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The MAGA Hat Rorschach Test

Let’s not pretend symbols don’t have meaning and power

Robert A Stribley
Feb 5 · 9 min read
A Trump fan argues with protestors outside of Trump Tower. Photos: Robert Stribley

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Listening to NPR’s “On the Media” recently, I heard a typically nuanced discussion of the reaction to the Covington high school kids’ actions in Washington, D.C. the previous weekend. As you likely know, a video circulated, framing them as a gang of red MAGA-cap wearing boys bullying a Native American man, Nathan Phillips, who stood solemnly beating a drum before them. However, as more video appeared, the narrative changed and people argued that the Covington boys had been unfairly maligned. The situation quickly grew much more complicated.

In the ensuing conversation, some argued that Trump’s now-iconic Make America Great Again hat has become a symbol of racism, explaining that the appearance of all the MAGA gear on these students triggered the initial reaction, however misplaced.

That argument angered many Trump supporters, and in the aforementioned “On the Media” episode, host Bob Garfield concluded that the MAGA hat acts as a Rorschach test. In other words, you might simply see this plain red cap as a symbol of support for Donald Trump or you might see it as a symbol of racism and bigotry. And, perhaps like Bob, you can admit that you flinch whenever you see one.

As the ultimate symbol of Trumpism, why would anyone wear that hat unless they support the policies and beliefs Trump is best known for?

To some degree, that seems a fair evaluation. But it also opens the door for a kind of “both sides” argument, which allows Trump supporters to shrug off any further examination of the MAGA hat as a symbol and to suggest that it only offends people because they don’t like Trump.

Instead, there’s a strong case to be made that the MAGA hat has become strongly tied as a symbol to Donald Trump and Trumpism. And, as the ultimate symbol of Trumpism, why would anyone wear that hat unless they support the policies and beliefs Trump is best known for? And don’t his best-known policies include constant calls for a border wall to save us from a nonexistent immigration crisis, the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, a Muslim ban (let’s call it that because that’s what he initially called it), removing transgender people from the military, and so on?

In fact, Trump spends most days arguing that we’re in the midst of an immigration crisis. To buttress his argument, he relies on a constant stream of misinformation about undocumented immigrants coming into the country, suggesting the problem is growing worse when illegal immigration has been falling for years. Trump regularly vilifies undocumented immigrants, suggesting they’re likely to be violent criminals. These are the positions he is best known for. His cornerstone policies. So it’s no stretch to suggest the MAGA hat symbolizes support for them.

Given that context, why wouldn’t Phillips, a Native American man, feel compelled to calmly protest a group of young men wearing MAGA gear, signifying their support for Trump and his anti-minority policies, even if they were otherwise acting (it’s claimed) respectfully?

A young Trump supporter outside Trump Tower in New York City.

That’s why we’ve reached a collective impasse in discussing this incident: Many Americans don’t want to accept that the presence of a large group of young white men wearing MAGA gear is inherently disturbing to many people because of what Trumpism represents.

If you’re not bothered by the red Trump cap as a symbol, put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment. Imagine you’re a Mexican immigrant (undocumented, documented, citizen—doesn’t matter), who has repeatedly heard Trump describe your country’s people as murderers and rapists. Imagine you’re a Muslim, one of a billion human beings Trump initially vowed to ban from the country. Imagine you’re a transgender person whose very existence the Trump administration has repeatedly sought to invalidate. Imagine you’re a woman, who finds his aggressive treatment of women repellant.

Symbols represent something. That’s why some people who wouldn’t wear a MAGA hat themselves become uncomfortable with criticism of those who do. Because they sense that criticism of the symbol is really criticism of Trump’s policies. And though they may not completely align with Trump, they may align with at least some of his policies, however crudely he presents them.

Given that dynamic, of course, the most avid Trump supporters seethe at any criticism of young white men wearing MAGA caps. It’s not just the teenage boys being criticized. It’s the parents, as well. It’s the policies and beliefs they’ve embraced.

In order for those Trump supporters to admit the Covington kids may have acted unwisely, at the least, they’d have to admit that the message the MAGA cap sends is inherently disturbing, aggressive, oppressive. And that ain’t gonna happen. Instead, we’re hit with false comparisons.

Some Trump supporters suggest that having a negative reaction to someone wearing a MAGA cap is like a rapist saying, “She was wearing that skirt, so she deserved it.” Not only is that not a convincing counterargument, it’s a remarkably disingenuous one. Skirts don’t symbolize political policies. And criticizing the symbol need not mean advocating physical harm to someone wearing the cap. So the metaphor fails on both levels. It’s also just a grotesque comparison. The MAGA hat or MAGA acronym is a symbol, not a generic article of clothing. And we all know what it symbolizes.

Similarly, some compared the MAGA hat to the Pink Pussy hats of the #MeToo movement. From a progressive’s perspective, the response to that argument is pretty simple. Of course, both hats are emblematic. However, one hat is meant to act as a symbol for human rights. The other acts as a symbol of their denial. Now, I’m sure the MAGA hat crowd won’t appreciate the argument that their hat is an “anti-human rights” symbol. But can they offer a compelling argument that any of Trump’s most popular policies seek to advance human rights?

