Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Intersect

Zina Bash moved her hand — and the #Resistance saw a white power symbol. Then she did it again.

September 8, 2018 at 1:30 PM

Zina Bash, seated to the right behind Brett Kavanaugh, during the judge’s confirmation hearing Tuesday. (The Washington Post/)

Republican operative Zina Bash rested her hand on her arm, fingers closed into a circle, as she sat behind Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. And #Resistance Twitter, watching the hearings live and seeing her hand, saw a secret, nefarious code.

Bash was making the “okay” sign with her hand, it appeared. Several left-leaning Twitter users with large followings believed that Bash was promoting a symbol that means “white power.” Eugene Gu, a doctor with more than 200,000 Twitter followers who has become a well-known #Resistance Twitter figure, tweeted that Bash was “flashing a white power sign behind him during his Senate confirmation hearing. They literally want to bring white supremacy to the Supreme Court. What a national outrage and a disgrace to the rule of law.”

Gu’s observation got more than 15,000 retweets. The video from another user that was embedded in Gu’s tweet, focusing in on Bash’s hand, approached 4 million views.

Liberal activist and author Amy Siskind, in a now-deleted tweet, wrote that Bash’s hand symbol should “disqualify” Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court.

By the evening, Bash’s name was trending on the service. Siskind continued to sow doubt about Bash’s intent.

Watch more!
On the final day that senators can question Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, Democrats released previously withheld emails and questioned the judge on presidential powers, Roe v. Wade and Manny Miranda's email theft. (Jenny Starrs /The Washington Post)

“Try it for yourself,” Siskind wrote of the hand gesture. “If you watch the video you’ll see she held it in place for a long time. It’s not a natural resting position.”

As the theory went viral, devoid of any proof that it was actually true, Bash’s husband, John Bash, the United States attorney for Western Texas, called the accusations geared toward his wife, a lawyer who has spent years working in Republican politics, “repulsive” in heated tweets.

“Everyone tweeting this vicious conspiracy theory should be ashamed of themselves,” Bash wrote. “We weren’t even familiar with the hateful symbol being attributed to her for the random way she rested her hand during a long hearing.”

Related: [All the speculation that’s fit to tweet: Who wrote that anonymous New York Times op-ed?]

Zina Bash, who worked in the Trump White House as a special assistant on regulatory reform and legal and immigration policy, works as a senior counsel for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R).

“Zina is Mexican on her mother’s side and Jewish on her father’s side. She was born in Mexico,” her husband wrote. “Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. We of course have nothing to do with hate groups, which aim to terrorize and demean other people — never have and never would.”

There is no credible evidence to suggest, against her husband’s denial, that Bash was already aware of the hand sign’s associations with the alt-right, or the troll campaign that made it popular when the original controversy erupted.

On Thursday, however, after a news cycle about her hand’s resting position, Bash was very aware. A video clip from that day of the hearing appeared to show Bash, once again sitting behind Kavanaugh, making a much more deliberate-looking “okay” symbol with her hand.

The moment is visible on CSPAN’s archive of the hearing.

The clip circulated simultaneously on the Trump Internet and among the #Resistance.

For the Trump Internet, the moment was an amazing troll that would no doubt upset liberals once again — and revenge against those circulating the wild speculation about Bash in the first place. Among the #Resistance, it was interpreted as proof that said speculation was right about Bash’s intentions all along.

But Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge.

Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.”

In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign.

Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.

Conservative personalities jumped on #Resistance Twitter’s embrace of the okay hand sign theory, calling the whole controversy the left’s Pizzagate. The gleeful response on the right hints at the okay hand sign’s complicated origins as a viral hate symbol.

The idea that the hand sign is a secret symbol for white power owes its mainstream spread to a viral troll campaign aimed at making liberals and the media look gullible. In February 2017, 4chan’s /pol/ board discussed ongoing tactics to try to get the idea to go viral. “To any who haven’t seen the original thread, our goal is to convince people on twitter that the ‘ok’ hand sign has been co-opted by neo-nazis,” the original poster of the thread wrote.

As BuzzFeed has reported, /pol/ was gleeful when the okay hand sign started to get mainstream traction. As the campaign spread, however, the symbol was simultaneously adopted by the alt-right — an umbrella term for those on the far right who embrace white nationalist views — and the pro-Trump Internet, both of whom seem to primarily use the gesture to “trigger” liberals who believed the hand sign was a decoder ring to detect secret Nazis.

Related: [Pepe the Frog became a hate symbol. Now he’s just a dead hate symbol.]

The gesture is not considered a real hate symbol by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League.

But like Pepe the Frog, its repeated association with and use by white nationalists like Richard Spencer has imbued it with a new meaning in addition to all of its other innocuous ones, making the symbol simultaneously a prank, a harmless gesture of approval and an in-joke among a wide range of right-wing personalities to anger liberals for their own amusement.

One of the reasons the okay hand sign meme might have spread so far is the fact that white nationalism’s access to power in 2018 is not a completely made-up concern. White House officials keep getting connected to white nationalist people and organizations. A speechwriter for President Trump left the White House in August after CNN reported that the staffer attended a conference popular with white nationalists. And Trump adviser Larry Kudlow hosted a prominent publisher of white nationalists in his home, as The Post’s Robert Costa reported.

Mark Pitcavage, a researcher who studies extremism, shared the feelings of many when he dismissed the controversy in a statement on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Out of all the things you should be legitimately concerned about regarding the Senate confirmation hearings in Washington, DC, today for Judge Kavanaugh,” he wrote, “handshakes and handsigns ought not be among them. Actual serious constitutional issues are at stake.”

Bash’s actions became the second sideshow to steal attention from the serious and substantive work of Kavanaugh’s hearing after trending on social media. Earlier on Tuesday, videos and images of Kavanaugh declining to shake the hand of Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed at the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., went viral, and Guttenberg later made the rounds on cable news shows.

Read more:

‘Y’all are seriously some bad researchers’: Conspiracy theorists misidentify Reddit user as Madden shooter

Porn, Nazis and sarcasm: How these 3 old rules basically explain the entire Internet

Pepe the Frog became a hate symbol. Now he’s just a dead hate symbol.


Eli Rosenberg is a reporter on The Washington Post's General Assignment team. He has worked at the New York Times and the New York Daily News.

Abby Ohlheiser covers digital culture for The Washington Post. She was previously a general assignment reporter for The Post, focusing on national breaking news and religion.

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