After Donald Trump Jr. posted photos of an AR-15 to social media on Sunday, leading news outlets turned to activists and researchers to declare the weapon a right-wing “hate symbol.”
Trump is seen in the Instagram post showcasing the semi-automatic rifle, which features Crusader-inspired stylings. The magazine of the gun is decorated with an image of Hillary Clinton behind bars.
“Nice day at the range,” Trump wrote in the caption. “[A]dding a little extra awesome to my AR and that mag…”
Supporters of Trump, and his father, the president, expressed amusement at the familiar shot at “Crooked Hillary” and admiration for the AR-15. But over on Liberal Twitter, some users condemned Trump and his post as dangerously hateful.
The problem with Donald Trump Jr. and his AR-15
Meanwhile, CNN producer David Shortell and Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey called up experts to explain in greater detail why Trump’s Instagram post is so problematic. Their reports focused less on any insult to Clinton than on the AR-15’s Christian iconography.
Of particular concern was the Crusader cross — comprising a larger cross surrounded by four smaller ones — on the gun’s magazine well.
Both journalists acknowledged that people could theoretically care about the Crusades as a historical event and Christianity as a religion. But none of the experts they interviewed thought that was the reality.
Shortell quoted the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League as warning that the “far right” has “seized upon” Crusader symbols “to represent an anti-Muslim ideology.”
“The adoption of these symbols is meant largely as a way of signaling anti-Muslim sentiment in particular, but also this notion that Christianity needs to retake western civilization,” SPLC analyst Howard Graves informed him.
Robin Jensen, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies Christian art, told Bailey that the cross can be “a symbol of self-sacrifice and divine love.” But she continued, “This is not what you put on a gun unless you’re saying Christians have a right to kill people who aren’t one of us.”
Dan Jones, a U.K.-based historian who wrote a book published last year on the Crusades, said invoking the Crusades was particularly inappropriate given that President Donald Trump is currently clashing with the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East.
“At a time when tensions in the Middle East are running high, it’s an inflammatory time to run around with a gun with a crusader image on it,” Jones said.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that while he could see nothing explicitly anti-Muslim about Trump’s gun, it still “sends the wrong message.”
“A cross doesn’t offend me. It’s the context. It’s on a weapon,” Hooper said. “It’s a weapon that is similar to ones used in mass killings. The whole package sends the wrong message.”
Taking a shot of her own, Bailey added that Trump is “an avid hunter.”
“Last year, he shot endangered sheep in Mongolia before he had approval from the government there,” she reported.
“Objectively silly and dishonest”
Asked to comment on the criticism, Trump spokesman Andy Surabian blasted what he called “humorless liberals.” He noted that the Crusader cross appears on Georgia’s national flag and a medal bestowed by the Pope, as well as being popular among gun owners.
“Symbols on firearms depicting various historical warriors are extremely common within the 2nd Amendment community. Don’s Instagram post was strictly about him using a famous meme to mock Hillary Clinton, as he and many others have done on numerous occasions and will surely do again in the future, so long as it continues triggering humorless liberals,” Surabian said in a statement.
For his part, Trump retweeted a Media Research Center article deriding the Post’s report.
— MediaResearchCenter (@theMRC) January 7, 2020
In an email to CNN, the CEO of Spike’s Tactical — which sells the Crusader-styled rifle and got a shout out in Trump’s post — similarly scoffed at the notion that the Trump’s AR-15 is a symbol of hate.
“It’s objectively silly and dishonest for leftwing groups, like the SPLC, to claim that this symbol on our Crusader model has anything to do with hate or an extremist ideology,” Cole Leleux said. “In other words, these people have no idea what they’re talking about and should apologize for their outrageous smears.”
As Shortell and Bailey both recalled, Spike’s Tactical previously came under fire in 2015 for selling another AR model designed to deter Muslim terrorists. The rifle featured a Bible verse and the Latin saying “Deus Vult,” or “God wills it.”
Shortell pointed out that the phrase later appeared on signs at a violent alt-right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. He said it “has recently become a rallying cry for white supremacists, according to hate group researchers.”
The CNN producer went on to falsely accuse President Trump of having initially refused “to condemn racial violence” at the rally.
In fact, in his first public remarks about Charlottesville, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence …” What proved controversial was his addition of the phrase, “… on many sides.”
Amid outcry, Trump later denounced neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” A month later, he signed a resolution condemning white supremacy.