IT WAS NOVEMBER LAST year when editor of neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer Andrew Anglin declared New Balance ‘the official shoes of White people.’1 The article was a cheering response to a comment made by Matt LeBretton, vice-president of public affairs at New Balance, who expressed support of Trump’s fervid opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.2 The Boston-based footwear company owns several factories in Massachusetts and Maine and prides itself on keeping its production in the U.S.3 ; a spokesman stated that they feared the agreement would favour its competitors who produce overseas. ‘New Balance is making a gesture to support White people and to support U.S. manufacturing,’ wrote Anglin, concluding that ‘[t]heir brave act has just made them the official brand of the Trump Revolution.’4 An image of actor and director Mel Gibson wearing New Balance trainers accompanied Anglin’s article, thus implicitly linking anti-Semitism – Gibson’s 2006 rant5 has made him somehow popular among American nationalists – to the footwear brand and conflating economic localism with economic nationalism.
A PR chaos quickly ensued. On Twitter, regular users and ‘sneakerheads’ alike shared photos and videos as they burned or tossed in the bin their pair of New Balance.6 Meanwhile, rival brand Reebok cynically seized the opportunity and offered to send replacement shoes to many outraged customers.7 Shortly thereafter, New Balance disassociated itself from far-right ideology with a statement that divorced its concern for local manufacturing from white supremacist agendas. Unfazed, Anglin followed up on his first post by saying that whether or not the company identified as Republican is irrelevant and suggesting that the brand make him an official spokesperson:
If I were in the marketing department of New Balance, I would take it a step further and offer me, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the America’s most-trusted Republican news outlet, a product endorsement deal. I’m in great shape, have ripped abs and would look fantastic on a billboard that reads ‘Official shoes of the Republican Party: New Balance stands with the White race.’8
The social media outrage caused by Anglin’s endorsement of New Balance, on the other hand, was an inadequate response inasmuch as it was mostly directed at the company rather than at Anglin and the political views he represents. Boycott may be appropriate in the case of companies who do business with certain political figures, as in the case of the Grab Your Wallet campaign,9 but it is misguided in the case of brand appropriation, which does not require direct affiliation on the part of the brand. Furthermore, by focusing on the PR scandal not only did most mainstream media outlets give free PR to Anglin and his site – neo-Nazi groups and public figures regularly use grandiose statements, racist hashtags and ‘trolling tactics’ to build their ‘brand’10 – but they also failed to address the dynamics of neo-Nazi’s appropriation of a mainstream footwear brand with a global distribution.
This instance of appropriation is not an isolated case. In a recently defunct blog, an American neo-Nazi sympathiser proposed that far-right groups appropriate Adidas with the aim of turning ‘something that the everyday person wears’ into ‘a symbol of our movement.’11 And it is not just footwear brands that are being appropriated. Cartoonist Matt Furie’s character Pepe the Frog went from ‘inoffensive Internet meme’ to being ‘hijacked by hatemongers’ from the so-called alt-right.12 Food is not safe either: fast food chain Wendy’s was celebrated on The Daily Stormer after Pepe the Frog accidentally made an appearance on the company’s social media account13 and even milk has been appropriated as a symbol of racial superiority.14 These instances show that white supremacists seek recognition by associating themselves with mainstream symbols and material goods. They seek visibility by appearing ordinary and, thus, paradoxically invisible.
As the case of New Balance shows, this desire to hack the mainstream manifests itself in sartorial terms too. If traditionally skinheads donned a specific subcultural uniform consisting of ‘tight trousers, T-shirt imprinted with neo-Nazi slogans and massive Doc Martens boots laced to the knees,’15 Anglin’s posts made it clear that this is no longer the case. While this may be a new phenomenon in the U.S. it is not the case in Europe. As early as 1993 it was observed that ‘German neo-Nazi skinheads are changing their style. They are growing their hair and increasingly swapping jackboots and bomber jackets for “normal clothes,” such as ‘jeans, running shoes and parkas.’16 A 2014 article in Rolling Stone even documented the rise of Nazi hipsters or ‘nipsters,’ who sport tote bags, Converse shoes, skinny jeans and beards, appropriate reggae and dance the Harlem Shake.17
In this sense, the appropriation of New Balance certainly overlaps with attempts by the far-right to look less threatening and appear more palatable to broader audiences, as the case of alt-right demagogue Richard Spencer’s suit-and-tie image attests.18 Like a suit, a uniform of jeans, T-shirt, New Balance trainers and sporty jacket relies on invisibility. The person (usually a white man) who wears it is virtually indistinguishable from a non-far-right guy in a casual everyday garb, just like a nipster may be impossible to distinguish from a regular hipster. Invisibility as a strategy also overlaps with three elements that have been to an extent addressed by the media but not necessarily linked with neo-Nazi ‘style’: whiteness, the discourse around technology and masculinity.
