Cracking the Dress Code

The Extreme Gone Mainstream, by Cynthia Miller-IdrissPicture a right-wing extremist and what comes to mind? Do you think of a shaved head, a bomber jacket, tight jeans, and Dr. Martens boots with white laces? In The Extreme Gone Mainstream, Cynthia-Miller Idriss reveals that this image of a burly skinhead is becoming outdated. Instead, a new generation of clothing companies is marketing stylish and contemporary leisurewear laced with coded far-right symbology to youth in Germany and elsewhere. Miller-Idriss’s interviews with apprentice scaffold-builders from Berlin demonstrate that although these young workers could not always articulate the coded meanings of these symbols, they frequently associated the clothing with the far-right thanks to other contextual clues. Part of the intention of this coding is to evade stringent anti-Nazi dress codes in German public institutions while still signaling to other members of right-wing extremist subcultures. But what do these symbols look like? Would you recognize them if you saw them?

Numeric codes can substitute numbers for the corresponding letters of the alphabet, so that 1 stands for A, 2 for B and so on. The use of the combinations 18 (AH, for Adolf Hitler) and 88 (HH, for Heil Hitler) is sufficiently common that these numbers are prohibited on vanity license plates in Germany (p. 59). Other numbers conceal more arcane references—14 often appears as a substitute for the fourteen words in a quotation from American white supremacist David Lane. 168:1 compares the death toll in the Oklahoma City bombing to the execution of the bomber Timothy McVeigh. These codes can be used in combination—a t-shirt bearing the number 1488 does not necessarily commemorate the year of a historic event.

Graphics can similarly convey covert references. Images of palm trees or desert foxes hint at the North African military campaigns of the German Afrika Korps during the Second World War, under the generalship of Erwin Rommel, nicknamed “the Desert Fox.” References to polar expeditions or images of Antartica play on the idea of “the white continent.” Meanwhile images of Vikings or figures from Norse mythology draw on the Nordic heritage often claimed by white supremacists. The same may be true of script in the runic letters of early Scandinavian languages or symbols such as the Celtic cross.

Interestingly, the lexicon of right-wing extremist symbols sometimes stretches to encompass images traditionally associated with the left—the communist revolutionary Che Guevara, for instance, or the Palestinian keffiyeh, long associated with the Palestinian liberation movement – because of their rebellious associations. Mainstream brands can also find themselves co-opted by right-wing extremists, again allowing these extremists to signal to those in the know while passing undetected in daily life. Wearing clothing from Ansgar Aryan may be unambiguous, but what about a preference for New Balance shoes? (The N logo is used to suggest Nazi.) T-shirts from the British sportswear brand Lonsdale are favored because, worn under a half-zipped bomber jacket, the partially obscured logo reads ”NSDA”, lacking only the P from the German acronym of the Nazi party, NSDAP.

With this kind of deliberate ambiguity and game-playing prevalent, it’s easy to see why Miller-Idriss’s respondents struggled to explain the right-wing iconography of the clothing. It’s clear too that the less overt messaging and updated style of the new brands is reaching a market beyond extremist subcultures. Thor Steinar, perhaps the most successful, has high-street outlets in several European cities and can be found on the sites of online retailers including Amazon. Key reading toward understanding the global resurgence of the far right, The Extreme Gone Mainstream draws on numerous interviews with young people and thousands of historical and contemporary images to reveal exactly how the seemingly benign guise of everyday consumption is allowing extremist ideologies to enter mainstream German culture.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss on The Extreme Gone Mainstream

The past decade has witnessed a steady increase in far right politics, social movements, and extremist violence in Europe. Scholars and policymakers have struggled to understand the causes and dynamics that have made the far right so appealing to so many people—in other words, that have made the extreme more mainstream. In this book, Cynthia Miller-Idriss examines how extremist ideologies have entered mainstream German culture through commercialized products and clothing laced with extremist, anti-Semitic, racist, and nationalist coded symbols and references. Required reading for anyone concerned about the global resurgence of the far right, The Extreme Gone Mainstream reveals how style and aesthetic representation serve as one gateway into extremist scenes and subcultures by helping to strengthen racist and nationalist identification and by acting as conduits of resistance to mainstream society. Read on to learn more about how the extreme has gone mainstream.

