The image of a smirking MAGA-hatted Kentucky teenager has now become embedded in our national conversation, with the bright red baseball cap worn by Nick Sandmann last weekend in Washington, D.C., itself a focus of much of the conversation.
Alyssa Milano’s retweet of a meme identifying the MAGA hat as “the new white hood,” which elicited shrieks of protest from the likes of Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham, set the tone for much of the discussion about the deeper meaning of the confrontation between the group of white boys from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American elder on the National Mall on Saturday.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson epitomized the right-wing chorus by complaining that the students—who in fact were enrolled at an elite private institution for kids from wealthy families—had been victimized by elitist bigotry over their MAGA hats: “The problem, they’ll tell us, with Kentucky, isn’t that bad policies have hurt the people who live there. It’s that the people who live there are immoral because they’re bigots. They deserve their poverty and opioid addiction. They deserve to die young.”
Ingraham was even more wildly over-the-top, complaining that liberals “want to take away your right to wear whatever you want.”
However, as Rebecca Jennings noted at Vox, the MAGA hats have become popular with teens from suburban and urban backgrounds, especially boys going for the appeal of transgressive behavior and “humor.” That coincides (or more precisely, coalesces) with much of the alt-right’s larger appeal to an increasingly younger and mostly male crowd, often through online gaming culture.
There’s a reason the hats have come to be viewed as transgressive, in-your-face defiance of liberal “political correctness”: Over the past two years, they have become part of the uniform worn by far-right street brawlers such as the Proud Boys.
They were worn by dozens, if not hundreds, of “Unite The Right” rally participants in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017. They have been part of violent far-right street clashes ever since the January 2017 Milo Yiannopoulos event in Seattle, when a missing MAGA hat played a minor role in the shooting of an antifascist activist by a married couple accused of the crime, both of whom affiliated with the alt-right on social media.
They have been visible at nearly a dozen “Patriot Prayer” events along the West Coast in the past year-and-a-half, particularly in Portland and Seattle, prominently featuring Proud Boys in their black Fred Perry polo shirts and red MAGA hats—their basic uniform, along with the requisite smirks on their faces, another constant feature. The red ballcaps also made prominent appearances during the extreme violence in Berkeley in April 2017. Here are some samples of all of the above.
These kinds of images have become part of news coverage of Proud Boy assaults in downtown New York City, as well as ongoing disruptions in the Portland, Oregon, area. The events haven’t achieved anything, except drain the city of Portland’s coffers due to the high costs of policing them.
But they have provided a platform for white nationalists, gun-toting militiamen, and conspiracy-touting survivalists to invade urban centers (where none of the organizers lived) and attempt to provoke violence from far-left anarchists and antifascists, as well as socialists and some trade unionists, who appear on the streets to counter them, mostly with raw numbers and chanted slogans.
Violence, however, seems to consistently break out at these events, and the resulting video footage often goes viral on social media. The most infamous such case involved a Proud Boy’s knockout punch of an antifascist in a June 30, 2018, protest in Portland, which was replayed endlessly on right-wing social-media circles. This is part of the cachet that comes from wearing a MAGA hat.
From the start, all of these alt-right events have amounted to one thing: trolling—but in real life instead of online. They all represent deliberate attempts by far-right activists to provoke violent responses from left-wing activists intent on defending vulnerable minorities. The events over the past year have come to be dominated by Proud Boys, who attend these events not on behalf of whatever ostensible cause they are about (besides “free speech,” other causes for these rallies have included protesting liberal cities’ immigration and gun policies) but because they are hoping to have the opportunity to inflict violence on their political opponents.
The ballcaps have some variations—some are colors other than red, others say “USA” or “Trump” instead of “Make America Great Again”—but they are all intended to signal membership in the anti-left street-fighting gangs who come to these events.
So when they are worn in other contexts, the intent is to generally signal similar membership in the cadre of pro-Trump activists who are willing to use threats, intimidation, and violence to advance their agenda. As such, the red MAGA caps have become symbols of such intimidation and indicate the wearer’s willingness to be associated with such behavior.
In that regard, they have taken on the same symbolism as the Confederate flag, signaling not only political defiance but authoritarian aggression against anyone who fails to submit to rule by Donald Trump. As membership indicators go, they play roughly the same role as starched brown cotton shirts played in Germany in the 1920s.
The trolling effect of MAGA hats is almost identical to that of the now-notorious “OK” symbol that doubles as a sign of membership in the white-nationalist movement, or the associated “Pepe” and “Kekistan” banners and symbols. Since the hat, like the OK sign, has a previously established meaning that is benign, its wearers are able to seize on a kind of plausible deniability that they insist is their real intent, which then gives them the opportunity to laugh at their accusers for being gullible and stupid.
That’s how trolling works generally, and it has worked like a charm in the case of the Covington students, especially in the hands of demagogues like Carlson and Ingraham.
There’s a major problem with all this: Trolling is not the catch-all excuse that people claiming it seem to think it is.
Trolls seem to believe that their activities are just a joke and therefore can be dismissed as just unserious play, for which there are no moral or ethical consequences. It’s a version of “just kidding” that its participants think absolves them of any culpability for the effects of their “play”—in this case, the threatening and intimidation of ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities and political opponents that is at the heart of the Proud Boys ethos.
In the case of the Proud Boys, here’s what the trolling eventually looks like.
The reality is that anyone indulging in such far-right trolling—by donning a MAGA hat, or flashing an OK symbol, or playing with a Pepe or Kekistan banner—is simultaneously signaling that they are willing, even eager, to be mistaken for one of the white supremacists or violent street thugs who embrace those symbols as representative of their beliefs. They’re happy to be mistaken for neo-Nazis because they actually do not believe that fascism, racism, or political violence are problems in any real sense.
So on any moral or ethical spectrum, they may not be actual fascists—but they reside directly next to them as apologists and enablers. In other words, trolls are nonetheless horrible human beings, and identifying as one places you on a plane right next to neo-Nazis. Trolling is not a defensible behavior, but is every bit as bad as other forms of normalizing and empowering racists and bigots.
Of course, when anyone tries explaining this reality to young trolls, the only response they ever can offer is to simply smirk. It’s the one thing they’re good at.