Tilting at Windmills: An Emerging Christian White Nationalist Symbol

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This is a guest post by Olivia Trabysh, a post-graduate design researcher at the School of Visual Arts, writer, and activist. Her work explores community-based approaches to safety.

The windmill is a powerful signifier of Americana and mythological abundance. It is a harbinger of cultural instruction that extends far beyond its life on a Hobby Lobby shelf. When considering the evolution of the windmill in the United States, we understand it as a token of conquest that denotes the settlement of the American West. It’s a history marked by poverty, extermination, despair, and, more recently, a pastoral identity reclaimed broadly by Christian white nationalist movements. The windmill has not yet become a symbol that alone evokes a white ethnostate, but when considered amongst previously innocuous images such as wheat and roosters touted by white nationalists today, we can imagine the windmill as an emerging shorthand with a seductive likeness in form and orientation, mimicking the directional, clockwise turn of the swastika.

Shelley Trabysh, Amarillo, Texas

Progress, Conquest, & Emerging Inequity

Windmills derive from the post mill, which first appeared in the Aegean Islands in the early twelfth and thirteenth centuries1 and were used mainly to saw lumber and perform other agricultural tasks. The English, Dutch, French, and Swedes brought the technology to the American colonies in 1621. Fast forward two hundred fifty years, and every house in Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska had what we know today as the Dempster windmill, which features a rosette of steel blades, a long angular tower, and a weathervane. The windmill might have vanished altogether by 1780 had the advent of industries like the railroad and ranching not coincided with the creation of America’s sibling to the European windmill, which features sixteen angular blades as opposed to the European windmill’s four rectangular paddles.2

Windmill, Potsdam, Berlin, Germany. , ca. 1890. [Circa 1900]

NPS Photo/Dempster Archive

Barbed wire allowed farmers to fence and domesticate cattle, while the windmill allowed them to pump water to irrigate previously uninhabitable drylands. In his book, The Great Plains, historian James Prescott Webb notes that windmills became “unmistakable and universal sign[s] of human habitation.”3 But the plains were previously inhabited. Indigenous people stewarded the land through drought-resistant crops and nomadic grazing. American settlers exterminated and displaced them. And despite the vast meteorological data suggesting the failure that would ensue, companies produced windmills for 50 cents apiece and shipped them across the West via the transcontinental railroad. Windmills subsisted monoculture farming and “conquered” arid America.

Many people died on the Plains during the Dust Bowl or lost fortunes during the Great Depression and lived without adequate electricity for decades following the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Some rural areas still lack sufficient water, electricity, and internet access – the act of conquering continues to unfold. If used to pump water or provide electricity today, a windmill marks inequity. White nationalists prey upon this disparity, and rather than organize communities to pursue solutions, the Patriot Front, a white supremacist group defined by the Anti-Defamation League as believing “their ancestors conquered and bequeathed America to them”, distributes propaganda using iconic agricultural symbols with regional association to the American West to advance the concept of a new American nation-state.

The Propaganda of Reclamation

The Anti-Defamation League’s 2022 report on white supremacy, noted that the Patriot Front was responsible for over 80% of the white supremacist propaganda distributed throughout the United States today. They have adopted sophisticated stencil and leaflet campaigns prominent in 48 states, promoting propaganda like “Not stolen, conquered.” Social justice movements have made significant gains debunking myths surrounding the United States’ founding, often referring to the US as stolen land. The Patriot Front counters that reality and instructs its followers to valorize economic hardship and fortify themselves within that context. White Christian nationalists take that fortification further and advance “ideology steeped in anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and patriarchal notions of gender and gender roles.”4 Such supremacy prominently reveals itself through the Patriot Front’s extensive use of anti-Semitic images. Early iterations of their tagline, “Blood and Soil,” appeared with the Sonnenrad, a coopted symbol of the Black Sun by the Nazi party5. Replicas of Nazi posters, with an image of a man breaking out of chains, in the shape of the Star of David, with the slogan, “Break debt slavery,” are typical paraphernalia alongside a swastika that covers a blackened map of the United States and Canada with the motto, “United in Blood,” assumed to mean united in Aryan blood.

Department of the Navy. U.S. Marine Corps. Division of Public Information. Historical Section. 11/1/1946-9/18/1947. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America

The Patriot Front logo prominently features fasces, the symbol of the Italian National Fascist Party. It is often stenciled with the iconic rattlesnake from Gadsden’s “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, which denoted the unity of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War but is now a common libertarian symbol to indicate the role of limited government. In the latest version of the Patriot Front logo documented by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a circle of thirteen stars marks the thirteen American colonies alongside a wheat motif, strategically incorporating the agricultural history of the West. The Patriot Front borrows America’s rebellious origin story through the stars of the thirteen colonies, alongside a populist image of grain. The Proud Boys, another white nationalist group, also uses an innocuous symbol that intentionally points West in their logo: a rooster weathervane. A common Patriot Front stencil depicts a communist hammer and sickle with an arrow through the center, conjuring an image of an incomplete windmill and again evoking the act of conquering, with an additional rosette sail of arrows often depicted below the sickle resembling a forming windmill, loosely affixed as a Patriot Front tag stenciled below.

A “Good, Christian” Motif

But the windmill already has a sinister and complementary white nationalist use proliferated by white women through their home decor. Alongside many crosses and proverbs, women can purchase galvanized windmill blades as wall decor at Mardell, a Christian home goods and bookstore. An Etsy search can also procure these similar pieces that sell out quickly. The growing popularity of windmill iconography could be compared to the lighthouse as a pious decoration. Lighthouses, also for purchase at Mardell and displayed widely in Christian homeless shelters, signify a searching, a cleansing of the self, and openness to accept the Lord as a personal lighthouse and savior. The windmill exemplifies a ritualized adherence to the belief that whiteness will prevail. Historically, white women are the strongest enforcers of white supremacy; subtly through their faith, they veil an adherence to the ideals of manifest destiny. Two recent books carry the mantle forward. Karen Pence’s When it is Your Turn to Serve: God’s Grace in His Calling for Your Life, released to coincide with her husband’s Republican primary debate debut, and Alabama Senator Katie Britt’s God Calls Us to Do Hard Things: Lessons from the Alabama Wiregrass, both extol the populist symbolism.

Today, wasps ominously swarm above the stagnant water pumped out of abandoned windmills. Like honeybees to a flower, wasps swarm above the windmills while white women decorate with them – both awaiting further instruction.

Banner image: Dunlap Ranch, Windmill, Gillette, Campbell County, WY, Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)

Jordan, Terry G. 1973. “Evolution of the American Windmill: A Study in Diffusion and Modification.” Pioneer America 5 (2): 3–12. ↩︎Jordan, Terry G. 1973. “Evolution of the American Windmill: A Study in Diffusion and Modification.” Pioneer America 5 (2): 3–12. ↩︎Walter Prescott Webb. 1941. The Great Plains. ↩︎Cotler, Stosh. 2023. “All of U.S.: Organizing to Counter White Christian Nationalism and Build a Pro-Democracy Society.” Kairos Center and MoveOn Education Fund. ↩︎Heller, Steven. 2019. The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today. Allworth. ↩︎

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