, primary season, and Trump was in Biloxi for what was billed as the largest political event in Mississippi history. Brumfield, an artist from nearby Ocean Springs who makes pottery and paints ornate nature and marine scenes, had decided on a whim to create a pro-Trump poster. That’s why he was sitting there in the blowing cold, with a box of 150 posters for sale—not the lifeless signs scattered around lawns and crowds, with Trump’s name etched in rigid white-and-blue lettering, but enormous, vibrant works of art that look more like lowrider murals or rock concert posters.

In one, a cartoon Trump screams from the center of the poster, as if he’s in mid-rant, his mouth wide open and one fist clenched. In his other hand, he holds a fishing rod that has hooked the coliseum as if it’s a largemouth bass. A gigantic blue crab sits on his head, topped with a red trucker hat and two eagles. Up top, boxy, bright red letters read, “Donald Trump,” and at the bottom, there’s a bright-green 3-D drawing of the state of Mississippi. Scattered throughout are American flags and birds.

Brumfield sold 90 posters at the Biloxi rally. He designed six more for Trump rallies last winter, and now political poster expert Hal Wert and other poster freaks are tracking them down for their collections. For Trump’s rally in Madison, Mississippi, Brumfield drew Hillary Clinton in black-and-white prison garb, her face wrinkled and skeletal as Trump dangles her upside down by her toes and brands her behind with an iron shaped like the state of Mississippi. In the New Orleans poster, Trump plays a shiny golden trumpet on a fast-moving speedboat while clutching a fishing net full of voodoo dolls that resemble Clinton, Obama and other political figures, all about to be eaten by an alligator.

04_28_Propaganda_09 Brumfield made a series of posters that tapped into the passion and fury of Trump’s campaign rallies, mocking foes and their foibles. Craig Brumfield

“I’ve not seen anything on the right like that ever before,” says Wert, a professor of history at the Kansas City Art Institute and author of Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints. “Thomas Nast is alive and well!” Brumfield’s posters play up everything the left dislikes about Trump: his brashness, his reality-TV showmanship, his utter disdain for Clinton and all other foes. And that’s what makes them extremely effective pro-Trump propaganda. According to Brumfield, Trump fans—as well as campaign staffers and Trump himself—ate them up. (The president signed one of his Biloxi posters.) “I could have sold a heck of a lot more if I’d put them on my Facebook and website, but everyone has their own politics. I don’t want people to get the wrong message and be hating on my artwork.” (Brumfield adds that he voted for Trump.)

His posters are as raw and brazen as Trump and do exactly what propaganda should do: hit you in the gut. Yet some experts are skeptical about their impact. Heller likens Brumfield’s posters to “nasty comic book art by an untutored yet heartfelt high-schooler.” Resnick says that if they are the future of political art, “we are all doomed to complete mediocrity!”

But Brumfield isn’t particularly concerned about creating capital A art. He set out to capture Trump, the man, in a language his fans could understand—another kind of lingua franca. “Seems to me the left didn't have much to offer in the art spectrum concerning politics this year,” he says. “This was a perfect time in American history to visually capture the momentum and power of the campaign with originality, not ripping old images off and putting new messages in them to fit the order,” he says, referring to Taylor’s pro-white posters. “I looked through those and rolled my eyes. Not that people should not be proud of their heritage or culture, but I frown on extreme measures to push anyone’s color…. Colors only matter to me when I am doing artwork.”

Taylor and his alt-right buddies agree—so long as the color is white. Unlike Brumfield’s posters, which captured the raucous rebellion of the voters who put Trump in the White House, Taylor’s work focuses on a marginalized belief in white supremacy. The success of his pro-white posters is not that they are artful, nor is it their ability to recruit new blood (at least not yet). It’s that they exist at all. “I do hope the alt-right doesn’t figure it out,” Lowry says. “An image is worth a thousand words, and if they do figure out how to do PR, it won’t bode well for the rest of us.”