Symbols are powerful, conveying profound messages with the simplest images.
Soldiers carry a flag into battle and face death to hoist it aloft. Christian churches are identified by T-shaped pieces of wood or metal affixed to prominent places. In some ancient Eastern religions, the swastika represented peace, but it is today universally recognized as a sign of racism and anti-Semitism, violent repression and genocide. Each of those symbols carries a deep meaning recognized by those who display it.
During his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump launched his own symbol -- a baseball cap with the words “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on it. Because of the incendiary rhetoric he spewed during his rallies, the MAGA cap quickly became associated with a bundle of prejudices -- xenophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia. If you wear the cap, you aren’t just a fan of Trump; you’re also a bigot who wants to build a wall on the southern border.
Or so the thinking goes.
That helped to make last weekend’s encounter between the Covington Catholic High School teens and a Native American man on the Washington Mall especially fraught: Several of the Covington students were wearing MAGA caps. (And regardless of what you’ve heard about the students being misrepresented, some of them can indeed be heard sarcastically whooping Hollywood versions of Indian war cries and miming a tomahawk chop.)
Regardless, is it true that every man, woman or child who wears a MAGA cap is a right-wing racist?
Having grown up in Alabama, I know how crazily complex issues that swirl around race can be. As much as I detest the St. Andrew’s cross and stars -- the symbol of the Confederacy’s treason and dedication to slavery -- I’ve been generously assisted by strangers whose trucks were festooned with Confederate flags. A man with just such a pickup truck, complete with gun rack, once jump-started the dead battery in my car, addressing me as “ma’am.” I was so grateful for his help.
Yet, years later, I still recoil from similarly decorated trucks, never sure what sort of encounter I might have with their drivers. They cover their vehicles with the symbol of Southern secession for a reason, and I can only guess that the reason aligns with deep-seated racial prejudices, pride in the so-called Lost Cause and a defense of slavery and its violent aftermath. Why else would they go out of their way to identify with the Confederacy?
We are responsible for the ways in which we represent ourselves in public and the symbols with which we choose to associate. Those who wear “Make America Great Again” caps are allying themselves with Trumpism and the bigotry that was always at its core. Whatever their initial reasons for supporting Trump, his constituents surely now understand that he represents a crude nationalism that asserts white privilege, condones violence against people of color and recoils from cultural change.
Perhaps the teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School don’t fully understand all that. Perhaps they were just doing what adolescents often do: running as a pack, wearing the most interesting souvenir from their trip.
If so, let this be a teaching moment for them. Their chaperones should have been the ones to explain that the MAGA caps have become a symbol of exclusion, bigotry, xenophobia. What does “Make America Great Again” mean, anyway? The country was great until it elected a black president? Or before the civil rights movement?
Adolescents rebel against authority, of course; several might have worn the caps anyway. But this was a school field trip. They left Kentucky to participate in the anti-abortion March for Life, held annually around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Since they were representing their school, they could have been compelled to conform to its standards. (Of course, the MAGA hats may represent Covington’s standards perfectly. Many conservative Christians have fully embraced Trump, with all his crude excesses and explicit prejudices.)
I’ve yet to personally see a black or brown youth in a MAGA hat. They certainly know what the Trumpish symbol is meant to represent. Indeed, around the country, black and brown students have been subjected to threatening taunts and racist slurs by people wearing just such MAGA paraphernalia. That’s no coincidence.
If the Covington kids want to associate themselves with that, they deserve the assumptions that many Americans will make about them.