Former President Donald Trump is scheduled to speak today at the Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly known as CPAC, to close out a four-day medley of leading GOP keynote speakers. Earlier in the weekend, prominent Republican figures including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and John Hawley spoke from the stage in hopes of appealing to Trump’s base live from an Orlando Hyatt hotel and streamed on Fox News.
When Trump takes the same stage for the final keynote, he is expected to continue the big lie about a mythical stolen election. And when he does so, Trump will be standing on an apparent forty-foot Nazi symbol.
That’s because the unique stage design closely resembles the Othala rune — a symbol of the far-right movement, and is a near-exact replica of its cousin, the Odal rune. To most, this may not be obvious. The most recognizable symbol adopted by Nazis in Germany is, of course, the swastika. But that’s not the only one the German military used.
In their quest to “reconstruct a mythic Aryan past,” according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Nazis adopted imagery from a runic alphabet system with origins dating to pre-Roman Europe. The Othala rune, they say in a page devoted to neo-Nazi and hate symbols, was used in the divisional insignia of two Waffen SS divisions during World War II. Since then, the ADL has noted its adoption by white supremacist groups across Europe and North America on group logos, flags, banners, and tattoos.
The ADL does caution that as “runes are still commonly used in a variety of non-racist forms, their appearance should always be carefully analyzed in context.” As such, care must be applied when investigating its apparent use in a highly televised event. But it begs the question as to whether the design was intended or was an event planning faux pas.
The similarities between the CPAC stage to the Odal rune appropriated by Nazis are uncanny. On display at Lofoten War Memorial Museum in Norway, an Allgemeine SS uniform bears the same symbol on a German officer’s sleeve.
The Othala rune has recently become more visible on right-wing collateral online and at rallies, and at least one far-right group co-opted the insignia. In 2016, The New York Times wrote that the National Socialist Movement, a leading neo-Nazi group, eschewed its official symbol, the swastika, and replaced it with the Othala rune. According to Jeff Schoep, the group’s leader, the decision was made in “an attempt to become more integrated and more mainstream.”
That symbol was found on the Facebook page of James Alex Fields Jr., who was convicted of killing Heather Heyer when he plowed his car into a group of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Buzzfeed archived many of the posts before the page was removed. Among them are pictures of the rune beside other racist imagery, a MAGA banner, and an apparent King Trump. “He was very infatuated with the Nazis, with Adolf Hitler,” said his high school history teacher to WCPO.
Founded in 1974, CPAC claims that it unites conservatives, activists, and “millions of viewers,” say event organizers. It’s the “largest and most influential gathering of conservatives,” according to CPAC’s web page. It’s like Ted Talks for Republicans.
That is, if Ted Talks railed on Democrats with inspiring agenda sessions titled, “Why the Left Hates the Bill of Rights,” how “Big Tech and Media are colluding to deprive us of our humanity,” or “Shining a light on the left’s 2020 shadow campaign.” And, you know, if presenters did it while standing on a Nazi symbol.
But there is a notable variance between the Othala rune and the stage — the two upward pointing feet added to the speaker walkways. So absent the two legs or feet, it might be considered a stretch to see the new far-right sign at CPAC.
Or is it?
The similarities between the CPAC stage to the original Odal rune appropriated by Nazis are uncanny. On display at Lofoten War Memorial Museum in Norway, an Allgemeine SS uniform bears the same symbol on a German officer’s sleeve. This organizational assignment insignia was specifically for members of the SS Race and Settlement Office. The Allgemeine SS, created in 1934, was the administrative section including officers, volunteers, and SS security forces and, according to Military Wiki, “all concentration camp staff were originally part of the Allgemeine SS.”
Intentional design or honest mistake?
The CPAC conference platform employs a thrust stage design to create greater intimacy by bringing orators or performers closer to the audience. Last year’s conference also used a thrust stage, but with a single centered walkway from backstage to the podium. While it’s not uncommon to utilize multiple entrances, as in this case — one each from stage right and left, the addition of the feet to nowhere would be an event planning nightmare.
That’s because the feet themselves serve zero functional purposes, as no steps or ramps lead to the stage. Had steps been included, they’d force speakers to walk towards the back of the stage before making a ninety-degree turn to reverse course. The void between the feet and the main stage would have created a falling hazard as well. In effect, the legs on the stage are merely aesthetic.
The GOP is the party that “makes no apologies”
Perhaps the most glaring issue is using a white carpet shaped like a diamond at the stage’s center, which only serves to exaggerate the overall symbol. Monochromatic carpeting or anything other than black or white might diffuse from the similarities. To that end, any number of small changes could have been used for a unique plan while providing two entrances from the rear stage. For example, curves rather than abrupt angles could have achieved a similar aesthetic.
Whether set designers approved this design in a nod to the extreme-right or if it was an ignorant mistake is not yet clear. After some suspicion was raised online, event organizer Matt Schlapp objected to racist conspiracy claims on Twitter. “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,” he wrote.
But the familiar “I’m not a bigot because I have friends in that community” has never been an authentic defense of racism. What might have been more genuine was simply addressing the oversight and moving on. Schlapp could have mentioned that event planners mistakenly approved a symbol closely resembling a prominent Nazi SS regime in an attempt to design a unique experience. He might have said that mistakes happen.
Many hate symbols have been adopted globally. While some like the swastika and SS lightning bolts are well known, others, like the Othala and Odal runes, are more obscure, he could have said. Who knew that a German neo-Nazi organization outlawed in 1994 also used the symbol as its flag? That would have been reasonable.
To demonstrate sincerity and understanding, he might have committed to a more rigorous review of the design process so that potentially offensive imagery wouldn’t be used at future conferences sponsored by CPAC. But expecting an apology or growth, even if for an innocent oversight, would be an exercise in futility.
The GOP is the party that “makes no apologies,” as South Dakota Kristi Noem said in her speech from the stage yesterday, in reference to American freedoms. Proud Boys, several of whom have been indicted for their role at the Capitol Riot and were told by Trump to “stand by” during a televised presidential debate last year, are a self-described group who “refuse to apologize.” Rush Limbaugh said that Trump advised him to “never apologize” for disparaging comments he made of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality.
When Trump takes the stage today, standing on a massive symbol co-opted by hate groups, expect no apologies either.