MAGA hats are offensive and there’s nothing we can do about it

The smirk that blew up the internet.
The smirk that blew up the internet.
Image: YouTube
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The most controversial accessory in the United States looks simple enough. A straightforward phrase: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” An ugly design: barely legible text printed on blinding red fabric, in a font that looks like it was last used in 1996.

On Friday, some kids wore these hats, went to an anti-abortion rally, and mocked a Native American man. People were offended. The kids felt bad about it. Maybe. “In hindsight I wish we could’ve walked away and avoided the whole thing,” said Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student whose smirking face has become the image of this whole controversy.

That was probably never a real option. “Walking away” and “avoiding the whole thing” became difficult the moment the kids decided to wear those damn hats. That’s because the MAGA hat is more than a hat. It’s also a symbol, representing a concept larger than its constituent parts. And that concept is one that freaks people out. Not only that, but the people who wear MAGA hats are often aware of this.

The hats are tied up with the concept of “triggering,” a favored trolling strategy among the so-called “alt-right.” To trigger someone is to push their political buttons. Using a racial epithet, for example, is an obvious and harsh trigger. But triggering is most satisfying to trolls if the thing that sets it off as innocuous as an ugly baseball cap. Then those who get triggered look ridiculous. It’s just a hat, for christ’s sake! You can’t deal with a stupid hat?!

Do two different Twitter searches and you will see what I mean. Search just for “MAGA hat” and you will see all kinds of people—including, it seems, Alyssa Milano and Cherclaiming that the cap is a stand-in for racism and bigotry. Search for “MAGA trigger,” though, and you will find another set of people: Those who are amazed, and perhaps a bit satisfied, that the hats piss some people off. “It’s just a hat!”

Did the MAGA-hat kids think about what they were doing when they wore the hats? Did they wear them with a knowing intention to piss people off? Well, they are just kids, and kids are, let’s be honest, pretty stupid. So the answer is probably, “No, they weren’t thinking about much at all.” Though it is also possible that the answer is, “They use the internet and read alt-right-leaning websites like reddit.com/r/the_donald and /pol/ and are familiar with the concept of ‘triggering’ and wore the hats to trigger people.”

Either way, the point is that the MAGA hat has come to be a symbol imbued with meaning well beyond the literal command to “make America great again.” Wearing the hat is not a neutral act. It may betray in the wearer an affiliation with the racist and nationalist factions among Trump supporters. It may not. At the very least, it shows that the wearer is unmoved by the fact that their hat makes people uncomfortable. If the smirking kid had called someone a racial slur, he would not be able to release a statement just saying, “In hindsight I wish we could’ve walked away and avoided the whole thing.” His intent would have been exposed by the very act of saying it in the first place.

The hat is becoming more like that. I can say that, personally, as a brown guy who sometimes has a large, terrorist-looking beard, if I see someone with a MAGA hat on, I become a bit afraid that they will tell me to go back to my home country (Michigan) or punch me in the face. So yes, the stupid hat triggers me. And the reaction to the smirking kid’s viral video shows me that I am far from alone.