Any visit to Washington, DC, today can’t occur without witnessing troops of school-age kids combing the sites of the nation’s capital adorned in MAGA hats. Since the Donald Trump campaign and through his presidency, those red Make America Great Again hats have become part of our cultural landscape. Curiously, the MAGA hat did not become a 2016 campaign relic, disappearing onto the shelves of junk shops and other purveyors of Americana. Instead, it became an expression of ideology that now tends to either offend or hearten those who see it. To me, the hat is a cultural oddity because, in terms of defining any past American greatness as the “again” suggests, the MAGA slogan lacks any temporal boundaries and so makes little sense. What period of greatness is the slogan and ultimately the hat referring to? Is it the time of our Founding Fathers when the American experiment began with human equality defined as the ideal, but not the reality; or when Manifest Destiny had us expanding West at the expense of Indigenous peoples; or was it when Jim Crow laws suppressed the rights of African-Americans; or when we thought clean air and water were infinite and that manatees, bald eagles, and grizzly bears had to live in the world we created, and sorry about your luck if you didn’t make it; or was it when we, at times, abandoned our principles regarding the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans? These temporal moments seem to be lost on the MAGA slogan indicating it exists without any historical context. That problem (among many others) has made we wonder why anyone would rally around such an ahistorical slogan and actually choose to wear the hat. I was hoping for irony or some other rationale for donning such a head covering, but finding none I can only wonder what specific time the language of “great again” actually refers to and what intolerant, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-environmental goal the hat wearer hopes to accomplish by displaying it.
The hat issue became personal to me when a young man I know went to our nation’s capital on a school fieldtrip and posted trip photos that included several of him wearing the ubiquitous MAGA hat. My reaction was not a positive one—the MAGA hat/slogan will likely go down in history as an example of intolerance and be curated in museum collections as such. But then, as an anthropologist, I reminded myself to think about how the human experience has been defined by our tendency to make assumptions about people based on all sorts of socioeconomic cues, with, in this instance, the MAGA hat as that cue.
Two recent incidents reminded me of the danger of painting all wearers of MAGA garb with the same brush. The first incident occurred with the young man I mentioned who is not mean-spirited, nor is he intolerant of others. His wearing of the hat could be a school trip fad or possibly what Robin Givhan in her Washington Post article “The MAGA hat is not a statement of policy. It’s an inflammatory declaration of identity,” called a “provocation.” People who choose to wear the hat could be expressing a willingness to provoke a conversation or to merely irritate, while others might wear the hat because they actually do identify with the slogan’s brand (and are comfortable with all the potential provocations that can result). Nick Sandmann’s encounter with the Native American drummer Nathan Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial would have had a vastly different outcome if Sandmann had not been wearing a MAGA hat because, without knowing his motives, by wearing the hat he appeared to endorse its intolerant message. My unwillingness, though, to condemn every MAGA hat wearer to the bin of intolerance and scientific ignorance is because displaying the MAGA hat, like many other social constructs, shouldn’t assume one shared identity, but instead should reflect different points on a continuum of identities.
This notion was further reinforced during a visit to Yellowstone National Park earlier this month. One of the unspoken rules the of park is that people share their spotting scopes, which help people identify wildlife, show visitors where a specific animal might be, and even share information about other sites in the park where animals have recently been spotted. At one such overlook, my husband and I were looking through our spotting scope trying to find a “dot” grizzly, as I call those so far away, when a man came over to help us. He was enthusiastic about the wildlife at Yellowstone and kindly helped us align our scope on the distant bear. He chatted for a while and would occasionally come back over to tell us about other animal sightings and to make sure we still could see the bear. He seemed to really enjoy being in nature, yet on his head was a red MAGA hat. Obviously from this one encounter, I can’t extrapolate an entire summary of his identity politics. But for me, where the MAGA slogan is also closely aligned with anti-environment and anti-science sentiments, his joy in wildlife viewing and the national park experience reminded me why our holistic approach to studying people and culture is so important. This man might buy into some of the MAGA rhetoric, but his identity is certainly more complex than the hat suggests.
With that, I admit, for innumerable reasons that include its lack of historical context, its implied intolerance, its abandonment of science and our environment, and the meanness associated with its message, I wholeheartedly dislike everything the MAGA slogan represents. But, with all that, I wonder if there is a way for us to look for the nuances and inconsistencies in the identity implied by the hat’s slogan because that is where, if willing, those in opposition to its meaning might possibly find some common ground.
Barbara Jones, PhD teaches anthropology at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. Her research focus addresses issues of ecotourism and notions of wilderness.
Cite as: Jones, Barbara. 2019. “The MAGA Hat, a Curious Artifact of Contemporary America.” Anthropology News website, July 22, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1231