What does the MAGA hat mean now?

Millions of Americans put them on during President Trump’s first campaign. Will they ever take them off?

What happens to campaign merch after the votes are counted?

Most often, unsold leftovers are donated to charities, recycled, or given to staff and volunteers as keepsakes. Optimistic candidates tuck away excess inventory for possible reuse. Items already in circulation are converted overnight into memorabilia, tokens of victory or defeat. A few bumper stickers hang on to say “I told you so,” or just because they’re a pain to peel off.

Mostly, shirts and buttons languish in closets and drawers. Next stop: thrift store, then the vintage store. Finally, they’re collectible, even if only as ironic accessories. The afterlife of campaign merchandise is unusually literal, because, after Election Day, these objects experience something like death.

All of this relies, though, on the campaign actually coming to an end. What if it doesn’t?

From the earliest days of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, it was clear that the red “Make America Great Again” hat was here to stay. It was an unusual item from the start, promoting a slogan rather than a logo or a name, and frequently worn by the candidate himself. On Trump, the cap perched incongruously atop a laboriously manufactured image: expensive suit, expensive tie, the face, the hair and then, suddenly, siren red.

Most campaign merchandise simply inhabits a generic garment and leaves it unchanged. This year, the Biden-Harris campaign distributed enormous numbers of signs, shirts, buttons and accessories to supporters around the country, but to the extent they’ll be remembered, it’s for what they said — “Truth Over Lies,” for instance — not the form they took.

The MAGA hat, in contrast, claimed a shape and a colour. By 2016, red hats of any variety drew double takes. In late 2019, the Trump campaign announced it was about to sell its millionth MAGA hat, but the true count — including unauthorised Trump hats sold at rallies, in gift shops and around Washington, D.C. — is surely much higher. These hats aren’t so much souvenirs or keepsakes; they’re part of an ongoing show and continue to be produced.

On Amazon, unofficial MAGA hats are sold by the thousand by Chinese e-commerce entrepreneurs, under brands such as VPCOK (trademark of Shenzhenshi Nuobei Muying Yongpin Youxian Gongsi; top-rated Amazon review: “I’ll be wearing mine to go vote :)”) and AMASSLOVE (trademark of Shenzhen Longhua New area Yemili GarmentFactory; 1,000 reviews). These hats vary in design and text, decorated with additional flags, or with subtly different typography, but they get the point across. On November 9, the AMASSLOVE hat was week’s top seller in Amazon’s “Men’s Novelty Baseball Caps” section.

Despite winning in 2016, Trump never fully accepted the results of the election, fabricating claims about voter fraud to account for his loss of the popular vote. He never stopped campaigning, either. On the president’s head, the MAGA hat worked to bridge two images: Trump, the candidate, and Trump, the president.

Perched atop the actual head of government, the MAGA hat took on new meaning. It was still a way to express support of the president, his policies and his orientation toward the world, but its power to provoke grew alongside the power of its best-known wearer.

The MAGA hat, of course, was never so simple as a way to express a voting preference — it was embroidered with a historically freighted phrase and understood to suggest that America, under attack by external and internal enemies, had to be taken back from them.

In January 2019, Robin Givhan of The Washington Post described the hat’s evolution as a symbol. “In the beginning, the MAGA hat had multiple meanings and nuance,” she wrote. “But the definition has evolved. The rosy nostalgia has turned specious and rank.”

“The MAGA hat speaks to America’s greatness with lies of omission and contortion,” she continued. “To wear a MAGA hat is to wrap oneself in a Confederate flag.” Charles Blow, an opinion columnist at The Times, wrote that what was once Trump merch had become a visual stand-in for “Trumpism” — “a new iconography of white supremacy, white nationalist defiance and white cultural defense.”

Their analysis was dismissed by many of the president’s supporters as yet another slander — as an attempt to smear people who supported the president as neo-Confederates, when, in overwhelming numbers, they were just voting along party lines. Christine Rosen, of Commentary, characterized their columns as an “effort to demonise their opponents by casting Trump supporters as ‘the other.'”

Even granting that criticism, and setting aside insinuations about ideological overlap, months later, in a fresh political context, the comparisons made by Givhan and Blow still pose precisely the right questions about what happens to political symbols after defeat.

If particulars of the future of the MAGA hat are in doubt, that it has a future is all but assured. With the president’s refusal to acknowledge losing the election, expressions of support are now bound up with his denial, defiance and insistence that he has been wronged.

In 2015, the MAGA slogan was defended as a broad expression of yearning for a non-specific past; after 2016, the particulars of that yearning became much harder to deny. In 2021, a MAGA hat, true to its slogan, might still refer to a desire for restoration, only not of the vague “good old days” generations in the past, but of the four years immediately behind it. There are hints of the MAGA hat’s future abroad, already, as loosely connected right wing movements around the world have adopted it, or versions of it, understanding, correctly, that its slogan was never merely literal.

The MAGA hat of the future would be a symbol of a lost cause; a hope, or a threat, that a movement might rise again; and, finally, an expression of an ideology that sees any government but one run by its own as illegitimate but that would be defended, however implausibly, as a mere expression of support for fairness and security in elections.

Had there never been a MAGA hat, it would be hard to come up with an item better suited to the needs of the president and his most ardent supporters, tomorrow and in the years after, slogan and all. It’s merchandise turned symbol of state now ready to fulfill its ultimate destiny as a commercial product. A president who never concedes, even if he steps aside, is telling a story that leaves open a comforting option for the millions of people with MAGA hats at home: to keep wearing them.

Written by: John Herrman
Photographs by: Doug Mills, Stephen Crowley and Tom Brenner
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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