Abigail Jones, Newsweek, April 20, 2017
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 Beyoncé 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’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!”
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.”
“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.”
Since last fall, white supremacists have papered more than 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 which occurred since January.