It may not be a swastika, but it’s not a Boy Scout uniform, either. When you wear a MAGA hat, we know what you stand for. Do you?

After the Covington boys incident, The National Review’s David French compared the student’s treatment to Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing. Summarizing his own piece in a tweet, he wrote, “Last year, conservative wives looked at the furious attack on Kavanaugh and thought, ‘That could be my husband.’ Now conservative moms look at the wild attempt to destroy the Covington kids and think, ‘That could be my son.’”

To be clear, I’m not arguing that those kids should be harassed, doxed, or physically threatened. However, if I had a son, I also hope he wouldn’t think it appropriate to cover himself in MAGA gear and parade around with a posse of similarly attired kids, signaling their admiration for a man and policies characterized by fear-mongering, ignorance, and bigotry.

Symbols exist on a spectrum. Perhaps it’s not fair to say the MAGA cap is the same as a swastika or a Ku Klux Klan hood. But it’s also disingenuous to suggest the symbol is meaningless and harmless. It may not be a swastika, but it’s not a Boy Scout uniform, either. When you wear a MAGA hat, we know what you stand for. Do you?

If you’re angered by this response to people wearing MAGA hats, understand that many of your fellow Americans believe that an avid supporter of Trump also probably supports his characteristic policies, which are viewed widely as inherently racist and bigoted.

Arguably, the MAGA mantra itself is problematic. Which period of American history would you like to return to exactly, MAGA folks? Whichever you choose, you can be sure the oppression was only worse for African-Americans, women, LGBTQ people, and other minority groups.

Wearing MAGA swag shows an enthusiastic commitment to Trump and his policies—namely the oppression of undocumented immigrants and minorities. If you accept that’s true, concern about what the Covington students were wearing becomes more understandable. Certainly, we should examine the full context of the incident. But the symbology of the kids’ attire is real. It’s not without effect.

A woman working a snack stand in lower Manhattan. Her hat offers a witty response to the MAGA cap. She asked not to be identified.

There’s a much larger issue lurking beneath all of this, one we’re really just grappling with, which keeps slipping through our fingers like a grimy fish hidden beneath murky waters. The one big issue, which lurks behind so much in American culture.

Some people define racism or bigotry differently than others do. So, naturally, some folks grow quite angry when you suggest someone might be racist because they wear a red MAGA cap. They want to start racism at David Duke or Richard Spencer instead of recognizing that those are just the loudest, most visible examples of racism. Many of us don’t want to recognize that racism thrives all around us. This doesn’t just apply to the United States, either — many more human beings are racist than some of us would like to believe. If you accept that, it’s not difficult to contemplate how the MAGA cap could become an emblem of racism, bigotry, and tribalism. Even if, perhaps, not everyone who wears it is a “racist.”

At least understand that when many of your fellow Americans see a MAGA hat, they see… support for a man initiating policies that focus on harming minorities at an alarming rate.

Defining and quantifying racism and bigotry is a difficult and subjective enterprise. Many Americans believe that few of us could really be characterized by racism. Perhaps we’d like to think that, say, five to 10 percent of us are racist, maybe fewer. But if you consider these core policies of Trump’s to be racist or bigoted, then suddenly you’re arguing that many more Americans can be characterized by racist or bigoted beliefs. The percentage might be more like 35 percent, perhaps higher. Such estimates may shock white Americans, but if we listen to American minorities, I doubt they’d question an estimate like that. In fact, they might suggest higher. And, no doubt, reasonable people would agree that racism thrives across the political spectrum.

You may disagree. But at least understand that when many of your fellow Americans see a MAGA hat, they see support for a president known to lie at a rate never seen before in American history. They see support for a man who reaches for misinformation first every time as his favored tool to get his way. They see support for a man who regularly vilifies, even terrorizes, undocumented immigrants. They see support for a man initiating policies that focus on harming minorities at an alarming rate. Consider that Trump himself is a brand and that brand is spoiled. People are petitioning to have his name removed from their buildings.

Symbols have meaning and power. The power to advocate for the greater good. And the power to oppress.

This argument isn’t intended to justify any given rush to judgment. I was troubled by the initial response to the Covington incident, especially when some tried to dox the teens or suggested the incident should follow them for the rest of their lives. From my own experience, I understand that people’s beliefs can change, and I hope we won’t be held accountable for what we once believed for our entire lives. And, of course, any death threats aimed at them are reprehensible.

But while we’re defending these young men against any senseless rush to judgment, can we also acknowledge that MAGA caps have come to symbolize oppression? The fact these boys chose to wear that particular cap does mean something. If they had worn caps bearing their school insignia instead of MAGA caps, things might have turned out differently.

Maybe the MAGA hat is a Rorschach test. Maybe to some it looks like a butterfly. Maybe to others it looks like a grinning skull. Maybe to others it’s simply a smudge of illegible black ink. Or maybe it has truly morphed into something terrible, and it takes considerable, questionable effort to see it any other way.

Robert A Stribley

Written by

Writer and photographer with interests in immigration, privacy, security, culture and digital design. Day jobs in UX at SapientRazorfish and faculty at SVA.

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