The resistance is coming for your accessories. That’s because, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow argued earlier this week, “The very symbols of Trumpism–the MAGA hats, the wall, etc.–are more than merely physical objects. They have long since transcended their original meaning and purpose. They are now emblems. They are now the new iconography of white supremacy, white nationalist defiance, and white cultural defense. They are a form of white pride credentialing.”
It’s not just the hat; even voting for Trump now makes you a de facto white supremacist according to Blow: “In much the same way that the Confederate flag became a white supremacist signaling device, wearing the MAGA hat and self-identifying as a ‘Trump supporter’ now serves the same purpose.”
Blow is building on an argument made by Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, who called the MAGA hat “an open wound, a firestorm of hate and a marker of societal atavism.” She asked, apparently rhetorically, “Has there been in recent memory any other item of clothing–so specific in design and color–that pits neighbors against each other, causes classroom altercations, sparks both rage and fear, and ultimately alludes to little more than a mirage?”
This takes the clothes-as-cultural-signifier argument to a whole new level. Givhan convicts MAGA hat-wearers of a host of sins, including “white male privilege” and “violence and hate.” She claims, “To wear a MAGA hat is to wrap oneself in a Confederate flag.”
Is it? Even setting aside the astonishingly simplistic historical assumptions that must be embraced to make this argument (Blow says the rise of the KKK and the rise of the Tea Party are equivalent examples of white backlash, for example), Givhan’s and Blow’s claim raises both practical and moral problems.
The practical problem should be obvious: By Blow’s and Givhan’s reasoning, anyone who wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt hates all cops and anyone who wears a hijab hates all non-Muslims. After all, cops have been murdered by assailants who allied themselves with BLM’s anger at police, and thousands of Americans died at the hands of Muslim extremists on 9/11. Likewise, hipsters who wear Mao or Che Guevara T-shirts should be understood to be disciples of mass murder in the name of revolution.
And what of the people who have made reprehensible arguments that women are somehow to blame for rape if they are dressed provocatively? Givhan, Blow, and their ilk effectively argue something similar–that MAGA hat-wearers have only themselves to blame for any hatred directed at them because they are, effectively, “asking for it.”
If you take their reasoning seriously, then it should apply to everyone. Otherwise, Blow and Givhan must acknowledge that they believe only some groups of people (the ones they designate or agree with) are allowed to signal their identities with items of clothing.
Not surprisingly, to those who might ask why these claims about politically polarizing clothing don’t apply to feminists and their pussy hats or activists wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, Givhan argues that those symbolic articles of clothing are not the same as the MAGA hat because they are worn in protest by the disenfranchised. Has she ever stopped to consider that some of the people who wore MAGA hats in 2016 were also expressing feelings of disenfranchisement? Many voters said they felt like the government and the media no longer represented their concerns, and that Trump seemed to be speaking to them when he talked about making the country “great” again (The gap between people’s feelings of disenfranchisement and its reality are sometimes vast).
Givhan and Blow face a larger moral challenge as well, since they aren’t just singling out the MAGA hat for opprobrium, but making a broader effort to demonize their opponents by casting Trump supporters as “the other”—the exact behavior that progressives have (correctly) criticized Trump for doing with regard to groups such as immigrants. As one proponent of the term described it, “Othering is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favored group. It is largely driven by politicians and the media, as opposed to personal contact. Overwhelmingly, people don’t ‘know’ those that they are Othering.”
“Othering” is a term favored by the left, which likes to argue that it is “conservative elites” who “know how to strategically create fear and use fear of a perceived Other, by organizing and manufacturing fear.”
Perhaps it’s understandable that pundits with elite media perches such as Charles Blow and Robin Givhan enjoy would like to see their sensibilities about Trump (whom they view as a threat to the country) codified as a social norm–and thus think that demonizing large numbers of their fellow citizens is a necessary evil in that quest. Blow and Givhan are more educated and wealthy than the average Trump voter, after all, and probably think they know better what is best for the country.
But “othering” is a bipartisan impulse because it is a deeply human one. It’s a game both sides can play simultaneously and to pernicious effect: Trump uses dehumanizing rhetoric to discuss immigrants; the left parries with “othering” rhetoric about MAGA-hat wearing Trump voters. And round and round the cycle goes. It’s great for clickbait and Twitter wars, but terrible for healthy debate.
It also fails to explain the fact that plenty of voters who voted for Obama (twice!) switched their vote to Trump in 2016. And it has nothing to say to the minorities who did vote for Trump, such as the 28 percent of Latinos who cast their ballot for him in 2016. Were all of these people deluded white nationalists?
White nationalism is one of America’s most shameful exports. For many Americans (including many conservatives), Trump’s equation of protestors and white nationalists after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville led to the death of a protestor was a shameful act. Reasonable people could no longer argue that Trump wasn’t providing cover to racist ideologues.
Yet it should not have to be pointed out that not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist; and that not everyone who wears a MAGA hat is a white nationalist, just like everyone with a Hillary bumper sticker isn’t an apologist for serial sexual harassment or perjury. I think Rep. Ilhan Omar is an anti-Semite, and I wouldn’t vote for her if I lived in her congressional district, but I would defend her against anyone who tried to harass her in public for wearing the hijab. That’s not because I think the hijab is good for women but because, in a free society, the rights we all enjoy (such as the right to wear symbols of our faith or our political views) only exist if we all act responsibly to protect them. That means defending the right of someone with whom we disagree to say (or wear) what they believe.
Blow and Givhan are correct that polarizing symbols can pose a challenge to civil discourse in a heterogeneous democracy. Unfortunately, their embrace of overheated, oversimplified, extremist rhetoric–like its mirror image on the right—is a symptom of the problem, not its solution.