Political journalism that meets the moment
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‘Stay Strapped or Get Clapped’
How the media misses the story of companies seeking profit by keeping traumatized veterans armed and enraged
In the summer of 2021, reporter Jason Zengerle published a fluffy profile in The New York Times Magazine of a growing veteran-owned company. “Can the Black Rifle Coffee Company Become the Starbucks of the Right?” was filled with heartwarming photos. The brand’s three founders in baseball caps sitting around a conference table in front of a wall-sized rendition of Washington crossing the Delaware. Employees practicing for an “adaptive athlete” archery competition. (“It’s active meditation, basically.”) The fellas chillin’ out in the company’s “converted warehouse with a lot of black metal and reclaimed wood.” And also, should there be any doubt where readers’ sympathies were meant to lie, CEO Evan Hafer (“who is Jewish”) posing with his puppy dogs.

The gravamen of the piece was examining the risk brands take when they plant a flag on the terrain of contested political issues. Readers were to understand this, naturally, as a problem for #bothsides. One example: the time in 2016, when Apple and Bank of America asked the governor of North Carolina to repeal that state’s hateful, anti-trans “bathroom bill,” and conservative customers balked.

Opposite that: the headache that emerged for the nice fellas at Black Rifle when investigators sought to identity the January 6th fugitive known as “Zip Tie Guy” for the tools he wore on his tactical belt, designed to hog-tie treasonous senators. The FBI had identified the baseball cap he wore, which featured an assault rifle silhouetted over an American flag, as a Black Rifle product.

“I was like, Oh [expletive],” Hafer was quoted. “Here we go again.”

Again” referred to the time Kyle Rittenhouse was photographed in a Black Rifle tee after bailing out of jail for fatally shooting a Black Lives Matter demonstrator.

Hafer pronounced himself baffled. Why does this keep happening to us? The reader is supposed to be baffled, too—as when we meet Black Rifle employees like the “quiet, haunted-seeming man who had been a C.I.A.-contractor colleague of Hafer’s and who, for a time, lived in a trailer he parked on the office grounds. Later, I asked Hafer what, exactly, the man did for Black Rifle. ‘He just gets better,’ Hafer replied. ‘He gets better.’”

No wonder Hafer is so anguished by the thought that racists, of all people, could identify with his brand: “Like, I’ll pay them to leave my customer base.”

Hafer could maybe save that money by not selling a coffee called “Thin Blue Line.” (If you don’t see the racism in that symbolic clapback by politicized cops to the Movement for Black Lives, take your dog whistle in for repairs.) Or by making their YouTube channel, which has 1.19 million subscribers, a bit more of an unsafe space for those who prefer their social media minority-free; I had to scroll some 61 videos before spotting a single patch of non-Caucasian skin, save for the movie fight scenes in the “Veterans react to …” series.

None of the videos I reviewed featured women either. In the Black Rifle universe, “veterans” are bearded and beefy, infatuated with the healing power of arms, and, above all, aggressively in the face of anyone who disagrees. That’s the whole point.

The Times profile reads like a 12th-century beat sweetener on King Henry II that handles the troubling matter of the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury by quoting the king: “I didn’t want them to kill that meddlesome priest …” Poor, poor Black Rifle Coffee. “‘How do you build a cool, kind of irreverent, pro-Second Amendment, pro-America brand in the MAGA era,’ Hafer wondered aloud, ‘without doubling down on the MAGA movement and also not being called a [expletive] RINO by the MAGA guys?’”

What I wonder is: How did America’s vaunted Newspaper of Record manage to make this guy a martyr to political correctness? I looked up Hafer’s political contributions. They include $2,500 in seed money to Brandon Herrera, a gun YouTuber and DIY machine-gun manufacturer known as the “AK Guy.” Two weeks ago, after forcing the Republican congressman representing Uvalde, Texas, Tony Gonzales, into a runoff after he dared vote for a gun safety bill, Herrera tweeted, “Texas is done with RINOS. The war starts now.”

One way you can make Hafer a martyr is by not telling naïve blue-state readers what a “black rifle” is. Not a rifle that is black. An AR-15 assault rifle—which polling consistently finds half of America wants banned, and increasing portions of the other half uphold as a talisman of the war that starts now, perhaps to be used against liberals, against the “woke,” and against anyone who stands in the MAGA movement’s way.

