March for Life controversy exposes political tensions


The MAGA hat is again the subject of controversy following a video circulated Jan. 20 showing an interaction between a group of Catholic high school students wearing MAGA hats at the March for Life and a Native American elder. The division caused by the video, which was ambiguous enough for both sides of the political spectrum to find someone to blame, is indicative of the tense, oftentimes deeply emotional cultural tensions surrounding the MAGA hat and, more broadly, surrounding Trump-era conservatism.

The original video showed a group of high school students wearing MAGA hats appearing to surround Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder beating his drum in close proximity to the students. One student, Nick Sandmann, drew particularly intense criticism for appearing to smirk at Phillips, which many interpreted as a gesture of entitlement.

Following the original clip, a more extended video was released showing Phillips approaching the group of students of his own volition. However, the initial outpouring of emotions and radical perceptions of the exchange—some accused the Catholic high school students of racism and white entitlement—had already sparked an intense debate over the symbolism of the MAGA hat.

The “Make America Great Again” hat, a simple red hat emblazoned with Trump’s iconic campaign slogan, became an object of mass popularity and controversy during Trump’s presidential campaign. For many Trump supporters, the hat is a symbol of war against the political establishment, a refusal to accept what Trump describes as the “globalist” regime of relaxed borders, international alliances, and open trade.
Inside Trump’s signature rejection of globalism, however, comes many contradictory or offensive policy stances and statements that obstruct America’s stride towards inclusion and equality, perhaps even denying core American values.

With Trump’s connection to the “Make America Great Again” slogan, does the signature red MAGA hat necessarily embrace all aspects of his vision for American politics? Or can we really define its symbolism in our current political culture at all?

Like any presidential campaign, Trump’s message was construed in a dozen different ways by different people, and Trump’s appeal does not lie solely in the extremes of his rhetoric towards immigrants or other marginalized groups.

For some, “Make America Great Again” coincides with deeply held, rational principles. Some support Trump because they believe him more likely to get the U.S. out of conflict zones, as he demonstrated with his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Others support him from a deregulatory, fiscally conservative standpoint.

And however noticeable the “Make America Great Again” wing of the Republican Party may seem in the mainstream portrayal of conservatism, the Republican Party is by no means a monolith. Trump’s platform substitutes longtime Republican principles like free trade for protectionism, global intervention for isolationism and nationalism, and takes a much stronger stance against immigration than Republicans did during the Romney era. While Trump’s existence has molded the principles of many conservatives, other Republicans continue to espouse the traditional platform of the Republican establishment.

“I don’t think [Trump] is ultimately a conservative at all,” junior Cole Crystal said. “I think he is just a blob of real ambiguity that has no clue of what he’s gravitating towards unless it favors him… I think Trump is a symptom. I don’t think he’s the conservative way. I think people were so fed up they needed someone who could throw mud right back at the mudslingers in the first place.”

Examining all the competing individual interpretations of Trump’s platform among his supporters, as well as the competing verdicts on Trumpism in the Trump-era Republican Party, it’s important to remember that the MAGA hat can’t unquestioningly be tied to a racist or xenophobic ideology like other toxic symbols.

“It’s such a complex issue because a person may be trying to say something with a [MAGA] hat and the person seeing that hat is going to view it in the way they want to see it, and that gap of communication is just going to widen,” Mr. Flamoe said.