This is the storm we’re in. Liberals at war with conservatives. Left versus Right. Republicans versus Democrats. Donald Trump supporters pitted against everyone else. These conversations touch every corner of our lives. They require reason and discussion and, as hard as it is for either side to admit, some degree of nuance. They beg us to step out of our echo chambers and to understand the better arguments of those we oppose. They’re also essential to any sense of progress, at least until slicing up the United States into more manageable parts makes it onto the ballot (many empires break into segments in their dying days).
But the MAGA hat is different. The hat’s its own thing. It is imbued with a symbolism that’s divorced from complicated ideologies. The volumes it speaks aren’t about the thorny issues of immigration policy; they’re about Trump’s coarse blanket statement about “criminals and rapists.” It doesn’t represent a side of the continual battle waged over the bodily autonomy of women; it’s “grab ’em by the pussy.” It’s not connected to any piece of the important conversation about how to heal America’s racial divide, make peace with our shared past, and fight racism in the present while moving forward as a nation; it’s simply the voice saying “both sides” after Charlottesville.
That red hat, emblazoned with the phrase “Make America Great Again” in white letters, isn’t a political statement anymore. It’s a declaration of intolerance that has taken on a life of its own. So when a few dozen smirking white kids wearing the hat have a confrontation with an Omaha elder at the Lincoln Memorial, the context added by viewing a preceding confrontation with a sect of the Hebrew Israelites becomes largely unimportant. The kids are wearing a symbol of hate. Not just a symbol of hate to adults involved in the political conversation, either. A symbol that has been linked to bullying in schools across the country.
Calling a cheap tourist souvenir hateful is a cloudy, dangerous accusation to level. Especially when made by a writer who aims to be progressive on political issues and, for that, is often accused of being bitterly partisan. Most of the matters dividing the country require a more thoughtful approach, not drawing lines in the sand. And painting one another as fascists or racists or bigots hardly ever serves our broader national discourse.
But it’s also true that sometimes a symbol becomes, well, more than a symbol. It gets detached from whatever intent it originally had and lends its iconography to extremism. The swastika was a Sanskrit sign that represented good fortune across Europe and Asia. But to expect the Western world to see it as anything more than hate speech is, obviously, absurd. Once a symbol is imbued with hateful meaning, it’s rarely salvageable. The Iron Cross was a German war medal far longer than it was associated with Nazism and brands have long tried to reclaim it without the racist connotations. But there it was at Charlottesville, its intended meaning undeniable. Similar attempts to reposition the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia (popularly known as the Confederate Flag) as representing some nebulous set of Southern values rather than the desire of the Confederate states to own and profit from slaves will always fail.
At some point, trying to extract the hate from a symbol best known for hate just leads to flailing mental gymnastics. Whereas for the non-racist, rejecting a symbol that connotes racism to those facing the actual discrimination takes no effort at all. It’s racist? I won’t wear it! Done!