Opinion

It’s Time for Fan Conventions to Ban MAGA

Comicpalooza returns this May. It and other conventions should ban MAGA at the door.
Comicpalooza returns this May. It and other conventions should ban MAGA at the door. Photo by Katy Rouner
Earlier this year, social media companies took bold and unprecedented action to remove the accounts of Donald Trump over his continued instigation of violent insurrection. It was a good move that immediately reduced the presence of misinformation on the internet by 73 percent. Now, fan conventions should follow suit and ban MAGA from their events.

By that I mean several things. The symbols and paraphernalia such as hats and flags worn as capes should be prohibited the same as Nazi symbols. Prominent figures who traffic in Trumpist conspiracy theories and plan to use conventions as media stunts should also not be allowed to attend. Conventions must also be very leery of proposed programming that claims to celebrate “conservatism” in fandom, comics, or science fiction. Any person who wants to be a part of programming like that needs to have their social media presence investigated to make sure it’s not cover for violent conspiracy theories.

MAGA has inarguably become a hate symbol that should be reviled on the level of the swastika. The trademark red hats were the accessory of choice when a violent mob hopped up on Trump’s unfounded conspiracy theories attempted to overthrow the democratic process and murder high members of the government earlier this January. Much like the Confederate flag, which the insurrectionists also carried in their attack, MAGA serves as a coded stand-in for white fascism.

Video essayist Ian Danskin is the creator of the Alt-Right Playbook, one of the definitive video works on the actions and processes of the alt-right. His video, How to Radicalize a Normie, delves deep into the way pop culture can be a gateway into the reactionary right.

“The thing about modern hate symbols is they're intentionally ironic - the Kekistani flag is a parody of a Nazi flag, the OK symbol is a parody of a fascist salute - and they're meant to make the rest of us sound silly for pointing out that real and actual Nazis are signalling each other with them,” says Danskin. “Anything can serve as an ‘ironic’ symbol - with varying success, they've used webcomic characters, certain haircuts, glasses of milk - and it's unambiguous that they are using the MAGA hat as one. Since people in MAGA hats stormed that Capitol in what was, in a sense, a parody of a coup d'etat (a ‘parody’ that contained very real crimes and came with an unironic body count), any space that continues to tolerate MAGA hats will be seen as a space safe for organization and recruitment.”

Fandom may seem like a weird place to focus attention on stemming the tide of white fascism, but it’s actually long been a front in the war. GamerGate was essentially a proof of concept and major recruiting tool for the rising, extremely online, and decentralized alt-right that evolved into QAnon and Trumpism. One of the best examples of this came from furry fandom, which had a tremendous problem with infiltration until the community as a whole fought back.

“For a couple of years we’ve been noticing an encroachment of far right groups that have been trying to recruit within the furry fandom,” said Dep Vacuus, a furry activists that chronicles infiltration in the community, on the podcast Worst Year Ever. “To a degree that can be because it’s largely, white, largely male, and largely very young. Their social skills are often underdeveloped. They are bullied kids looking for a home, and couple that with economic hardships, cultural shifts, problems, and they are looking for answers and what makes since. White nationalists see this as easy prey because they say they have the answer. They have the solution. You are very special. The people who built bridges and conquered the world, those are your people. You’re no longer a schlubby little white dude.”

Furries had to make a concerted effort to expel white fascists from their midst, especially after a chlorine gas attack at Midwest FurFest in 2014 resulted in 19 people being hospitalized. The attack was eventually linked to Robert Sojkowski aka Magnus Diridian, a furry with a long history of Nazi affiliation and previous gas attacks. Over the past few years, furry online moderators and con organizers have diligently managed to oust these elements from their communities.

The fact is that these infiltrations are not just a matter of free speech. They are often dangerous, as the Midwest FurFest attack shows. Marginalized people in fan communities risk being put in situations where people who openly advocate their eradication have free access or even positions of power if control over the setting is not exercised by the organizers.

Angela Hardy is a former Houstonian who attends cons as a boardgame maker and jewelry vendor, usually in the steampunk sub-genre. She has seen a large increase in MAGA and Nazi-adjacent symbolism on the con floors, and as a non-binary person it makes her feel afraid.

“I think it’s triggering, especially since seeing it enter the sacred spaces of our country,” she says. “I think it’s going to be traumatizing for generations. It’s pretty hecking terrifying. Certain cosplays, like from Iron Sky... I can understand why they dress that way. But it can be a gateway to “hey come talk to me about white supremacy.” Even if they think the aesthetic is just cool, it still has connotations, and you can’t take that risk.”

She has also seen evidence that MAGA has ramped up the boldness of the bigotry on con floors. Her table was situated near that of Roger Cross, a prominent Black Canadian science fiction actor at a Vancouver convention. A man walked up festooned with Trump gear and approached Cross.

“He asked Roger what his favorite fried chicken was,” she says. “We just sat there stunned. That’s what MAGA is doing to conventions. It’s making that sort of racism seem okay.”

Conventions absolutely can handle this. Every fan convention I have ever attended has a dedicated door staff checking for badges as well as real weapons. Instructing them to recognize hate symbols like MAGA is simply a matter of a little training and a willingness to take a stand. There is no reason for people dressed in Nazi gear to make it onto the floor like one did at Anime Matsuri 2018, and at this point MAGA should fall under the same category. No matter how uncomfortable it makes us to restrict “free speech,” the people who choose to wear this gear are not there to have conversations. Their goal is to intimidate the vulnerable and recruit the curious. It will not be easy, but it’s necessary.

“People often object to banning these kind of symbols because they're so flexible: ban one, they'll just pick another,” says Danskin. “And it is true they're stubborn, infectious, and highly adaptable. But ‘cut the tumor out in one place and it'll try to grow back someplace else, might as well not bother’ is not how you survive cancer.”

Reticence to police geek and fan spaces against dedicated attempts to use them for the advancement of white fascism has been an integral part of Trumpism. Not doing so was a failure of the communities to make those places safe for the marginalized, and it swelled the numbers of the people who very nearly cost us our democracy. Banning MAGA at a comic convention is a small, but crucial thing that can begin healing the damage done.

“You have people taking tickets at the door, and these are pretty visible representations that anybody in the country will recognize,” says Hardy. “I don’t want to see cosplays of these insurrectionists. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke. They need to know it’s serious.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner