In a video full of grotesque words and racist chants, the most horrifying part of the Charlottesville reel posted by documentarian CJ Hunt on GQ was silent. In the footage, a young man wearing a white polo and khaki shorts — like a teen caddy at a country club, or a junior accountant on Casual Friday — has just abruptly taken off his shirt. There is fear in his eyes, but that’s to be expected; he came to champion white supremacy, and he knows that not everyone will be as sympathetic to that belief as his online compatriots.
The truly terrifying part of the video is when his fear dissolves. The young man's eyes dart around the crowed, and he begins to notice that — despite the camera in his face — he has become invisible. The polo shirt gets crumpled into a plastic bag before he disappears behind a crowd of counter protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs. The few seconds where a white supremacist became just a white guy snapped a sort of sickness into me: Though he and his cohorts are advocating for visibility and power, his invisibility — conferred by his whiteness — is actually his greatest superpower.
When I turned the volume of the video on, I learned that the man in the video took off his shirt to prove that he didn’t mean it — he was just playing around. “I’m not really into white power, man," he told the camera. "I just came for the fun.” In response, Hunt taunted him: “You can’t just take your costume off.” But, this young man's clothes — his objectively presentable shirt and shorts — were in fact a costume, deliberately chosen to be the official uniform of the protests. It was as calculated as the white hoods of the KKK's march in Washington D.C. in 1925, but newly terrifying in a way that's unique to the modern hate group.
Andrew Anglin of hate site Daily Stormer published a post that called for Charlottesville protesters to follow a dress code that’ll make them appealing to the mainstream. Anglin asks that people wear fitted short-sleeve T-shirts with specific lengths and degrees of bagginess, and fitted jeans — no shorts. “Serious men in serious situations are not wearing shorts,” he writes. The point of it all was to create a non-threatening visual to recruit: “We need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves. That matters more than our ideas.” Daily Stormer has since been shut down.
This uniform designation marks a separation from past white nationalists whose covered-up costumes preyed on the fear of the anonymous vigilante, while protecting the identities of the perpetrators. Their ilk have never found an established sympathetic audience in America: For proof, just look at the KKK, a group which once obscured their faces with white hoods if they wanted to harm others without consequence.
But everything changed when President Trump signaled throughout his campaign and during his presidency that racists would have a friend in The White House. There is no stronger evidence of Trump’s leniency with racists than the brazenly normal dress code at Charlottesville. Without hoods to confirm that they knew their ideas were as repugnant as most people believe, some among the neo-Nazi crowd were called “very fine people” by the president.
“Some of the younger white nationalists were rolling their eyes at groups like the KKK,” said The New York Times' Kevin Roose on The Daily podcast. “[They’d say,] ‘These boomers with their hoods and their robes are just so cringe-worthy.’ These are not people who do not want to emulate the fringe status of older groups of white nationalists. They want to take this to the mainstream.” Mainstream is Chad Nationalism, a version of white supremacy so familiar that even frat-boys — the Chads of the world — would find it appealing. No wonder the uniform looks like the same sort of pretend-professionalism that fraternities demand of their pledges, while hazing them behind closed doors. These polo shirts are a nefarious doublespeak that says: We are decent but we are capable of disgusting things.
Their e-commerce sites also look disturbingly “normal.” Google and Go Daddy have shut down neo-Nazi websites since last week, but cached versions of the websites show boutiques selling apparel and accessories, with photos stolen from actual brick-and-mortar stores sites, as if to pretend that they were legitimate enough to have storefronts.
“A must have in each wardrobe” reads the caption for a European Brotherhood polo shirt, available for 49 euros. There are also T-shirts and swim trunks, hoodies emblazoned with “Brotherhood” in the kind of school-spirit font you’d see on Abercrombie + Fitch zip-ups. The most popular items are the polo shirts, that boast Nazi iconography on the breast: an Identity Evropa Dragon Eye instead of a crocodile, an Iron Cross instead of a polo jockey.
The irony, of course, is that political history of polo shirts are at odds with Nazis. Worn by rude boys in Jamaica in the ‘60s as an aesthetic expression of class in the face of discontent, the polo was later directly adopted by British working-class youth as a political symbol of anti-nationalist mod culture. Skinheads wore Fred Perry polos, Doc Martens, suspenders, and buzz-cuts; later, this exact style was copied by the same neo-Nazis they fought against.
As the overlaps deepened, only small nuances like the color of your laces (red or white laces = Nazis; black = not Nazis), the exact names of niche punk band T-shirts, and the badges on a flight jacket distinguish the two sides. Today, Fred Perry’s iconic striped lapels are being copied by white nationalist retailers, who have also adopted mainstream men's trends like the undercut. This exchange of Nazi and anti-Nazi iconography has long been an insular fight between two small subcultures, but in 2017 growing popularity of skinhead style makes walking down any busy street a demented game of: Is he a Nazi, or just a white guy?
There’s also a painful parallel between Charlottesville’s white nationalist dress code and the “Sunday Best” of civil rights protestors. Both groups asked for civility, when they expected to be treated inhumanely. Those who marched and picketed in Selma wore nice suits, prim dresses, gloves, and heeled shoes. And some of them were stripped, too, against their will: clothes blasted off by water cannons or ripped off by dogs and police.
But bare-chested people of color cannot disappear. They cannot take off their skin color the way some can take off a polo shirt. In times of violence, targets have tried to retreat by changing their last names or refusing to speak their native languages. Like the young man in the video, it’s a cultivation of invisibility prompted by a fear of extermination. But unlike that young man, men and women of color cannot slide in and out of it. Nevermind that one is scared about retribution for his belief that others should die, and the other is scared because they live. White nationalists’ choice of the polo shirt is a disturbingly smart one: The shirts are a magic trick that allows them to disappear while also making their ideology even more visible.