It’s the hat.
The initial coverage of the Kentucky Catholic kid and the Indigenous veteran decidedly favoured the latter over the former. A short video of the pair was everywhere, and the outrage was everywhere, too: the kid in the Make America Great Again hat had treated the Indian – that’s what Americans still call Indigenous people – with disrespect, or worse. The fact that it involved fourteen and fifteen-year-olds didn’t matter.
I don’t know which narrative will end up dominating. Like Charles Adler, Keith Baldrey (and other journalists I respect) have said, this mess doesn’t look as clear-cut to me, now. It’s harder to assign blame. Which then raises a key question: why did so many – me included – immediately believe the kid was the bad guy?
Because of the hat, that’s why.
He’s a kid, and I don’t expect him to be as sophisticated about politics and culture as the readers of this web site are. But the kid’s parents? And the D.C. field trip’s chaperons? And his teachers, at that private, all-boys, mostly-white private school in Kentucky? They have no excuse. None.
Letting hundreds of boys run around Washington wearing MAGA hats is profoundly, deeply stupid. It’s making a political statement, and every one of them knows it.
In the past two years – because, yes, it has been two years since that white supremacist cheated his way into the White House with the assistance of the similarly-racist Russians – that hat has become as distinctive as a Klansman’s white robes or a neo-Nazi’s stiff-arm fascist salute. It is much more than a hat, now.
Ask a neo-Nazi. Ask a committed racist. They’ll tell you: it means Make America White Again.
It’s the “again” that changes the meaning. Studies have been written about it. If Trump had said “Make America Great,” he would’ve sounded like any other politician. It’s the addition of that final word – plus Trump’s personal history of racism, because other, decent Republicans have used the phrase, too – that suggests going back to an earlier time. When things were whiter. When things were Christian. When fathers ran America.
As one writer put it:
To what specific period of American greatness are you wanting us to return? When black folk suffered segregation after slavery? When women had no right to vote or control their own bodies? When gay brothers and lesbian sisters felt ceaseless hate? When we stole land from the Native Americans? When we sent Japanese families to internment camps? When America lynched Mexicans?
Perhaps the kid didn’t actually mean to intimidate that indigenous veteran. Perhaps the veteran was a bit wrong in his assessment of the situation. Perhaps the media got it wrong.
Perhaps, perhaps. About that hat, however, there can be no doubt anymore: it means something.
And what it means, now, is hate.