As we’ve seen with other Pride events, the far-right extremist machine was ready to pounce when a public library in the Texas town of McKinney announced it would hold a Pride-themed family storytime event on June 25th.
First to descend on the scene were the mainstream Trumpers, groaning about the indoctrination of children. Then came a handful of Three Percenters and Proud Boys, the latter dressed in body armor, their distinctive black-and-yellow polo shorts, baseball caps and a uniquely garish accessory: Bright red gaiter masks emblazoned with the grinning face of a cartoon beaver.
The beaver is the face of Buc-ee’s, the chain of country stores, gas stations and rest stops that’s beloved across Texas. Get on any highway in the state and odds are, it won’t be long before you spot that iconic smile on the roadside, beckoning travelers to experience “America’s Best Restrooms” and a huge array of food and merch. That includes all manner of clothes and souvenirs emblazoned with the Buc-ee’s logo, which has achieved a cult level of fame as a signifier of Texas pride.
There’s nothing new about this kind of symbolic hijacking by extremist groups, or “hatejacking,” as some researchers call it. As we’ve seen with slogans like “Let’s Go Brandon” or the okay hand sign, America’s far-right adores subverting seemingly innocuous language and symbols to serve as group identifiers and in-jokes. But the value of hatejacking goes further: It’s a tool to disrupt major businesses and turn the spotlight onto extremist groups, simultaneously building their perceived legitimacy, aiding recruitment and forcing the mainstream to confront their presence.
Leveraging something as goofy as a cartoon beaver known to all in Texas is a blend of ironic shitposting and strategic maneuvering — a way to confuse observers about the seriousness of Proud Boy violence, while also demonstrating their ability to remain fluid as they’re under increasing scrutiny. “The use of specific brands, often covertly, allows hate groups to have identity markers without the social stigma ascribed to historical hate symbols,” researchers Bond Benton and Daniela Peterka-Benton noted in a 2020 study. “The covert, hide-and-seek nature of the hatejack also allows extremist groups to identify with each other without public or legal scrutiny.”
Historical examples of hatejacking abound, whether it’s neo-Nazi skinhead embrace of Dr. Martens in the 1980s or the adoption of Lonsdale garb as a signifier of far-right sympathies in the early 2000s. Most infamously, the Proud Boys have caused a massive headache for British menswear company Fred Perry, which found itself unprepared to deal with the group’s mass adoption of its signature black-and-yellow polo shirts. Ultimately, the company had to release a statement in 2020 disavowing the Proud Boys and announcing it would stop sales of the black-and-yellow polo in the U.S.
In similar fashion, far-right agitators and neo-Nazis tried to co-opt New Balance after a 2016 interview in which the brand’s vice president of public affairs said that the Obama administration had turned “a deaf ear” to the company and that president-elect Donald Trump would shift things “in the right direction.”
The fairly innocuous statement went widely viral on social media, leading to a swath of performative demonstrations of people trashing and burning their shoes — and, on the flip side, a call from the far-right to embrace New Balance as the brand for conservatives everywhere. Neo-Nazi propagandist Andrew Anglin, founder of the website Daily Stormer, even trumpeted that “New Balance just became the official shoes of white people” in a headline, claiming the VP’s comments were a “gesture to support white people” and urging people to buy in.
A similar story unfolded after John Schnatter, founder of the pizza chain Papa John’s, uttered a racist slur on a corporate call and was forced to resign. Schnatter had a history of provocative language around racial issues, and was a major supporter of Trump; in the aftermath of his firing, the Daily Stormer once again seized the opportunity to name Papa John’s the “official pizza” of the alt-right. Far-right agitator Jack Posobiec even joined in, literally serving Papa John’s at his wedding rehearsal dinner as some kind of bizarre lib-owning demonstration.
Brands don’t have an obvious playbook on how to deal with such disruptions: Fred Perry and the aforementioned Lonsdale, for example, tried to stay quiet at first, hoping the attention would die down. Others, such as the Detroit Red Wings, have played hardball from the get-go, threatening legal action against the far-right actors who appropriated their logo.
Buc-ee’s, meanwhile, has kept it simple. “We have never had contact with these people and do not know who they are,” Jeff Nadalo, the general counsel of Buc-ee’s, told Texas Monthly. “No third party is going to prevent us from providing clean bathrooms equally to all people.”
Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that Buc-ee’s owner Arch Aplin III is an avowed conservative who has donated more than $1 million to current Texas governor Greg Abbott since 2015. It’s unclear whether that played a factor in the Proud Boys’ embrace of wearing cartoon beavers over their faces, or if it was pure coincidence. But no matter the context of how it happens, hatejacking is a genuine element of the broader far-right extremist blueprint on how to harass, assault and intimidate individuals deemed to be political enemies, all while evading punishment.
Hate groups use this conflict to reaffirm their autonomy, their identities as risk-takers and to continue to insert themselves into mainstream discourse. Ignoring such “hatejacks” may leave the power in the hands of extremists to push the narrative whichever way they wish; reacting immediately, however, puts brands at risk of boosting and legitimizing the influence of extremists.
It’s just another complex wrinkle in the tapestry of America’s growing right-wing threats — and odds are, if something stops the Proud Boys from wearing beaver masks, they’ll find something just as distinctive and ironic to don instead.