High school boys in 2019 wear “Make America Great Again” hats for the same reason high school boys in 1992 wore Slayer t-shirts: contrarianism and attention seeking. Well, it’s almost the same, except the members of Slayer are actually good at their jobs and worthy of fandom.
It’s the reason we saw University of South Carolina baseball caps around the University of Houston during my tenure. South Carolina is a thousand miles from Houston, and most of us had never been there. But you see, Carolina’s mascot is the gamecock, and their 90’s era hats said “COCKS” across the front. To quote myself and every dude I knew circa 1998 (and 2019, to be fair), “Uh…huh huh…huh huh…he said cocks.” “Cocks” has a much more je ne sais quai than “Cougars,” no?
The kids wear stuff like that for the same reason my old co-worker had “FREEK” tattooed across his neck. It’s the same reason goth kids wear all black and avoid sunlight to the point of getting rickets.
These people hang out at the intersection of “I’m different” and “I desperately need to fit in.” They’re unique and special, it just happens to be in the exact same way as all of their friends. They’re rebels, just like everyone else.
But I digress. And I do so constantly and annoyingly, according to everyone who’s ever had a conversation with me.
Back to MAGA hats.
I work in Washington, DC, which means I get to bear witness to a few predictable, natural phenomena.
First, I get to see first generation immigrants selling souvenirs to tourists. Among those souvenirs are this season’s hottest seller: a hat that represents the purchaser’s desire to see those first generation immigrants get separated from their children and deported. It’s like a fried chicken restaurant using a smiling bird as their mascot. Come try some of my freshly battered and deep-fried friends and relatives, they’re cluckin’ delicious!
Second, I get to experience the aftermath of some yahoos in the eighteenth century deciding that a literal swamp was the best place to build a federal city. Maybe worse, they hired noted sadist Pierre “Peter The Child” L’Enfant to draw the layout. He opted for a hub-and-spoke map in the image of Paris, France. Every day, when I’m stuck in endless traffic caused by diagonal streets and roundabouts on top of a grid, I eat a croissant (but importantly, I pronounce it “cwa-SAHN”)and yell SACRÉ BLEU! in disgust.
Perhaps most pertinently to the article at hand, I witness a constant stream of adolescents coming to tour our nation’s capital for field trips. Boys and girls from near and far are bussed into DC each week. They come to tour the (now shuttered) museums, see the Declaration of Independence, view countless monuments, and get accosted by homeless people at rates much higher than they can experience in their hometowns. Heck, my provincial little hometown didn’t have any of those things. Well, we had a few adolescents, but none of the rest of it.
Like clockwork, a few of the boys (yes, it’s always boys) in each group will find a souvenir stand. And like it was scripted, they’ll hand over the money their parents gave them and buy a MAGA hat from the first non-English speaking brown person they’ve ever been this close to. Well, besides their family’s Mexican landscaper…what’s his name, Carlos? Juan? It’s not important, they never talk to him anyway. (By the way, it’s João, and he’s Brazilian…there’s a difference, you freakin’ racist).
Chests puffed out, the boys will strut around the city. They know that people are looking at them. They’re enjoying the little bit of rebellious aura they’ve acquired by donning mass produced, Chinese made, immigrant sold headwear. They’re independent and do what they want, as long as it’s the same as what their friends are doing. And in this case, they’re flexing their independence by wearing a hat.
It’s asinine, but I honestly have no problem with kids trying on different “personas” to figure out which one fits. We have all done it to varying degrees. For instance, I had long-ish hair in high school, and I often wore it in a ponytail on top of my head like Pebbles Flintstone. As I grew up, I decided that “looking like Pebbles” wasn’t the first impression I wanted to make. And that decision was graciously assisted by male pattern baldness.
The problem with the MAGA hat is that it represents much more than a silly haircut or Slayer t-shirt ever could. And it symbolizes more than young boys are ready to carry. In a polarized society, the red hat represents membership on a certain team. And it’s shorthand—intended or not—that you support everything that team stands for.
And to be fair, it’s no different than wearing a pussy hat in that regard (and only in that regard): it’s legitimate for the outside world to assume you are pro-choice, feminist, and liberal. You might have nuanced viewpoints on any part of the overarching liberal agenda, but we get what your hat is broadly intended to mean.
If one were to draw a Venn diagram of the issue, there’s a bit of overlap between “people who are against a woman’s right to an abortion,” and “misogynist assholes who want women to make them a sandwich and shut up.”
