By Robin Givhan Fashion critic January 24 at 6:00 AM
The bright red Make America Great Again baseball cap entered the popular culture as candidate Donald Trump’s political swag. It has transformed into an open wound, a firestorm of hate and a marker of societal atavism.
An aesthetically benign baseball cap is a 21st-century grotesquerie.
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?
Fashion has upset the populace before. Miniskirts were an affront to tradition and decorum. Baggy jeans and hoodies riled the establishment. “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and pink pussy hats were created to send a message of political protest.
But the Make America Great Again hat is not a statement of policy. It’s a declaration of identity.
The MAGA hat. The acronym reads like a guttural cry. An angry roar. MAA-GAA! It calls out to a time — back in some sepia-tinged period — when America was greater than it is now, which for a lot of Americans means a time when this country still had a lot of work to do before it was even tolerant of — let alone welcoming to — them and their kind. Some see an era of single-income families, picket fences and unlocked doors. Others see little more than the heartbreak of redlining, walkers and beards, and the “problem that has no name.”Native American elder Nathan Phillips, teen Nick Sandmann give versions of encounter Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Erin Patrick O’Connor, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
The past was not greater; it is simply the past. It’s only the soft-focus, judicious edit that looks so perfect and sweet.
In the beginning, the MAGA hat had multiple meanings and nuance. It could reasonably be argued that it was about foreign policy or tax cuts, social conservatism, the working class or a celebration of small-town life. But the definition has evolved. The rosy nostalgia has turned specious and rank. There’s nothing banal or benign about the hat, no matter its wearer’s intent. It was weaponized by the punch-throwing Trump rallygoers, the Charlottesville white supremacists, Trump’s nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Kanye West and proponents of the wall, the wall, the wall.
The hat has become a symbol of us vs. them, of exclusion and suspicion, of garrulous narcissism, of white male privilege, of violence and hate. For minorities and the disenfranchised, it can spark a kind of gut-level disgust that brings ancestral ghosts to the fore. And here, in 2019, their painful past is present.
The MAGA hat speaks to America’s greatness with lies of omission and contortion. To wear a MAGA hat is to wrap oneself in a Confederate flag. The look may be more modern and the fit more precise, but it’s just as woeful and ugly.
To wear the hat is to take on history and divisiveness. Because whatever personal meaning might be attached to the hat, the new broader cultural meaning overrides. It is too late to save the hat from this fate. And it’s too soon to try to reclaim it and give it new life.