In his famous 1997 study of whiteness in Western cultures Richard Dyer argues that white people have historically represented themselves as ‘the norm.’ In doing so, whiteness and normativity become synonyms. This equation renders whiteness invisible, which means that all the variations of non-whiteness are constructed as visible others.19 The appropriation of mainstream brands, in this sense, uses sartorial invisibility – the fact that white supremacists could visually ‘pass’ as moderates or liberals – to paradoxically build what Spencer calls ‘white identity politics.’20 To this end German Nazi-hipster Patrick Schroeder ‘conducts seminars showing neo-Nazis how they can dress less threateningly and argues that anybody from hip-hop fans to hipsters in skinny jeans should be able to join the scene without changing the way they look.’21 Style is then either thought of exclusively as a tool to assimilate or paradoxically discounted altogether as irrelevant to one’s political beliefs. For white supremacists ditching the skinhead image means leaving behind their status as subculture, which defines itself in opposition to the mainstream, to reaffirm whiteness as the mainstream. In the process whiteness would be rendered invisible and its dominance reiterated because in Western cultures invisibility, as Dyer points out, is indeed the privilege accorded only to those in power.
Invisibility as a mode of operating under the radar and not ‘outing’ oneself also resonates with the so-called Alt-Right’s fixation with technological discourses and imagery. That white supremacists are social media-savvy trolling experts who operate online to expand and reinforce their network is well-documented.22 But technology is also celebrated in Alt-Right aesthetics for its potential ‘to conquer and to reaffirm inegalitarianism,’23 which goes hand in hand with the reaffirmation of white dominance. As merchandise from The Daily Stormer attests, neo-Nazi aesthetic taste includes eighties comics and sci-fi content [which] offer normative gender roles, hyper-masculine futurist heroes, hypersexualised women and a variety of visions of humans transcending their bodily limits via technological innovation.’24 The transhumanism represented in popular films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix is also celebrated.25 That the latter was directed by two transwomen is strategically ignored, but its hacking ethos finds an expression in practises such as ‘Operation Google,’ which is used to bypass the algorithms set up by search engines to identify and block content that is deemed discriminatory. This strategy entails replacing racist epithets with the names of the very same companies that implement anti-discriminatory policies – Google, Skype, Yahoo and Bing are some examples – on forums like 4chan and /pol/ so as to avoid flagging and deletion.26 Operation Google thus hacks the very system it aims to bypass. It renders racism, homophobia, transphobia and white supremacism undetectable, that is invisible to algorithms, on the most used search engines in the world. In this sense, one could see the appropriation of New Balance trainers and the company logo as its sartorial equivalent: Operation New Balance is a way to hack the wardrobes of as many consumers as possible.
Last but not least, the popularity of eighties comics and sci-fi imagery in Alt-Right aesthetics and the choice of appropriating a brand of trainers have one more thing in common: both unabashedly celebrate masculinity. This is not to say that sneaker culture is inherently misogynist, but rather that it offers men the possibility to reclaim adornment and fashionability while retaining associations with a traditionally male-dominated cultural realm like sport.27 In virtue of that sneaker culture becomes a preferential site for the projection of the idea of a dominant, physically strong and ready-for-action masculinity that perfectly embodies the fascist belief in ‘permanent warfare’ as well as its obsession with ‘sexual politics’ and gender symbolism.28 But whereas ‘sneakerheads’ are likely to make bold statements with vibrant or limited edition trainers, sobriety is key to uphold standards of neo-Nazi masculinity. As one of the commenters on Anglin’s post writes, New Balance ‘are gorgeous, nothing extremely colourful and gay as hell, just plain grey.’29 Once again, value is placed on avoiding visibility and distinction.
Invisibility as strategy thus brings together many of the key elements of neo-Nazi ideology and aesthetics. Social media outrage in the guise of brand boycotts and shoe burning will not prevent further attempts from the far-right to hack, infiltrate and colonise our political imaginary as well as our wardrobes. Rather, what we need to make visible and to examine are the invisible processes by which we can potentially become victims, allies and vehicles of such unacceptable ideologies.
Alex Esculapio is a writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK.
S John, ‘Carnaby Street: A mixture of trendy shops and neo-nazis,’ Toronto Star, Aug 5, 1989. ↩
A Tomforde, ‘Neo-Nazis in Germany ditch ‘skinhead and boots’ image,’ The Guardian, Nov 18, 1993. ↩
Richard, Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture, New York and London: Routledge, 1997. ↩
See for instance http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/31/trolls-for-trump ↩
Y Kawamura, Sneakers: Fashion, Gender, and Subculture, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. ↩