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The upside-down American flag goes mainstream as a form of right-wing protest

An American flag is seen upside down at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
Jose Luis Magana
/
AP
An American flag is seen upside down at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

After former President Donald Trump’s historic felony conviction, many of his supporters protested the verdict by posting images of an American flag flipped upside down on social media.

A Manhattan jury on Thursday found Trump guilty of falsifying business records in order to influence the 2016 presidential election. Soon after the verdict was read, right-wing politicians and pundits including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Fox News contributor Guy Benson and far-right conspiracy theorist Ali Alexander shared images of an inverted American flag on social media. Alexander, organizer of the “Stop the Steal” rally that pushed false claims about the 2020 election, posted the upside-down flag on Telegram with the message: “No one is coming to save us. We must.”

The phrases “RIP America” and “Civil War," which began trending on the social media platform X, were also seen alongside flipped flags and messages of outrage at the verdict.

A report from The New York Times last month revealed that an upside-down American flag flew outside the Virginia home of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in January 2021. At that time, the flag had emerged as an anti-Biden protest symbol synonymous with the false claim that the election had been stolen from Trump. Earlier that month, rioters at the siege on the U.S. Capitol carried the same flags. Justice Alito has said his wife is responsible for controversial flags flying outside their homes.

“When you have a Supreme Court justice or his family use it as a symbol of America being in distress, you know it's gone mainstream,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

The upside-down American flag, originally an apolitical symbol used by sailors to signal that their ship was in trouble, has since been adopted by both the political left and right in protest. Across the political spectrum, it's been used to express dissent on a range of issues, including gun violence, the Flint water crisis and the overturning of the Roe v. Wade ruling that protected the right to an abortion.

In recent years, however, the usage of the flipped U.S. flag has seen a partisan shift more frequently taken up by the extreme right.

“You are seeing this spike [of the flipped U.S. flag] being used less by the left and more by the right who has had this Trumpian history of ‘Make America Great Again because [they believe] it hasn't been great in some time,’ ” said Bethan Johnson, a postdoctoral scholar who researches political extremism with the Initiative to Study Hate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

From distress to outrage

Before it was used in protests, sailors stuck at sea are known to have flown the U.S. flag upside down as “the easiest way to signal distress without having any special flag,” Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillological Association, told the Times.

The practice dates back to at least the 17th century, during the Anglo-Dutch wars, he said, and was documented appearing the following century on American lifeboats.

Such usage of the American flag was codified in the U.S. flag code, first drafted in 1923, which set guidelines regarding the American flag, noted Paulson of the Free Speech Center. The code, which is not legally enforceable, says that the flag should never be displayed upside-down “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

There’s a long history of American flag-flipping in political protest, too.

At an anti-slavery rally on July 4, 1854, in Massachusetts, abolitionist speakers William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau took to the stage under "an inverted U.S. flag draped with black crepe," according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In the 1960s and '70s, the inverted U.S. flag emerged most prominently as a way to protest the Vietnam war.

A student’s display of a U.S. flag upside down with a peace sign taped to it — a protest of the killing of four Vietnam protesters by Ohio national guardsman at Kent State University — was the focus of a 1974 Supreme Court case that ruled he had the constitutional right to do so.

In 1972, Vietnam veteran John Kerry was running for Congress when he faced backlash for having published a book with cover art showing veterans hoisting a U.S. flag upside down. His congressional campaign at the time defended the image as a display of the international signal of distress.

Justice Alito’s wife in 2021 also explained the upside-down flag on her lawn as “an international signal of distress,” The Washington Post reported.

As a form of protest, the flag doesn't signal distress so much as anger at a perceived deterioration of promised American principles, according to political extremism researcher Johnson.

“We place a lot of description of this upside-down flag as being a symbol of distress,” she said. “What’s happened is it shifted from that to an expression of outrage — a signal to say, 'America has abrogated its own principles and values and I am sending a signal that I disagree' or 'I see this as a violation of American values.' ”

That’s how it’s been used in Black Lives Matter and abortion rights protests, she said.

A partisan shift

It wasn’t until the Obama administration that right-wing fringe groups started to visibly embrace the inverted American flag, according to Johnson. After President Obama’s reelection, conservative Tea Party advocates expressed their disappointment by waving flipped flags.

Holding upside down U.S. flags, marchers with the white supremacist group known as the Patriot Front, chanted the phrase "reclaim America," near the U.S. Capitol, on May 13, 2023.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
/
AP
Holding upside down U.S. flags, marchers with the white supremacist group known as the Patriot Front chanted the phrase "reclaim America," near the U.S. Capitol, on May 13, 2023.

“In a lot of these other protest movements, it's a one-off where a person will be carrying an upside-down flag to express their personal belief,” she said. “It's not as if you show up to a ‘pro-choice’ rally you're going to see hundreds of upside-down flags.”

Right-wing extremist movements, however, which have historically been invested in flag culture and symbology, have in recent years taken to using the upside-down flag in a more consistent fashion.

The white nationalist group Patriot Front, for example, is known for showing up to protests bearing the upside-down U.S. flags en masse.

Within the umbrella of the extreme right groups, Johnson said there’s a distinction between those who might turn their American flags upside down versus those who would not.

“There are people who [consider themselves] ultra-patriots — who think of themselves as defending American principles and institutions from corruption. There are also those who seek to actually overthrow the U.S. democratic system entirely because they don't believe in democracy," she said. "That second sect don't typically use the upside-down flags, but the first sect who view themselves as ultra-patriots do.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]