Behold the MAGA hat. Whether proof of hate or provoker of fury, it reigns as the most powerful political symbol in America.
A cap emblazoned with President Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” has been at the center of angry confrontations and violent altercations erupting across the U.S. with alarming frequency.
For Mr. Trump’s opponents, the hat represents racism, bigotry and other vile motivations attributed to their nemesis in the White House.
Actress and liberal activist Alyssa Milano called the MAGA hat the “new white hood” when Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School students were wrongly accused of inciting a confrontation with an American Indian activist on the National Mall in Washington.
Matthew A. Sears, a professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick, also compared the hat to “a Ku Klux Klan hood or robe.”
In a Washington Post column, he said wearing a MAGA hat “constitutes a deliberate political act and a deliberate provocation.”
The same newspaper’s fashion critic, Robin Givhan, wrote: “To wear a MAGA hat is to wrap oneself in a Confederate flag. The look may be more modern and the fit more precise, but it’s just as woeful and ugly.”
According to Chicago prosecutors, former “Empire” cast member Jussie Smollett arranged for his cohorts to wear red baseball hats resembling MAGA hats in his alleged attack hoax. The logic of Mr. Smollett’s alleged plot, of course, is that a MAGA hat is the preferred headgear of racists and homophobic attackers.
The Wursthall Restaurant and Bierhaus in San Mateo, California, briefly banned MAGA hats.
“If you come to my restaurant wearing a MAGA cap, you aren’t getting served. Same as if you come in wearing a swastika, white hood, or any other symbol of intolerance and hate,” tweeted chef and co-owner J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.
He later lifted the ban, saying he should have first consulted his partners and staff.
“After having seen the red hat displayed so prominently in so many moments of anger, hate and violence, to me — and many others — the hat began to symbolize exactly that: anger, hate and violence,” Mr. Lopez-Alt said. “This was the context my tweet was meant to communicate. Unfortunately, the way I tried to communicate this ended up only amplifying the anger, and I apologize for that.”
Meanwhile, people donning the MAGA hat have been the targets of assaults in high school classrooms, on college campuses, in restaurants and in the public square.
A man recently was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment after witnesses said he pulled a .40-caliber Glock on a man wearing a MAGA hat in a Kentucky Sam’s Club.
The accused gunslinger, James Phillips, 57, told police the incident started after he flipped the bird at the man because he was wearing a MAGA hat. He allegedly drew his pistol after the MAGA-hat-wearing man returned the obscene gesture.
At least three incidents of attacks on people wearing MAGA hats were caught on video last week.
In one of the incidents, Rosaine Santos, 41, was charged with assault after grabbing Bryton Turner’s MAGA hat and trying to slam his face into his plate of food at a Mexican restaurant on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.
“It’s just a hat at the end of the day,” Mr. Turner told WBZ-TV in Boston. “I don’t really understand why people can’t just express themselves anymore.”
Joseph Young, a scholar of political violence at American University, said the hat is a flashpoint precisely because of what it expresses on both sides of America’s political divide.
He noted that one of the reasons racial violence in the U.S. has been difficult to avoid for generations is because, if you want to commit violence against someone who is black or white, it is clear who the targets are.
“It is more complicated if you want to target someone politically. Enter the MAGA hat,” Mr. Young said. “This hat clearly demarcates that you are on the other team. From the left, it makes it obvious who deserves your disdain or negative comments. From the right, it is like putting up a middle finger to many different groups that feel accosted by Trump and his hard-core followers.”
The hat, it seems, signals political conflict at a time of stark divisions.
“It is used to be that there were more cross-cutting issues between left and right in this country. You could be a Catholic Democrat who voted for [President Jimmy] Carter but opposed abortion. You could be a Republican who wanted fewer taxes but also wanted less government involvement in private lives and thus favored abortion rights,” Mr. Young said. “It seems more recently that both sides have started to demand more ideological purity and less deviation from the core values of their team. MAGA hats send the message to your side and the other team where your values lie, and many see this as a direct threat to the America they want to live in.”
The MAGA hat also has been on the heads of attackers.
A man in a MAGA hat assaulted a BBC cameraman at Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rally this month in El Paso, Texas. He stormed into the press area and shouted, “F—- the media.”
Mr. Trump paused the rally as security guards escorted the man out of the arena and asked the cameraman, “You all right? Everything OK?”
The White House later released a statement condemning “all acts of violence against any individual or group of people — including members of the press.”