BRCC are the company’s initials and also its stock symbol. Shortly after the piece came out, and surely borne aloft by it, Black Rifle successfully went public. It may soon be coming to a store shelf or street corner near you: 2024 is the year, I learned in a recent earnings call, BRCC hopes to expand into all 50 states. Perhaps it would not have earned the attention of Wall Street analysts’ cold, calculating eyes had Zengerle chose to tell another, far more relevant story: that this company named after a slaughter machine is the leading edge of a trend of brands that make fascist aesthetics into a central part of their business strategy.

Look! Puppy dogs!
ONE COMPANY ORGANIZED ON THE BLACK RIFLE MODEL is both more modest (it booked an estimated $36 million in annual revenue in 2023, compared to BRCC’s $300 million) and more immoderate. None of Evan Hafer’s crisis communications–style hedging for Nine Line Apparel. After visiting their website, my feed immediately began filling up with ads picturing images like the Christmas card trollingly circulated by Gen. George S. Patton’s son, also a general, after the revelation of the My Lai massacre. Beside the inscription “Peace on Earth,” it depicted a stack of Vietnamese corpses. He also passed around a picture of himself posing with a polished skull with a bullet hole above the eye. Dad bods can now sport stuff like that on a hoodie for the low, low price of $47.99, less if you join Nine Line’s “Patriots Club.”

Nine Line is also ostentatiously veteran-owned, its PR saturated with the language of healing and service. It’s strange, yes, that veterans carrying home the trauma of combat should embrace an ethic of staying armed to the teeth, on hair-trigger alert for enemies in an everyday war at home of all against all.

Or, as Winnie the Pooh puts it on one of their apparel designs: “Stay Strapped or Get Clapped.”

This, Black Rifle and Nine Line treat as a way to heal wartime trauma.

But what do I know. I’m not a “patriot.” At least not according to their most fearsome design: a Spartan helmet done up in Darth Vader black above the legend “I’m a patriot. Weapons are part of my religion.”

That particular “2A” tribute is twinned with one honoring “1A.” It features the same helmet, only this one with that most patriotic of symbols added: sharp Viking horns. “Speak freely,” it enjoins.

Sure, just as soon as you leave the room.

There’s a whole stable of cuddly creatures. Tactical Trash Panda warns, “Forage around and find out”; Freedom Llama is kitted for battle in combat boots and night vision goggles.

Less cute: an American flag with sharks swimming down the stripes, shark teeth for stars, and a giant chomp out of the side. A German shepherd labeled “Land Shark: Four Legged Freedom Defender,” laid out like a weapon schematic: nose labeled “To sniff out lack of patriotism,” teeth, “Freedom enforced at 238 psi.”

I haven’t found a clearer expression of the American reactionary tradition of equating liberty with coercion since I read Jefferson Cowie’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history of Barbour County, Alabama. Likewise, nothing more clearly expresses that culture’s rendering of the moral universe into two incommensurate categories—us, who are blamelessly pure, and them, who are dangerous pollutants of that purity—than a Blue Lives Matter flag identifying the stripe in the center as the “Barrier between community and lawlessness.” (Only those who hate freedom, one supposes, dare suggest communities can include lawbreakers, and that lawbreakers can have community.)

Another tribute to cops adds divine sanction: “Blessed are the peacemakers/For they shall be called the children of God.” Naturally, since “Family/Faith/Friends/Flag/Firearms” are, according to another shirt, “5 Things You Don’t Mess With.”

QAnon fans aren’t left out: A design called “Steamboat Willie features Mickey Mouse brandishing an assault rifle. It reads, “Kill your local pedophile.” Pagan types can choose from an array of Valhalla-wear starring a grinning skull with Viking horns, including one satirizing the Starbucks mermaid as a skull with Viking horns and a pair of pistols.

Air Force fans can order “Dropping Warheads on Foreheads since 1947.” A shirt honoring the four martyrs of Benghazi reads, “Men do not die until they are forgotten.” There’s nothing, though, for the 241 U.S. personnel who died from a terrorist truck bomb in 1983 after the Reagan administration fumbled into the middle of Beirut’s civil war at the behest of Israel; honor is a partisan thing. “By Patriots for Patriots,” as Nine Line’s slogan reads. Obama partisans need not apply.

A CERTAIN ESOTERISM IS CENTRAL TO THE MARKETING STRATEGY for stuff like this: a delineation between the us who know and the them who scratch their heads. Which is how you know they are not part of the Family/Faith/Friends/Flag/Firearms tribe.

