The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Far-right figures are newly embracing a scary symbol: The gallows

It’s trolling — but it’s not just that

A makeshift gallows with a noose at the Jan. 6, 2021, protest in D.C. over the presidential election results. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The recent America First Political Action Conference, organized by a prominent white nationalist, had all the trappings of a far-right American rally: red MAGA hats, appeals to Christianity, even an appearance by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Less noticed was a violent motif that has become disturbingly common in right-wing circles: the gallows. In separate speeches, two different speakers called for the hanging of their opponents. These remarks weren’t subtle, and they weren’t presented as metaphorical. And they were met with rapturous applause and cheers.

“I’ve said we need to build more gallows,” Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers (R) said in a prerecorded message delivered at the convention. “If we try some of these high-level criminals, convict them, and use a newly built set of gallows, it will make an example for these traitors who’ve betrayed our country.” Shortly afterward came Stew Peters, a bounty hunter turned radio host, who said of White House chief medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci, “Why is this man still running around free, instead of hanging by the end of a noose somewhere?” The assembled crowd cheered in response, chanting “Hang him up.”

It’s not just AFPAC. The imagery of the hangman’s noose, dangling from the type of wooden scaffolding you’d have seen erected in a town square in the Old West, comes up so commonly in right-wing commentary and gatherings these days that the rest of us can only be assumed to be willfully ignoring it. We want to see this rhetoric as fringe or metaphorical. We dismiss it as trolling — and yes, it is an attempt at ginning up outrage that can be used to accuse opponents of opposing free speech. But it also is not just trolling. It’s an intensifying call for violence from which we look away at our peril.

Jan. 6 crossed a line. We need to say so before it’s too late for democracy.

Examples of this type of imagery in recent history are abundant. Who could forget the gallows erected outside the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, or the chants of “Hang Mike Pence” as the mob broke into Congress? Recall the riots at the Michigan Capitol in 2020; among swastikas, Confederate flags and other far-right motifs waved by armed groups seeking an end to coronavirus restrictions was a man carrying a doll resembling Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) hanging from a noose. (Whitmer was also the subject of a foiled plot to kidnap and execute her for treason.) In 2019, two Republicans running for Congress suggested that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) could be hanged.

An obvious reason this imagery was long avoided in the political arena is its racial association. Who but the most fringe figures would want to make a political point by evoking the history of lynching African Americans? There have only been three executions by hanging in the United States since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But the resurgence of this imagery in recent times can be explained by two connected political developments: the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of QAnon, an Internet-based movement that has been embraced by some conservative Christians.

Trump’s open misogyny, racism, xenophobia and ableism broke many long-standing taboos. He is also the animating figure behind QAnon, which believes a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs a worldwide “deep state.” The movement sees Trump as a savior, and has continued to flourish despite Trump’s reelection defeat in 2020, as some of its ideas have penetrated evangelical Christian circles; the most hardcore believers think there will be an apocalypse that ends in the mass arrest, and then mass hanging, of all of the “deep state” and their allies, bringing in a near-millennial kingdom-esque era of peace and prosperity.

QAnon resembles the games I design. But for believers, there is no winning.

Christians have sometimes used gallows imagery to evoke the crucifixion. In the Heliand, the ninth-century Old Saxon epic retelling of the Gospel, the crucifixion is described like this: “At midday a great sign was wondrously shown over the whole world when they lifted God’s Son up unto the gallows, up onto the cross — it became known everywhere: the sun went dark, its brilliant, beautiful light was unable to shine. It was wrapped in shadow, dark and gloomy, and in a deep sinister fog.”

Some with ties to Christian conservative and Republican groups have openly called for mass hangings. Joe Oltmann of FEC United in Colorado, who is influential in Republican circles, proposed on his podcast the hanging of 19 Republicans who voted with Democrats to pass a stopgap spending measure last year to keep the government open. “I want people to go out there and get some wood. The gallows are getting wider and longer. We should be able to build gallows all the way from Washington, D.C., to California,” he said, among other more graphic remarks. In response to The Washington Post, Oltmann said: “No one called for opposition being sent to the gallows. It was for traitors to our nation, and in reference to the law of our country.” He again demonstrated his fondness for this imagery Feb. 12, when he posted a meme depicting Hillary Clinton being led up to the gallows, labeling it “The Halftime show America really wants.”

QAnon watchers have noticed similarities between the movement’s ideology and “The Day of the Rope,” a mass hanging of “race traitors” described in the white supremacist novel “The Turner Diaries.” The book served as an inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. But the idea of mass hangings as a tool for creating and maintaining power by white Christian nationalists goes back even further, to the Ku Klux Klan, who based their justifications for hatred on a particular brand of Protestantism that resonated with some Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

History reveals the danger of Republicans indulging Marjorie Taylor Greene

Greene, the congresswoman who spoke at the AFPAC convention, defended her presence there by claiming not to know the organizers’ views. “It was to talk about getting everyone together to save our country,” she told CBS News. We treated it as a joke in 2018 and 2019, when Greene was spreading the QAnon rhetoric of executing political opponents. But consider this: AFPAC’s convention took place in Orlando as an alternative gathering to CPAC, a more mainstream gathering of conservatives featuring Trump, who is likely to run for president again in 2024. Greene flitted back and forth between the two events. The line between Christian nationalism, “hang him up,” and a presidential nomination is only as wide as the drive from one convention to another — and that should scare us all.