Chanting; red, white, and blue banners waving; crowds infuriated; a guillotine carried through their midst: A scene reminiscent of eighteenth-century Paris played out in Puerto Rico on a Tuesday night in June, as demonstrators participating in a Black Lives Matter protest carried a massive, authentic-looking guillotine to La Forteleza, the governor’s San Juan mansion. Two days earlier, a guillotine had been hauled onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, lit by the neon lights of Andy Wurm Tire & Wheel.
If you’ve been watching a certain segment of the left in recent years, the rise of guillotine iconography won’t be a surprise. Jacobin, the brocialist magazine, famously sells a poster of one of its early covers featuring a guillotine, formatted Ikea-style: “Assembly Required.” The left-wing site Boing Boing has a page titled “Guillotine Watch” (occasionally there’s news about actual guillotines; mainly, it’s just stories about rich people doing objectionable things, presumably meaning they deserve to be beheaded). When numerous wealthy families were found to have bought their children’s way into colleges across the country in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, Twitter became a minefield of calls for the families to be guillotined. In an article on backlash to celebrity culture published in March, The New York Times noted that “the #guillotine2020 hashtag is jumping.” And almost any search on Twitter for the name of a figure disliked by the socialist left—from Brett Kavanaugh to Beto O’Rourke—plus the word “guillotine” will turn up quite a few results, usually pushed by rose-sporting profiles.
Does the guillotine-happy commentariat really want heads rolling in the streets? Most, likely, do not. Nor are those shouting “Eat the rich”—another, possibly apocryphal, reference to revolutionary France—literally cannibals. Rather, these references are a combination of in-group messaging and out-group shock value, all alluding to a shared radicalism; a shared knowledge of a history of political violence; and a sense of epochal struggle, one that began long before revolutionaries flooded Paris in 1789 and will continue long after the marchers in San Juan and Ferguson are in their graves. For those in the know, it can all be a tongue-in-cheek joke, or it could be serious. For those on the outside, it’s a shock to the system. Naturally, anyone who evinces earnest concern can be met with a doe-eyed response: Lighten up, you take things way too seriously.
Whether our modern-day executioners intend to deploy the guillotine or simply use it as a prop for a session of rhetorical cosplay, it all nevertheless contributes to the renewed culture of violence in American politics. It is always hard to know if violent political imagery leads to violent acts, but the mere use of such violent iconography indicates that there is a newfound cultural acceptance of violence as a morally defensible means to an end. A recent study of “lethal mass partisanship” by political scientists Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason found that 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agree that the United States would be better off if a large number of the opposing party’s supporters “just died.” What happens when you give those not-insubstantial groups of Americans a recognizable sigil for the slaying of their political enemies and treat it as an utterly normal part of the public sphere?
The left, of course, is not alone in reaching into the violence of the past for its rhetoric—nor are leftists necessarily the worst offenders, despite the recent ubiquity of the guillotine meme. The right-wing pundit Erick Erickson infamously argued for the installation of dictators in Latin American countries in 2018, noting he was “hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” a reference to erstwhile Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s “death flights,” a series of extrajudicial killings in which the regime’s political opponents were thrown to their deaths from helicopters and airplanes.* Until late 2019, Amazon sold T-shirts with slogans like “Wanna Take a Ride?”—emblazoned over an image of a body falling from a helicopter—as “Pinochet’s Helicopter Tours” gained vogue as a reference for the right. At the Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, far-right marchers chanted, “You can’t run, you can’t hide, you get helicopter rides.” On June 7, one right-wing commentator tweeted, “If the left gets rid of the Trump we have, normal people will turn to the Pinochet they’ll need,” followed by a helicopter emoji.
Then there’s Confederate imagery, also on the right, and the references to the Crusades, which began innocuously enough among video game fans and history buffs, before quickly morphing into an Islamophobic credo. Both the left and the right seem happy to reference Soviet gulags, with some of the former even defending the institutions as “compassionate” and “rehabilitory.” Prison-camp references have also been a recent feature of anti-press rhetoric, as well. When Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez shared an article describing basketball star Kobe Bryant’s alleged rape of a 19-year-old woman, after Bryant’s death earlier this year, her newspaper briefly suspended her. When it reinstated her, following a massive outcry, people replied to the Post Guild’s Twitter statement with messages saying she should “serve a stint in GITMO.” One called for “making gitmo the hotel California for journos!” While guillotines paraded through streets may be frightening, they are far less terrifying in the near term than the recent police crackdown on the free press. The reporter Scott Nover, who runs the press freedom newsletter “Pressing,” created a list of at least 306 threats to and violations of freedom of the press that have occurred during the protests following George Floyd’s death. As journalists are taken to actual jails for reporting the truth, the association of internment camps like Guantánamo Bay with media hatred becomes more sinister.
