The Rise of the Thin Blue Line at Trump Rallies

By Ishaan Jhaveri

On October 24, a Trump rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, featured a very noticeable backdrop: flying prominently behind the President as he addressed thousands of supporters was not the American flag, but the black, white and blue “Thin Blue Line” flag, a symbol of the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement.

Trump waving at supporters at a campaign rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin on October 24th, 2020 (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

According to the Marshall Project, “Those who fly the flag have said it stands for solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and a solemn tribute to fallen police officers. But it has also been flown by white supremacists, appearing next to Confederate flags at the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.” Yale philosopher Jason Stanley has called it the banner of the second Confederacy, while journalist Jeff Sharlet has referred to it as the “anti-Black Lives Matter flag” and a “fascist banner.”

A recent fact-check from USA Today of a Facebook post containing an image of the Waukesha rally concluded that the Thin Blue Line flag has indeed been gaining prominence at Trump rallies, at least in Wisconsin. As Sharlet’s tweet above alludes to, the flag went from appearing alongside the American flag at a rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, to replacing it altogether as the sole flag behind the stage at the Waukesha rally one week later.

Trump rally in Janesville, Wisconsin on October 17th, 2020 (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin on October 24th, 2020 (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

But can we make a comment about the Thin Blue Line flag’s prominence at Trump rallies over a greater period of time and across the country?

Over the past few months, an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University has been working on VizPol, a tool that gives context about unfamiliar political symbols to journalists covering political demonstrations. As part of our research, I am collecting data about the occurrence of various symbols in photographs from political events over the last few years on databases like Getty Images, AP Images and Redux.

While I do not yet have robust longitudinal data to definitively measure the Thin Blue Line flag’s popularity, an informal pilot study comparing images from two one-week periods in 2016 and 2020 shows a sharp increase in pro-police symbols in Trump rallies across the country.

Methodology

I looked at photographs of the Thin Blue Line and other Blue Lives Matter symbols from Getty Images’ database. Getty Images organizes photograph sets into “events.” I noted all events that came up for a search for “trump rally” in two equivalent one-week periods in 2016 and 2020. The one-week period in 2016 was Tuesday, October 18th to Monday, October 24th, 2016, and the one-week period in 2020 was Tuesday, October 13th to Monday, October 19th, 2020. Both periods begin 21 days before the presidential election in their respective year.

Results

In 2016 there were 24 events in the target period. Of these:

In 2020 there were 34 events in the target period. Of these:

The symbols described above showed up in the following notable ways:

  1. Flags and banners being carried by supporters

Trump supporters hold signs during a rally outside an early voting polling location for the 2020 Presidential election in Miami, Florida on October 19th, 2020 (Photographer: Marco Bello/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

2. On T-Shirts

Trump rally in Johnston, Pennsylvania on October 13th, 2020. A Supporter wearing a Thin Blue Line t-shirt can be seen in the bottom right of the photograph (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

3. On flags containing blue, green and red lines to show support for law enforcement, federal agents like park rangers (some consider the green line to represent the military as well) and firefighters, respectively.

Flags are displayed on a truck outside a Trump rally in Prescott, Arizona on October 19th, 2020. A Black & White US Flag with three white stripes replaced by one blue, one green and one red stripe can be seen at the right of the photograph (Photographer: Ash Ponders/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

4. On vehicles outside rallies (here the Thin Blue Line flag is inlaid onto a police badge):

A van with a digital sign displays a message in support of cops outside a Trump rally in Prescott, Arizona on October 19th, 2020 (Photographer: Ash Ponders/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

5. On “Cops For Trump” signs

“Cops for Trump” signs at a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa on October 14th, 2020 (Photographer: Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Cops for Trump” signs at a Trump rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on October 13th, 2020 (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

6. As part of the decor or backdrop of the stage at a Trump rally:

Thin Blue Line flag prominently displayed behind the stage at a Trump rally in Janesville, Wisconsin on October 17th , 2020 (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Thin Blue Line flag prominently displayed beside the stage at a Trump rally in Macon, Georgia on October 16th , 2020 (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Stringer via Getty Images)

Thin Blue Line flag prominently displayed behind the President at a Trump rally in Macon, Georgia on October 16th , 2020 (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

7. On stickers

A bus featuring “Blue Lives Matter” stickers and pro-Trump messaging in the parking lot of a Trump rally Macon, Georgia on October 16th , 2020 (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

8. On flags flown from cars

A line of vehicles flying flags, including the Thin Blue Line flag with the words “Blue Lives Matter” on it, is seen outside the parking lot of a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Macon, Georgia on October 16th, 2020 (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

9. On masks

A supporter wears a Thin Blue Line mask while waiting for the arrival of President Donald Trump for a Make America Great Again rally in Greenville, North Carolina on October 15th, 2020 (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

10. Being sold at memorabilia stores, suggesting a demand for pro-Blue Lives Matter merchandise among Trump rally attendees

A Memorabilia store sells Thin Blue Line flags alongside Trump merchandise before the start of a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa on October 14th, 2020 (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

11. With Trump’s name replacing the thin blue line

Supporters wear t-shirts with a black & gray US Flag with two stripes replaced by the word “Trump” in blue outside a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa on October 14th, 2020 (Photographer: Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

12. On a giant flag carried by many supporters that also had “Trump” and “Law and Order” on it

A group of Trump supporters arrive at Times Square after marching from Trump Tower with a giant Trump flag with a thin blue line in New York City, New York on October 13th, 2020 (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

13. Inlaid onto a Punisher symbol

A man wearing a Thin Blue Line flag inlaid into a symbol of Marvel Comics’ Punisher marches along with Trump supporters down fifth avenue from Trump Tower to Times Square in New York City, New York on October 13th, 2020(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

14. On “Back the Blue” signs

Trump supporters gather in a Long Island Rail Road parking lot before driving in cars as part of a caravan in Seaford, New York on October 18th, 2020. A sign with the Thin Blue Line flag and the words “We Back the Blue” can be seen on the right side of the photograph (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In some cases, symbols appeared that could have been intended to support the Blue Lives Matter movement, but we cannot know for sure. Examples include:

  1. “Law & Order” symbology

A supporter wears a “Trump LAW & ORDER” t-shirt at a Trump rally in Ocala, Florida on October 16th, 2020 (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

2. A Thin Blue Line-esque symbol with the blue line replaced by a blue rifle, over the words Trump 2020”, probably to symbolize support for law enforcement, the second amendment and Trump

People cheer as U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak during his campaign event at the Ocala International Airport in Ocala, Florida on October 16th, 2020. In the center of the photograph a supporter wears a t-shirt with a black & white US Flag with two stripes replaced by a blue rifle(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Caveats

Conclusion

From this limited data, we can reasonably conclude that the prominence of pro-Blue Lives Matter symbols has increased at Trump rallies between 2016 and 2020. This data alone is not enough to quantify the extent of this increase or whether this phenomenon is visible across the entire country rather than just in the specific states listed above.

On Monday, October 26th, the New York Times’ Daily podcast aired an interview with three suburban white women in Ohio who are supporting Biden in 2020. One of the interviewees, who had voted for Trump in 2016, talked about her experience learning about systemic racism in America after the police killing of George Floyd, saying she felt that the Republican Party is not doing enough to confront it. Even as Trump’s stance on law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement costs him swing voters like this woman, it has clearly galvanized many of his supporters. And his campaign remains steadfast in its messaging.

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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