The Power of a Hat

A Bowling Green man, shopping at Sam’s Club with his wife, engages in a verbal conflict with a fellow shopper who flips him off. The red Make America Great Again hat atop Terry Pierce’s head stirred James Phillips to such anger he had to express it.  Pierce, angered by the hostile sign language, engaged Phillips in a verbal confrontation. Phillip’s response: A .40 caliber aimed at the head of Pierce and a reported declaration, “It’s a good day for you to die.”

A group of Kentucky teenagers, marching at the Annual Walk for Life in Washigton D.C. are reported to be grouped at the Lincoln Memorial awaiting their buses when verbally assaulted by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites.  The much-reported secondary occurrence with Native American Activist Nathan Phillips spilled across news and social media feeds energized with a picture of Nick Sandmann, a high school junior, standing in front of Phillips. Phillips had a drum. Sandmann wore a MAGA hat.

Jussie Smollet reported while walking home in the early morning hours in Chicago being attacked, punched in the face, a noose wrapped around his neck, while homophobic and racist slurs were being yelled at him. An unknown substance, believed to be bleach, was poured on him. His assailants yelled, “This is MAGA country.”  This incident was reported after a letter with an unknown powdery substance was delivered to Smollet at Fox Studios. The envelop was inscribed with MAGA. Within weeks of the initial report, Smollet was arrested for fabricating both incidents.

The Power of a Hat

Donald Trump claims after Mitt Romney lost the election to Barack Obama, he believed it would be his time to run. Mulling over the possibilities, he developed the slogan which he quickly trademarked to be used for political fundraising and awareness. His attorneys registered the phrase and in 2012, Trump held the registered trademark for Make America Great Again.

It is reported Trump spent more campaign money on the MAGA hats than he did on more traditional political expenses. The simple design of an “old man” red hat with simple font declaring MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN was named by the New York Times as an ”ironic must have accessory of summer in 2015.”

“It is pure American political marketing.”—JCJ

“It’s just a hat. A red ball cap.”—BAH

“I mean, who wouldn’t want for America to be Great again?”–ARK

The term Make America Great Again, while now owned by Trump, was not his creation. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton used a variation of the slogan in their presidential campaigns. Bill Clinton used the phrase in a radio promotion for his wife’s presidential campaign. The hat itself, without exception, is regarded as marketing genius. The bold font, the vivid red, the simple catchy message. It was a campaign win that his opposition knew they needed to spin. Bill Clinton, who himself used the phrase to instill hope in his target audience while campaigning, moved quickly to undermine the message:  “That message where ‘I’ll give you America great again’ is if you’re a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don’t you?”

 “MAGA means Donald Trump to me. And he has a very negative connotation.”-MWS

“I think it is pure hatred. It’s segregation and racism and hate and arrogance all piled into one cheeky phrase….I also think the connotation of the phrase is also about who is saying it.”–AHS

 Trump and his hat have become synonymous. The blunt, politically incorrect statements frequently self- released on social media and off-script speeches by Trump are as received or rejected by the populous as the hat.  To those who love the economic progress presented by the Trump administration, the hat symbolizes an America of economic opportunity, creative ingenuity, and military prowess. To those who feel that particular America is a myth, the hat is a reminder of the shoulders of oppression of the many who gave prosperity to the few.  The connection of the Make America Great Again slogan and hat are so synonymous to Trump, it would be difficult to connote anything but the opinion you have for the President.  To those who are offended by the man, the slogan and the hat can only be seen as a symbol of hate and oppression.

When was America great, so we know how to make America Great again?

The words reflect a yearning for post WWII America before the wild rebellions of the 60s. The words are about a prosperous America that left “the other America” behind.”—HC

The New York Times conducted a survey during the 2016 election asking when America was great. While 1955, 1960, 1970 and 1985 were among the most popular answers for Republicans. In polls asking the Trump Supporters: When was life best for people just like them, 75 % answered the mid-60s. Regardless of political affiliation, the majority of Americans say that America was greatest in 2000. Post 9/11 America appears to be a dystopian reality and there seems to be a longing for the security that was lost on that day. Can the exaggerated reactions to the hat be understood in the context of our post    9/11 zeitgeist?