Understanding Venn diagrams, there are plenty of people to whom only one of those categories applies. I know a ton of good people who are against legal access to abortion, but who view women as equals to men (a cognitively dissonant position we can discuss some other time). And there are plenty of misogynists who don’t care about the abortion issue at all.
But let’s add more circles, shall we? Yes, we shall, because I can’t actually hear your response, and time is linear.
Let’s add a circle called “blatantly racist pricks.”
And maybe another we’ll title “privileged, entitled people” and one more for “people who blame poor folks for their own plight.”
Then there’s “men who think women should dress differently if they don’t want to be sexually assaulted.”
A circle for “people who share videos of smirking dudes ranting in pickup trucks” is a must.
Let’s throw in a circle for “anti-immigrant.”
We need a circle for “anti-LGBTQ people” and “people who worry about ‘reverse racism.’”
And one more for “people who think health care is not a human right because they’ve always had insurance and never reflected on the privilege with which they were born.” That one’s kind of long and will likely affect the scale at which we draw this imaginary Venn diagram. Sorry. Hopefully you have tiny hands and can write small.
Lastly, we need a circle for “people who wear MAGA hats.”
As we layer these new circles, there are people for whom two, seven, or all of these circles overlap. There are as many combinations as there are milligrams of cholesterol in our president’s bloodstream. For instance, being a misogynist doesn’t necessarily mean you’re anti-immigrant or worried about reverse racism, and vice versa. You could just be one type of asshole, though that is exceedingly rare.
The problem these youngsters can’t fully grasp is that a lot of these circles are practically on top of each other. In other words, to the outside world, “people who wear MAGA hats” is practically synonymous with many, if not all, of those other hostile stances.
When you put the hat on, the message you’re conveying—intentionally or not—is that you support everything Team Red Hat stands for. And because you didn’t emerge from your mother’s womb with a MAGA hat on your malleable head, humanity assumes you knowingly made the choice to convey that message.
It boldly projects to all comers the idea that you support things like banning all Muslims from our country, calling United States Senators nicknames like “Pocahontas,” grabbing women by the pussy, dismissing war heroes’ service and sacrifice because they were captured, putting children in cages, screaming “Jews will not replace us,” letting American citizens in Puerto Rico suffer in squalor after a natural disaster, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, and banning transgender troops from serving our country in the armed forces.
I’ve heard some critics compare the MAGA hat to the KKK’s white hoods. I want to make it clear, it’s not the same. It’s worse.
It’s worse because in 2019, no one is going to vote a fully robed and hooded Klansman into the presidency. Realistically, we’re not going to let the Grand Wizard show up and make policy that affects 330 million people.
But we are letting people with openly racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic ideals serve in our highest elected offices. And one easy way to identify who has those points of view is to spot the people who willingly, knowingly choose to wear a hat that symbolizes all of those ideals.
If you know all of this and still choose to slap a MAGA hat on your mashed-potatoes-and-gravy-filled noggin, you are willingly accepting the ire of a massive portion of the country. You’re intentionally projecting to me and the people I care about that you wish ill upon us. Don’t whine about our reaction, because our reaction is predictable and just. Own your choice, or make a different one.
If you’re choosing such loaded headgear to wear to a purportedly Christian event, such as the March For Life, accept the fact that you’re intentionally detracting from the mission at hand. You’re choosing attention for yourself over the purpose of a protest march: attention for the issue against which you’re demonstrating.
If you’re a chaperone for a field trip, irrespective of your politics, you owe it to the children you’re supervising to explain this to them in graphic detail. Your political opinions aren’t important right now. What’s important is that you share your adult-level understanding of life with children who cannot fully comprehend the impact of their choices.
The same moms and dads who are fearful that little Tristan from Des Moines Prep will be mistaken for a Crip if he wears blue need to apply some of that fear to the matter at hand.
It’s your job to make him understand that freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences. In this case, the consequences range from “being dismissed and marginalized as a racist piece of shit” to “hijacking the entire purpose of a 300,000 person Christian rally.”
Make him understand that symbols negate nuance.
Tell him that incendiary symbols attract negative attention.
Teach him that inflammatory symbols incite reaction and invite violence.
And help him understand that it’s possible that someone will overstep the law, see his MAGA hat, assume he’s on board with all the bad things that hat represents, and punch little Tristan in the face.
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