One image was inescapable on social media over MLK Day weekend: the smirking face of a teenage boy in a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, staring down a Native American elder.
The boy was Nick Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, who along with the dozens of classmates shouting and seeming to mock Native American chants behind him, had been bused in to Washington, DC, for the March for Life. In videos that circulated on Twitter and YouTube this weekend, Sandmann smiles inches away from the man, Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, who had been participating in Friday’s Indigenous Peoples March.
The reaction was swift: The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School released a statement condemning the students’ actions, while many writers placed the image within the canon of photographs from American history in which a white man smiles jeeringly at peaceful protesters of color. Ruth Graham wrote at Slate that it’s “the face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
This face and the hat above it are symbolic of the same thing. Since the election, MAGA hats have become emblems of both transgression and belonging that mean different things to different people. Social media users were quick to latch onto the hat as further evidence of the teen’s racism, while others, particularly after video evidence showed that Phillips approached the teens and not the other way around (Phillips said he was trying to diffuse the escalating tension between the teens and a group of Black Hebrew Israelite protesters), used it as proof of the left’s bias against Trump supporters.
MAGA hats, however, hold special significance for some middle and high school students. Travel to any tourist destination in DC and you’ll see swaths of school groups, many of them wearing hats purchased at nearby souvenir shops. It’s not a coincidence that most of the kids wearing them happen to be white: All over the country, there have been reports of students in MAGA hats bullying their Latino, Middle Eastern, Black, Asian, and Jewish classmates (BuzzFeed found 81 instances in one year between 2016 and 2017) on the basis of race and religion.
Students wearing the caps, like the group from Covington, often repeat the slogans that the president built his campaign around. “Fake news” and “build the wall” became their own memes, pithy phrases tailor-made to be shouted by large groups of people. But just like the hat and its slogan, these phrases have far-reaching consequences. The press, and truth itself, is under direct attack from the president, and Trump’s demands for $5 billion of funding for his border wall has now contributed to the longest government shutdown in US history, which so far is estimated to have cost the American economy more than the cost of the proposed fence.
These are problems, however, for adults to worry about and for kids to make fun of. In a 2017 report on the draw that MAGA hats hold for teens, Hilary George-Parkin noted that the more that adults wring their hands about the potential dangers of Trumpist symbolism, the easier it is for kids to laugh about how dramatic they’re being. “I think kids think of [MAGA hats] as more of a joke,” a 14-year-old named Julia from New Jersey told her, “and adults don’t.”
Plus, the more taboo the hats become, the more power they hold, at least from a fashion standpoint. Teens have always been quick to embrace clothing that adults find distasteful or uncomfortable, from visible underwear to rude novelty T-shirts. For some teens who wear MAGA hats, it’s no more than a fashion trend. “I only got it because everyone else was,” Julia added. “I doubt I’d wear it after the trip because I’m not really much of a hat person anyway.”
But for those for whom the phrase “Make America Great Again” refers to only a small slice of who or what “America” is, it isn’t just a hat. One Muslim American mother whose son went on a middle school trip to DC in which “every single white kid besides maybe one or two” returned wearing a MAGA hat said that the red caps became a familiar marker of exclusionary preteen politics.
”I think 12-year-old boys use it as a form of bullying — identifying themselves as part of this group to the exclusion of others just for the fun of it,” she told George-Parkin. “That’s what it seemed like to me. Us over here with the red hats, and you over there … you’re not even an individual anymore. Now you’re just one of the brown kids and you’re not one of us.”
While many liberals and progressives see the campaign slogan as a dog whistle against nonwhite Americans, some Trump supporters see MAGA hat-wearers as brave bastions in the war against political correctness. Actress and #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano, for instance, referred to MAGA hats as “the new white hood,” whereas right-wing commentators claim that those who take its message seriously are “sensitive snowflakes.”
That’s a lot of symbolism to hang on a hat, so it isn’t much of a surprise that some kids and teenagers have embraced MAGA caps as a fashion trend. As far as accessories go, they have everything: Their message is straightforward and provocative, and protects the wearer as part of a “winning” team. Much like Sandmann’s facial expression, his MAGA hat is all too aware of the power it, and he, holds. And if people are offended, then, well, he could just say that in fact, he wasn’t smirking.
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