The two decades that have passed since 9/11 can be defined in measurements of tolerance.  The negative connotation of the hat: homophobia, racism, misogyny, nationalism match closely to the social movements of our times. Social politics have shifted, not in the keywords, these issues are ancient, but in the way we approach tolerance. The MAGA hat has such power, not because of its message, but instead of how the message is received.  The power of the hat is demonstrated in the sight of it leading to a drawn gun. The power of the hat can be seen when a teen aged boy receives death threats and highly regarded journalists make him the face of racism without due diligence. However, I think there is no stronger demonstration of the power of the hat, than the Jussie Smollett story. If Smollett did, in fact, fabricate the hate mail and attack in Chicago for personal gain, it can be assumed the way he knew it would be national news is if there was a powerful element to the story.  Smollett knew a noose would  send a powerful message, but he knew MAGA would get the media. That is the power of the hat.

And with power comes great responsibility.

“The hat uses the uncomfortable to stir needed debate.”—JPK

The irony of the hat is that from the negative connotation of intolerance it suggests has bred a new form of restrictive prejudice.  Stories of employees being fired, students sent home from school, patrons being denied seats at restaurants, guns being placed to heads, death threats, adults knocking hats off children’s heads, and the like because of the hat, sound a lot like the actions that were inexcusably done against the very groups the hat most offends.  At the beginning of the year, Barack Obama stated, “Hope is never a willful ignorance to the hardships and cruelties that so many suffer or the enormous challenges that we face in mounting progress in this imperfect world…. It’s a belief in goodness and human ingenuity and, maybe most of all, our ability to connect with each other and see each other in ourselves, and that if we summon our best selves, then maybe we can inspire others to do the same.”  The day was short that suggested, “when they go low, we go high.” Instead, it seems to be a race to who can be the most offended, the most responsive, the least likely to be loving to our fellow man.  Those who wear the hat without being receptive to the suggestion it contains a negative message to many who see it are adding to the conflict. Wear the hat, if you must, but don’t pretend to be unaware of the emotional response it will stir in half the population.

As a nation we may not agree on when, or even if, America was great in the past, but it seems to be a universal hope for America to be great in the future. The terms and definitions of that greatness will require discussion, debate, compromise and consideration to ideas that don’t match our own.  The greatness of America lies in her citizens, not her leader.  As a nation, too many of us have given permission to the unthinkable. We have empowered the chaos instead of embracing our better selves. What if we meditated on the words of the original promoter of making America great again: “Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them–for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land? Together, let us make this a new beginning. Let us make a commitment to care for the needy; to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down to us by our families; to have the courage to defend those values and the willingness to sacrifice for them. Let us pledge to restore, in our time, the American spirit of voluntary service, of cooperation, of private and community initiative; a spirit that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation. For those who have abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!” and “Through this Golden Door has come millions of men and women. These families came here to work. Others came to America and often harrowing conditions. They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. They brought with them courage and the values of family, work, and freedom. Let us pledge to each other that we can make America great again.”


**A very special thank you to the friends and family who took the time to share thoughtful, frank answers to the question: What does MAGA mean to you? The bold Italicized quotations come from a portion of those responses.

3 thoughts on “The Power of a Hat

  1. Wonderful assessment Sara!! “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Cloaked in our first amendment rights, words are often hastily spoken without taking time to think….first from another’s perspective in an effort to try understand their point of views, and, second, through our own feelings and thoughts to be sure we communicate in a way that is thoughtful and effective. Mutual compassion and grace would take us so much further in moving toward a “great America”, than flippant and harsh rhetoric. Some thoughts should NOT be verbalized…. even if you “can”. Who said the long quote you shared at the end?


    1. Jenna, thank you. Ronald Reagan stated the ending quote in his acceptance of the Republican nomination in 1980. His slogan for his campaign was Let’s Make America Great Again. Rights and Wisdom seem to be at odds in our current political environment!


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