GIF: YouTube

If you’ve spent time on the Trump-supporting parts of social media, you’ve probably come across a strange meme in the past couple of years. MAGA-loving Twitter is constantly offering people “free helicopter rides.” But what does it mean?

The offer of “free helicopter rides” is a reference to the practice of killing people by dropping them from helicopters, made most famous by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Sometimes Pinochet’s “death flights” were conducted over the ocean, but they were also done over rivers and sometimes the land. Hundreds of political dissidents are still unaccounted for from the Pinochet era, but a conservative government estimate from 2001 puts the number of people killed in Chile by being thrown from helicopters at 120.

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Despite its disgusting connotations, “free helicopter rides” has become quite a meme online for people who support President Trump and his neo-fascist policies. There are entire Facebook pages devoted to Pinochet’s Free Helicopter Rides, and even websites that sell t-shirts and other gear with the phrase.

A t-shirt being sold online offering “free helicopter rides” to Antifa
Photo: Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children Store

“President Trump Gives Free Helicopter Rides to Communist Domestic Terrorists !” one Twitter account, called Stop Communism in America, tweeted out.

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“Can’t wait till Kavanaugh makes it legal to take Libshits on free helicopter rides!” another Trump supporter tweeted recently.

“Free helicopter rides for globalists! And their hired communist thugs. #MAGA #Sacramento” another tweeted with a photoshopped image of an offensive Jewish caricature being thrown from a Trump-branded helicopter. Globalist, it should be noted, is often a code word for “Jewish” on right-wing social media.

There are also plenty of videos on places like YouTube with the meme, embracing the idea that all of President Trump’s “enemies” should be dealt with through extrajudicial killings.

The rise of fascism is a global problem right now, as places like Brazil, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, and Greece all see parties on the far right gain a foothold in mainstream politics. But we’re also seeing Americans become more globally aware of authoritarian leaders and their history. Yes, plenty of far right shitposters love Hitler. But there are other historical authoritarian figures that have become popular in the United States, including dictators like Chile’s Pinochet, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Spain’s Francisco Franco.

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There’s been a lot of pearl-clutching recently by Trump supporters who worry about the “incivility” of the left. But as people on the right celebrate the death of Heather Heyer, killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville last summer, as “payback time,” we should probably realize that humanity needs to start taking the fringes of the online world more seriously.

It’s all a “joke” until it’s not.