The key element here is the molded helmet. Unlike actual helmets of the 12th century, which would almost all have been quite similar to those shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, the helmet on the gun fully encloses the face. It’s a much later type of helmet — and one that importantly speaks not to the real Middle Ages but to an Internet fantasy version. Specifically, it iconographically winks at the popular “Deus vult” rallying cry and “Templar” meme that is hurled at Muslims by white supremacists in the United States and Europe, directed at political leftists in Brazil and even scrawled on the walls of a Planned Parenthood facility last week, allegedly by an extremist who tried to burn the building down.
As such, this decorated weapon plays into a right-wing fascination with the European Middle Ages, one built on fantasy and almost always linked back to the violence of the Crusades and an imagined apocalyptic war between the West and “Islam.” Its iconography, carefully documented in Trump Jr.’s photos, signals a commitment to a vision of a world defined by a clash between Christians and Muslims, thereby emboldening some of the most dangerous tendencies in right-wing America.
As others have pointed out, a strain of apocalyptic Christianity has long underwritten the contemporary Republican Party’s view of presidential power under Trump. Evangelical leaders hailed the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in an apocalyptic mode. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed for the airstrike to kill Qasem Soleimani, has been open about seeing Muslim-Christian relations within a religious framework.
This is what makes Trump Jr.’s Instagram post troubling. The gun itself implicitly signals the administration’s alignment with the heavily-armed fringe. But that would be true of almost any gun he might brandish: The fact that it’s a “crusader” gun, however, further suggests to some on the right that Trump understands ongoing confrontations in the Middle East in the correct terms; for white evangelicals as a prelude to apocalypse, while for white supremacists a chance to avenge the crusaders and “win” this time.
As medieval scholars like us have been saying at least since George W. Bush proclaimed the war in Iraq a “crusade,” medieval holy wars were not some glorious conflict between good white guys and bad nonwhite guys, but were rather armed conflicts between a wide variety of groups that stretched across Europe and into both southwestern and northwestern Asia. Medieval people did develop sophisticated ideas about when it was acceptable to kill in God’s name, ideas that sometimes led to terrible violence, but the Crusades were never a coherent thing for the vast majority of the time they were supposedly playing out.
Instead, they came to be codified only as an institution at the very end of the Middle Ages, then given force by colonialist European historians during the 19th century — all long after Latin Christian Europeans ruled in Jerusalem from 1099-1189. In other words, they were used to artificially give precedent to modern European expansion, letting the colonial powers argue, for example, that the French and English belonged in the Middle East in the early 20th century because kings Philip Augustus and Richard the Lion-Hearted had been there before. In sum, the myths about crusading — which, like all myths, survive and spread because they are stories that are useful in contemporary moments — have allowed people not only to justify violence against those who do not share their specific religious identities, but also cast other kinds of conflict into the framework of holy war.
That’s precisely what this gun does. The “Crusader” gun plays on a mythological past to suggest the company’s products are essential to the culture wars of today and tomorrow. The stakes of that culture war are clear: Along with the guns, they also sell a shirt advocating waterboarding, a poster depicting Crusader-wielding gunmen holding off antifa protesters, one implying their weapons should be used against “libturds,” and still another shirt with an image of a medieval crusader holding the crusader rifle under the banner of Psalm 144:1, a verse that was also often etched on the blade of medieval swords and that the Christian invaders cited as inspiration when they took Jerusalem in 1099. The makers write that they chose this Psalm to “hoist the flag of our faith. … The war is here. We have a duty to defend our homeland and our way of life.” The metaphorical targets of the Crusader gun are clear from the context; they are the enemies in this apocalyptic conflict, enemies both foreign and domestic. Indeed, that’s reinforced by Trump Jr.’s magazine depicting Hillary Clinton behind bars, making clear the links in the conservative imagination between liberals and infidels.
During the 2014 electoral campaign, a former Navy SEAL named Ryan Zinke was running for Congress in Montana when he referred to Clinton as the “Antichrist.” Zinke won a competitive primary and then the race, and won again in 2017. Then Trump Jr. recommended Zinke to the president, who named him interior secretary. This could all be coincidence, but it speaks to the fluency with which modern conservatives can cast political struggles as apocalyptic. And apocalyptic struggles are zero-sum, the ends justifying all means, the enemy worthy of nothing but earthly fury and fire from the sky. In the words of another shirt from the retailer of Trump Jr.’s gun: “If God be for me, it matters not who is against me.”