Last week’s takeover of the U.S. Capitol unleashed all kinds of questions—about the fragility of democracy and the future of the republic, about policing, about accountability, about America’s most violent fringes and how fringe they really are. But also: What’s up with all the animal skins? Why, during one of the scariest periods in recent national history, were hinterlander cosplayers parading through the Senate? Since when are raccoon furs a crucial emblem of the Pizzagate front?
Take Aaron Mostofsky, who arrived at the Capitol wearing what appeared to be a fox-hide hood and a fuzzy gameskin, looking downright Neanderthalian, save for the owlish glasses perched on his nose and the bulletproof vest strapped tight around his torso. Or Jacob Anthony Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, the self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman,” who wore patriotic warpaint, a horned Viking headdress, and detailed body art that evoked white-nationalist motifs. (The valknut, an insignia associated with Viking-style Germanic paganism, rests above his left pectoral muscle, and the thick stack of black bricks on his arm reportedly represents Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the southern border.) January 6’s riot encompassed all style of MAGA agitators: camo-outfitted paramilitary Proud Boy types, Confederate revivalists, 4chan dirtbags dressed in the style of Milo Yiannopoulos, older folks decked out in classic Trump-rally gear. But these seditionist frontiersmen represented a strange new flavor for the movement, further proof that America’s New Right will continue to mutate in unprecedented ways.
Angeli became a prominent figure in QAnon circles over the course of last year. YouTube is full of clips of him being interviewed—always in full Revenant regalia—warning of a supposed new world order that’s pulling the levers of power behind the scenes. If he’s ever been asked to specifically detail why he appears in public shirtless, heavily tattooed, and decked out in pioneer-survivalist gear, I’ve not seen his comprehensive explanation. The most he has said on the topic was in a 2020 interview with The Arizona Republic, in which he proclaimed that he dresses this way to draw attention to himself and convert potential QAnon adherents.
There has to be more to it than that, right? Naturally, the experts I consulted each drew their own conclusions when I asked about the strange blend of influences in Angeli’s and Mostofsky’s gestalt: one part Daniel Boone outdoorsiness, one part Odinist raider, one part dark-web conspiracy theorist. The common thread seemed to be a search for divine mysticism—a higher truth waiting to be found, possibly in the bowels of the internet or the glorious tall tales of the unspoiled colonial frontier. In particular, Therèsa Winge, an associate professor of apparel and textile design at Michigan State University, told me that the look is “most likely intended to visually harken [to] the spirit of the Indigenous warrior,” alongside the animism that correlates to the shaman character in the American pop-cultural imagination.
It’s ironic that a white man would borrow an exoticized image of an aboriginal holy man while storming the Capitol to secure a Trumpian hegemony, but it’s certainly in line with the greater trajectory of the QAnon community. Last year, The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote about how QAnon is quickly metastasizing from a loose collection of misinformation tendrils into an established arm of American spirituality: a movement composed of real actors pushing for real insurrection, rather than a collection of misfits resting within the plausible deniability of the internet. In that sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the crusade’s de facto priests pushed his way to the Capitol floor.
Malcolm Barnard, a lecturer on visual culture at Loughborough University, in England, told me that anthropologists speculate that the fashionability of raw pelts originally derived from an ancient belief that the wearer might inherit some of the traits of the animal—an instinct that has persisted from the Stone Age to modern Fifth Avenue. “In anthropology, this is known as the fetish, and fetish is also the root word for fashion,” Barnard said. It’s significant, then, that one of the most prominent symbols adopted by the far right is the Gadsden flag—the Revolutionary-era banner emblazoned with a hissing rattlesnake and the words DON’T TREAD ON ME—which was nearly ubiquitous on Wednesday. “Again, the use of animal imagery to suggest anti-government values and beliefs,” Barnard said. Perhaps Angeli and Mostofsky were attempting to cut the same figure: virile, in touch with their manhood, everything that those debilitated liberals are not. The so-called real America, finally taking back its supposed authority.
Angeli’s Viking helmet and Germanic tattoos are probably his most memorable accessories, and out of all the disturbing images from the riot, the one of him standing on the Senate dais, horns in the sky, may be one of the images that linger in our consciousness the longest. The far right has a long history of adopting Nordic imagery, taken as many of its members are with the fiction of a marauding all-white ethnostate terrorizing Europe. “It conveys white-nationalist sentiments of the ‘proper’ origins of white people,” says Katalin Medvedev, a fashion scholar at the University of Georgia. “Their perceived entitlement, and false claims to the ownership and leadership of the U.S. nation.” (It should also be noted that this reactionary fantasy is entirely ahistorical. Vikings were a multicultural people, and they never wore those famous spiked helmets. In fact, a modern Germanic pagan group, the Troth, published a statement condemning those like the QAnon Shaman for sparking violence.)
Of course, we have no reason to believe that either Angeli or Mostofsky thought this long or hard about the symbolism here. There is some value in analyzing how ideological posturing is reflected in the way we leave the house each morning. But there is no insurrectionist uniform. This is not a terribly centralized movement. The people who breached the Capitol were likely radicalized by some scattershot amalgamation of harebrained conspiracy theories and extremist rhetoric, egged on by the zeitgeist. If a message was to be found in the inharmonious mishmash of countercultural fashion signifiers they wore while doing it, it was simply We’re not like you sheeple.
“The subconscious is good for a few stories, but it is not a serious analysis of fashion,” Barnard said. “If something were truly subconscious, we’d never know it—that’s the point of the subconscious.”
Violent Trumpism has barnaclized to our democracy, and it’s big enough to have its own subcultures: 1776 cosplayers and 4chan shitposters, a QAnon shaman and people who look like the guy who wrote your auto-insurance policy. Their chaotic consolidation of sartorial decisions reveals only one unambiguous truth: The American far right has become endemic. It no longer has a single face.