Why did you write this book?
I stumbled across the new forms of commercialization analyzed in this book while I was sorting through photographers’ databases in search of a cover photo for my first book. I was immediately hooked—fascinated by how much had changed in German far right subculture since I had completed my prior fieldwork five years earlier. The skinhead aesthetic that had dominated the youth scene since the 1980s had all but disappeared, and was replaced with mainstream-style, high-quality commercial brands laced with far right ideology, symbols, and codes. I planned to write an article about it, but the project wouldn’t let me go. I literally found myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the codes, trying to disentangle their meanings and wondering whether youth even understood them. I felt compelled to understand it, and that’s what led to this book.

How does the coding work within the commercial products?
The brands and products encode historical and contemporary far right, nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist references into iconography, textual phrases, colors, script, motifs, and product names within products that are essentially identical to other mainstream youth clothing styles. The code deployment carefully toes the line of legality in Germany, sometimes marketing directly to consumers’ awareness of legal bans of particular symbols and phrases.

How could a t-shirt enable extremist radicalization? That sounds like a stretch.
I get that question all the time. People are sometimes skeptical that clothing could be consequential for recruitment into or radicalization within far right subcultures. But I found that the iconography, symbols, and codes embedded in this clothing does exactly that. The clothes send messages about the ideal nation, set normative expectations for masculine behavior, disparage and dehumanize ethnic and religious minorities, and valorize violence as a means to achieve nationalist goals. They establish legitimacy within and provide access to far right scenes, signal political affiliation (allowing youth to find like-minded others) and act as icebreakers for conversations at school, in clubs, at parties, and in stadiums. They also act as conduits of resistance towards—and carriers of extremist ideas into—mainstream society, as youth wear the clothing in peer groups, around siblings, classmates, or work colleagues and help establish what is ‘cool’ or desired within and across subcultures. So yes: far right clothing and style can be a gateway to extremism.

Why do youth join extremist movements?
There is no single explanation for how youth become radicalized. But what I argue in this book is that extremism is not only driven by political or ideological motives but also by emotional impulses related to belonging to a group and resisting mainstream authorities. Traits and emotions like collective identity, belonging, heroism, loyalty, strength, and trust, resistance, transgression, hatred, anger, rebellion, and violence were clearly evident in the messages sent through the iconography and symbols in clothing and products marketed to far right youth. I argue that youth are initially attracted to extremist scenes for their emotional resonance, rather than for ideological reasons alone. Ideological indoctrination and radicalization come later.

You argue that clothes can create identity. What do you mean?
Most people understand that clothes express identity—we all make choices about what we will wear that say something about our personality, even if it’s simply that we don’t care at all about fashion. But for many young people in particular, clothing, fashion, and style is deeply intertwined with their identities and their exploration of those identities, as they play around with various subcultural scenes: goths, punks, skaters and others are all immediately recognizable by their styles. But there has been less attention to the ways in which consumption and style not only reflects identity but also helps to reinforce or even create it. Consumers can strengthen their eco-identities by “buying” green, for example, or their religious identities by buying halal or kosher food. Extremist style works the same way—I argue that the coded messages, symbols, and ideas being communicated not only reflect but also help to create and strengthen far right identity for these consumers.

Why should scholars read this even if they don’t work on the far right?
This book makes a critical intervention into mainstream sociological thought that should be interesting for a broad range of scholars, because the findings challenge conventional thinking about economic and material objects. While social scientists have long known that material objects hold symbolic power for communities (as Durkheim’s work on totemism showed, for example), economic objects have been locked into a narrower view as a result of the seminal influence of Karl Marx’s understanding of commoditization as exchange. I challenge the prevailing way of thinking by contending that commodities—economic objects—are not only the end results in an unequal production process, but are also cultural objects which carry emotion, convey meaning, and constitute identities. Consumer goods and material culture, I argue, are not only important for our understandings of inequality but also for how they may constitute identity and motivate political (including extremist) action.

You’re an American. Why do you study Germany?
I initially studied German as a way of connecting to my own lost family history—my great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s.  But once I lived in Germany, I became fascinated with how Germans confront the past and with the deep investments Germans make in combating the far right. But despite years of study, residence, and fieldwork in Germany, as an American I will always be an outsider in ways that inevitably impact my observations of cultural, social, and political phenomena. Any explanatory success I have in this book is due in large part to the formal and informal feedback and support I have received over the years from native German and European experts and colleagues. To my great surprise, they never blinked at this strange outsider who wanted to interrogate one of the darkest aspects of German history and contemporary youth subculture. It is my sincere hope that some of the findings in this book will be of some use to German scholars, activists, and educators who work to understand and combat far right violence every day.


Miller-IdrissCynthia Miller-Idriss is associate professor of education and sociology and director of the International Training and Education Program at American University. Her books include Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism, and National Belonging in Contemporary Germany.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

Aeon Magazine logo

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).