Speech, naturally, cannot be violent in itself. Nevertheless, it can contribute to a culture in which violence gets normalized. Political actors, online agitators, and commentators ought to know that their words have consequences; that through them, they help to build a culture where politicized violence becomes more likely and less quickly condemned. Some, of course, are already aware of this. It’s the point.
I don’t know if Erick Erickson would actually throw his political opponents out of a helicopter to their deaths. I prefer to believe he wouldn’t. But some right-wing activists certainly use references to historical violence to signal a very real intent to replicate past atrocities.
One of the more bizarre, roundabout uses of historically informed violent imagery in American politics is the use of aloha shirts and Hawaiian-inspired prints by far-right activists. The trend originates, the Anti-Defamation League has found, with the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. The title became a joke in numerous circles after the movie’s release, with “2: Electric Boogaloo” attached to other titles in reference to possible or actual sequels (one could, for instance, humorously refer to The Empire Strikes Back as Star Wars 2: Empire Boogaloo). That’s how the world got “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo,” an initially sardonic reference to a second civil war that the far-right and white supremacists eventually co-opted into a statement of willingness to participate in such a conflict. Since the film utilized aloha shirts, they became a shorthand: Gun-toting protesters now wear them to indicate to those in the know that they support a second war between the states.
“I know this all seems like a joke and easy to dismiss, but that is part of their strategy to lure in young men and downplay what they are talking about,” Reece Jones, a University of Hawaii professor, wrote on Twitter, in a thread explaining the trend. “It is deadly serious. These men are preparing for a civil war.”
Plausible deniability is a common theme in modern political references to historical violence, particularly those on the right. It’s easy, if someone objects to the message of a Crusader meme or a professed affinity for this or that right-wing death squad, for the poster to say that they don’t agree with the politics of these groups but are merely interested in their history. That less well-informed people, who are casually interested in history and who fail to do their own research and read the work of professional historians, likely sometimes wind up on the same fora and buying the same merchandise as right-wing ideologues and white supremacists doesn’t make the situation any less clear. As The New York Times’ John Ismay reported, that makes the job of content moderators at social media sites like Instagram even harder, as it blurs the line between discriminatory or violent content and legitimate historical discussion. In some instances, it might take a person with specialized knowledge of a historical subfield to be completely sure which is which.
Once, while working on an article about calls to abolish the Senate, I spoke with a left-wing journalist, who said: “Do I look forward to the day the guillotine is set up on Capitol Hill? I must confess I’ve had daydreams along those lines.” What he might not have known was that he could have ended up one of his guillotine’s victims, if history echoed itself. The Reign of Terror may have started with monarchs and aristocrats, but it soon came to engulf the very revolutionaries who began it, from radical journalists like Jacques Hébert to feminists like Olympe de Gouges; from republican politicians like Jacques Pierre Brissot—who sang the revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise on his way to the scaffold—to advocates of insurrectionst violence like Georges Danton.
That’s the thing about history—its violence, its stories, its lessons: It’s always more complicated than a slogan or a symbol can show. The guillotine, of course, was used just as much (if not more) by Nazi Germany as it was by revolutionary France, claiming almost 17,000 lives, including those of liberal student activists Sophie and Hans Scholl and Cristoph Probst. Are magazines like Jacobin, by putting the guillotine on its cover, not honoring the Nazis every bit as much as the original Jacobins? The guillotine is as much a symbol of fascism as it is of left-wing revolution, after all.
And one does not have to look past the bounds of revolutionary France to find atrocities every bit as worthy of condemnation: During and immediately after the War in the Vendée, a backlash against the French Revolution begun by royalists in the country’s west, the revolutionary government carried out a campaign of terror and mass murder against its opponents, including many civilians. Many historians have argued that the campaign constituted a full-fledged genocide. When the revolutionary government’s agents arrived in Nantes, they began to execute any citizens suspected of counterrevolutionary thought (particularly priests and nuns) by casting them into the Loire River, to their deaths. Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the revolutionary agent charged with drowning as many as 4,000 of his countrymen, referred to the river as “the national bathtub”—an intentional reference to the guillotine, dubbed “the national razor.”
That is not to say that anyone who has ever posted a call to the guillotine or shared a Crusader meme is about to embark upon a violent exercise. But as Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence once presciently warned, these violent delights have violent ends. When social taboos about executing political opponents break down, the idea that violence is a legitimate method for effecting domestic political change becomes normalized. What those from any ideological bent who are willing to embrace violent and historically charged imagery share is a willingness to countenance a disregard for human life, or at least contribute to the erosion of that regard. Even when that disregard never leaves the space of rhetoric—where it remains mere words, just jokes—it nonetheless builds up a weight of support behind those who would, in fact, spill blood to achieve their political goals, or who believe, like 20 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans in this country, that their political opponents would do the nation a service by simply dying.
* A previous version of this article referred to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet as part of the Dirty War, which was led by the Argentine military dictatorship.