For instance, do you know what a shirt reading “22” signifies? I had to look it up. It’s not the “angel number” signifying wisdom and relationship balance to woo-woo New Agers. Nor, God forbid, the 22nd catch in Joseph Heller’s classic novel about the meaninglessness, dehumanization, and waste of war.

It’s the number of veterans who commit suicide on an average day.

Well, that was arresting to learn. That strange equation kept swirling in my head, of the compulsion to dwell in the culture of battle as a cure for the culture of battle. I really don’t know what to say. Or rather: I quail at saying too much. Don’t dig too deep to get to the bottom of a culture like this, where even the “Made in America” badge is scary (the stars looking like the barbs in a strand of razor wire). The last time I wrote too frankly about certain concerning symbols of wartime trauma and mourning celebrated by veterans, I was singled out as a witch and reported on Fox News, and was flooded by messages from veterans about the pleasures to be had of flaying off the skin of people like me.

Speak freely! Just don’t say …

Never mind. Puppy dogs. Puppy dogs.

I’LL PROBABLY GET ANGRY MESSAGES THIS TIME, TOO. Maybe it will come from what I’m about to note.

Nine Line’s mission statement reads, “In combat, a Nine Line is an emergency medevac request, and is often the difference between life and death for the most severely wounded soldiers. Nine Line Foundation aims to serve in a similar manner, offering a lifeline once wounded veterans return stateside.”

Thus their logo: a thick line shooting down from a helicopter.

You may see where I’m going with this.

I first became aware of Nine Line when a fascism researcher whose name I will not say, the better to protect them from any suggestion their skin needs flaying off, asked me about whether I’d noticed one fascist clothing company with the logo that looked like the alt-right “helicopter ride” trope, the one advertising their fantasy of throwing Untermenschen like us into the sea from a high distance like South American dictators used to do.

To point to this possible dog whistle, alas, is to play the fascist’s game; no trolling without plausible deniability, as the maestro recently demonstrated in campaign rally in Ohio when he predicted a “bloodbath” should he not be elected president.

He was talking about the automobile industry, you paranoid moonbat!

Be that as it may. Nine Line, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn by now, received its own elite media fluffing in 2018, in a Washington Post article headlined “How This Veteran’s Company Found Profits in Trump-Era Patriotism and Polarization.” Who doesn’t like a feel-good story about helping those who’ve served?

It described Nine Line’s origin story as a reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter protest, as the anti-Nike: “Just Stand,” their first big hit read. “The success of the T-shirt provided [Tyler] Merritt and his team with a few lessons. His company needed to be loud, quick and clear. Merritt also learned that selling just about anything in this polarizing moment in the country’s history—especially patriotism—means picking a side. ‘Polarizing topics create brands,’ he said.”

Then, yes, it ventured into the marketing challenges—a day in the life of Kaila Donaldson, the company’s 28-year-old Facebook administrator, whose job, we learn, involves both “hook[ing] potential customers” and “trying to start a conversation that will offer her insights into Nine Line’s most loyal clientele.”

Like the time she shared a story about Trump donating his salary to a veteran entrepreneurship program. “‘It did really well,’ she said of the posting, which racked up about 500,000 views.”

Or the one she posted just that day about Gen. Jim Mattis, which didn’t: “The post largely fell flat among readers who weren’t sure what to make of it”—Trump having just said on 60 Minutes that the defense secretary was “sort of a Democrat.”

Then, she checked the response to “a story she had posted earlier that day about Trump’s threat to permanently close the southern border.” And people knew exactly what to make of that:

“I’ve been voting red for 20 years [hoping] for this,” one comment said.

“SHUT IT DOWN!!!” roared another.

Donaldson blanched. “These are kind of racist,” she said.

Odd how that keeps on happening.

It was close to quitting time. On the video screen behind her, the daily sales figure had surged past $100,000, about 25 percent higher than the same-day sales from a year ago. Americans were angry, passionate and eager to let their friends and neighbors know exactly where they stood on the flag, immigration, guns and just about every hot-button issue in the president’s Twitter feed.

This much Donaldson, Merritt and the rest of the Nine Line team knew for certain: All that emotion was good for business.

And … scene. Whether all that concerted effort to identify and amplify the things that make armed, traumatized veterans the most angry, in order to get them to open their wallets, is good for democracy: That question, not being fit to print, will have to die in darkness.

Extra! Extra! Got Infernally Triangular questions you’d like to see answered in a future column? Send them to

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