The MAGA hat is a stroke of genius.
National identities are built on purpose. They are defined and described in ways that either encourage unity and engagement or simply affirm the powerful. But there are three ways, in particular, that appear in the making and celebrating of nations around the world: emblems, anthems and uniforms.
Athletes compete under their national flag at the Olympics, soldiers fight under their flag in war, emissaries plant their flag as a symbol of achievement or conquest. Anthems are played to symbolize victory, unity, and pride. Uniforms vary depending on the context, but everyone recognizes a military uniform and many associate certain colors or a specific cultural dress with a nation or a people.
Not surprisingly, when a leader is looking to create a nation in his own image, rather than to serve a nation as it exists, that leader creates symbols representing the new national identity. Hitler adopted the swastika and pasted it on the flag of the Third Reich. Moussolini made Giovinezza the unofficial national anthem of Italy between 1924 and 1943. During China’s Cultural Revolution, badges emblazoned with Mao Zedong’s face were obligatory, usually affixed to unisex, plain tunics and pants, varying to designate which industry the wearer worked in.
The Trump team introduced its “Make America Great Again” slogan affixed to a visible emblem in the color of the Republican Party early in the 2016 presidential race. In the years since, the red hat has become a uniform, more accessible than clothing and more convenient than a badge, but signifying allegiance and membership in the same ways. Trump signs them for loyalists in the military and sells them on his campaign website, while enthusiasts advertise MAGA-hat giveaways. People who wear MAGA hats understand that it signifies not only their support for Trump, but for a host of regressive and racist policies that Trump has introduced. And the Trump campaign can easily discern who is on their team.
It seems clear that the ‘again’ in ‘Make America Great Again’ refers to some time before Obama, before the nation’s first Black president. Maybe it is a promise to return us to times before that: when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to be starved and beaten in concentration camps euphemistically called boarding schools, or when enslaved Africans were bred as commodities and forced to do all of the manual labor that provided white Americans food, shelter, and transportation, when Japanese Americans were interned for the crime of being Japanese, when people of color across the country were efficiently ghettoized, and faced widespread discrimination and abuse without recourse.
Of course the latter never really ended, but strong social movements among people of color and allies, who will together form the majority of Americans by 2045, threaten to destabilize a white supremacist status quo as never before.
The Trump campaign has effectively collapsed signifiers of America, of white nationalism, and of party loyalty in that most casual, most accessible element of Americana: the baseball hat. Remarkably, it provides both instant identification: “the MAGA hat wearing boys from Covington Catholic” and plausible deniability of what it represents: “they didn’t say anything, they were just doing school chants and smiling.” It’s just a baseball cap, and it’s not. It’s a uniform, an emblem and an anthem, and it’s just a baseball cap. It’s a white hood made new again, a swastika you can wear in public, a unisex uniform for every loyalist.