On Twitter, Ben Jackson noted that the 2021 CPAC stage design matched the odal rune used by the Nazis and adopted by American white supremacists as a replacement for the Swastika in 2016. Matt Schlapp, the CPAC organizer, responded by saying, “Stage design conspiracies are outrageous and slanderous. We have a long standing commitment to the Jewish community. Cancel culture extremists must address antisemitism within their own ranks. CPAC proudly stands with our Jewish allies, including those speaking from this stage.”
Ironically, Schlapp’s response takes the form of three stock replies used by racists when they are accused of being racist. The first is to express outrage at such claims and assert they are not merely false but slanderous. The second is essentially the “I cannot be a Nazi because I have Jewish friends” response and the third is “the left are the real Nazis.” His response does not prove he knowingly designed the stage to be an odal nor does it show that he is a racist, but it certainly does not help his case to use the stock racist responses to charges of racism. What is somewhat new, but now becoming stock, is the reference to cancelation: this is a lazy ad hominem attack that any criticism is a wrongful attempt to suppress free expression. While the question of whether Schlapp intentionally used the odal design is important, my interest is with the broader matter of symbols and plausible deniability.
As white supremacists themselves realize, the swastika is a bad brand symbol for their cause. Thanks to history and popular culture the swastika is a well-known symbol of evil and displaying it openly can turn off even many racists and white supremacists (there are, after all, degrees of racism and white supremacy). To rebrand, American Nazis switched from the swastika to the odal rune in 2016. This is analogous to the change of language used in the Southern Strategy as revealed by Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, Nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites and subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But, I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, uh that we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or another you follow me cause obviously saying we want to cut this, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger, nigger, you know? So, any way you look at it race is coming in on the back burner — Lee Atwater (1981)
The change to the odal is also like the rebranding of the KKK by David Duke; he changed from wearing the infamous hoods and robes to wearing suits and using the strategy mentioned by Atwater. While Duke’s rebranding was not entirely successful, he has remained a somewhat influential figure in American politics. And if the claim about the odal is true, the rebranding of the Nazis has manifested at CPAC.
The rebranding and use of code phrases have multiple motivations. One, the most obvious, is that it allows an unpopular ideological view to continue to exist under the new brand and using code phrases. This is analogous to the rebranding and recoding that occurs broadly when a brand becomes unpopular. To those who know the symbols and the code, the message is clear. To those who do not, it all seems normal.
A second motivation is that rebranding and coding allows plausible deniability while still sending a clear statement to those in the know. If CPAC had a swastika as their stage or if the speakers had said “nigger”, then it would have been all but impossible to deny charges of racism and white supremacy. But if the odal symbol was intentionally used, then they can deny they intended to use the symbol—it is just a coincidence that the stage matches the symbol. When someone tries to make the case that the stage is an odal, they are likely to sound like a conspiracy theorist or crazy to someone unfamiliar with the history of the odal and white supremacy. Without clear evidence of intent, such as an email or recorded conversation, the fact that the odal is not as recognized as the swastika allows them to plausibly deny that they intended to use the Nazi symbol. Roughly put, people do not feel that CPAC is doing Nazi stuff. It could simply be a coincidence that the stage exactly matches the odal rune and that American white supremacists used that to replace the swastika in 2016.
While no smoking gun has emerged about the stage, a reasonable case can be made that it is an odal rune and was used intentionally. As noted above, white supremacists made the switch from the swastika to the odal in 2016. The connection between the current version of the Republican party (Trumpism) and white supremacy is clear. The most recent example, is of course, the attack on the capitol on January 6. As would be expected, the claims about these connections are denied as well. While this is (possibly) an exaggeration, it would seem that Trump and other top allies would need to get swastika tattoos and openly start speaking of the final solution before the denials would stop—and even then Fox News would probably defend them.
A third motivation is that the coding and rebranding can draw in more moderate people who can provide cover and serve as innocent defenders of the coded phrases and symbols. As such, plausible deniability enhances the plausible deniability by luring in people who, in fact, believe the “public meaning” of the coded language and symbols—they have honest deniability that can be exploited by those who know the meaning of the coded languages and symbols. For example, a person who is honestly concerned about urban crime (for them, crime in urban area) could provide cover for those who mean “black crime” when they talk about “urban crime.” Extremists can also co-opt terms and symbols and give them coded meanings. For example, defenders of the Thin Blue Line symbol claim that they are just expressing positive support for the police but this symbol has also been used by racists to express racist views about policing. The racist use benefits, of course, from the plausible deniability provided by the non-racists who use the symbol.
A fourth motivation of the rebranding and coding is that they can be used to lure people onto the path of radicalization. As noted above, there are degrees of racism and white supremacy. For example, a person could accept a “moderate” form of racism in which they are fine with a degree of discrimination based on race but oppose the excesses of racism such as violence and murder. Such a “moderate” racist would not find the extremes of white supremacy and Nazi ideology appealing, at least initially. But such a person could be lured in by coded phrases that openly express views they agree with while concealing a true meaning that they would not (yet) accept. For example, a person who worries that black people are engaged in voter fraud while also believing in democracy would not be on board with voter suppression. But they could be easily lured onto that path using the “voter fraud” coded language. This coding and rebranding also allows people to rationalize their involvement and radicalization. For example, a person can try to convince themselves that they are not a racist, they are just concerned that black people are committing voter fraud.
It might be wondered whether the CPAC stage really is an odal rune. In the practical sense, this is the question of whether the designer intentionally used the rune as their design. As this is being written, no document or recording has been found which proves intent. There has been no admission or testimony from a credible witness. While the stage has a rather unusual shape and does not match past CPAC stages, as Snopes says, the claim that it was intended to be the odal rune is unproven at this moment. As such, either it was not intended to be an odal rune or it is working exactly as intended.