It was a hot summer day in Laredo, Texas as Donald Trump’s private jet landed on the scorching tarmac for his much-publicized visit to see the US-Mexico border in July of 2015. Stepping into the airport, Trump emerged proudly displaying his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” atop his head. Ostensibly no more than a convenient shield from the heat, the hat’s reveal was a calculated step in advancing Trump’s political brand and candidacy for the 2016 presidential race. Recalling the moment vividly, CNN’s Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash shares her reaction to seeing Trump’s motto emblazoned on his head for the first time: “[I]t was like ‘Oh, of course, he’s the master marketer. Why wouldn’t he put it on a hat?’” (Spodak). However, Trump’s distinctive hats were more than a traditional marketing ploy. Like the focalizingof light through a lens, the hat concentrates the essence of Trump into a single symbolic object. Any glance at a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat is enough to communicate the complex and controversial attitudes of Trump’s brand and strike one with a powerful impression based on his or her political views. However, functioning as a lens through which a greater image is seen, the hat distorts Trump and his campaign according to the viewer’s perspective. By inciting conflicting interpretations, the hat establishes a stark divide between communities of Trump supporters and opposers.
Preceding the manifestation of the hat, its embroidered words, “Make America Great Again,” have their own origin story. Coined by Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign, the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” was a response to the “malaise” of the previous years under Jimmy Carter and the “crisis of the American spirit” that had arisen. Carter himself declared in his “A Crisis of Confidence” speech that the nation’s founding principles of community and conviction in its progress were deteriorating and being replaced by an obsession with self-indulgence. Reagan’s slogan, with its use of “let’s,” was an inclusive and galvanizing call for the public to restore their communities and the American Dream alongside his administration. The energy behind its words communicated a clear message about the country’s ability to renew its historic “greatness,” and progress further. Because of its effectiveness, the slogan was referenced by George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton during their respective presidencies before eventually falling into the hands of Donald Trump (Stevenson).
By adopting Reagan’s slogan, Trump’s campaign claimed that the American identity was once again slipping away. Trump used its message to define a disenfranchised “traditional” United States riddled with liberals, elites, terrorists and illegal aliens, in which national pride and the values of working class citizens were being forgotten (“US Election Analysis 2016 . . .” 27). This awareness generated a sense of urgency that America was not “great” anymore and Trump positioned his campaign as the solution. However, eliminating “let’s” gave the slogan new meaning and effect. It removed the inclusivity of its previous message and established the singular authority of Trump in its place. This served to depict him as a candidate who would directly take command of the nation’s issues, but its forthrightness was received in differing ways.
While the authoritative message resonated with those who longed for clear political action and change, it offended many others due to its lack of a unifying factor. Because the issues Trump based his campaign on were drawn from his own narrative of the country, his stances excluded and implicitly blamed those who did not fall under his “America.” Therefore, his slogan’s message of grabbing the reins and fixing America according to his own terms insinuated an unwelcome command over many lives and caused a divergence in opinion. By representing Trump’s campaign slogan, the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hat became the palpable, physical object that distinguished supporters and opposers from each other, its bold red color marking a dividing line in the mind of the viewer.
Upon scrutiny, the MAGA hat may appear overly simplistic and unfashionably cheesy, as if it were hastily designed in an indifferent manner with no sign of artistic care. In fact, it can be described as “un-designed” with a default Times New Roman text, basic color scheme of red and white, and “rope hat” style characteristic for sitting high on the head, with a woven rope stretched across the front as its only mildly “classy” touch (Spodak). However, the hat’s design performs as a way to cater to the political outsider status Trump hoped to exude as a non-traditional and non-scheming candidate (Spodak). The blunt plainness of the hat in contrast to the noticeable meticulousness of his opponents’ campaign merchandise was refreshing to Trump supporters. Its uniqueness resonated with voters who were sick of tiresome and conventional presidential campaigns and drew them towards supporting Trump.
Yet there is a gleam of marketing brilliance in the hat’s seemingly un-thought-out appearance. Firstly, the slogan’s all-caps lettering was carefully chosen to serve its own purpose. The repeating parallel edges created from the all-caps letters cause the words to have little shape contrast, making them harder to distinguish (Stevenson). This reduces the legibility of the phrase and slows readers down so that each word becomes more impactful (Stevenson). Furthermore, the all-caps quality creates a bulky serif aesthetic that gives the hat an imperial-like quality, complementing its demanding message and high, overseeing position on the head (Stevenson). Nonetheless, these visual cues are so miniscule that they seamlessly blend into the hat’s apparent simplicity and act upon the viewer in a hidden way to deliver a more impactful impression.
The hat’s overall shape and style fulfills an additional role in that it can be recognized as an American staple: the baseball cap (Stevenson). This familiarity served as a means to connect with Trump’s target voters and ultimately helped shape the presidential character he marketed to the public. The MAGA hat’s fuller fit models the trucker-styled hats worn by farmers, truck drivers, and other working-class Americans (Spodak). Utilizing this particular style allowed Trump, as a New York City billionaire, to appeal to rural and working-class Americans who wouldn’t otherwise readily identify with his lifestyle (Spodak). Known for his flashy show The Apprentice and excessive displays of wealth, Trump had long been symbolized by his slicked back blonde hair, both as a ridicule for its odd shape and as a depiction of his status. His campaign hat, representing American grit and hard work, covered his golden crown and presented him as a participant in the everyday struggles of regular Americans. Trump’s new headpiece came to redefine his character as one that is more approachable, minimizing his previous grandiose persona and making him a candidate of the people.
Trump’s regular appearances with the hat, wearing it to his rallies and throughout his day, served as a celebrity endorsement of a consumable product. The consistent presence of Trump with the hat during the presidential race built up an association between a symbolic meaning and collective air of significance (Smith 212). The individual’s perception of the hat’s substance is therefore informed by the sentiments, statements, and idiosyncrasies of Trump. As such, one’s attitude toward Trump and his campaign goals dictates how one receives and interprets the MAGA hat. This becomes a matter of the viewer’s political and personal beliefs, as the aspects of Trump that resonate most with an individual corresponds with their own interests and concerns. Their own biases come to bend their understanding of the hat and affect the way in which they see Trump.
Trump’s uprooting campaign message that the strong spirit and values of America were deteriorating captured the interest of those who found the state of the country uncertain. These individuals felt that their own identities as Americans were adrift, and following Trump’s campaign presented them with a concrete identity to affiliate with. The MAGA hat functioned this way by giving them a tangible memento to latch onto by assertively declaring their support and making them feel empowered as individuals. However, even before claiming (and wearing) this stance as a Trump supporter, the act of purchasing a hat bound them to the Trump brand (Smith 214). Thus, the investment into, and display of, MAGA hats advanced an individual’s passion for Trump.
However, this passion ultimately tampered with perceptions of the candidate. The bold red color of the MAGA hat when perched on Trump’s head during his speeches and appearances was an attention-grabbing stimulus that would immediately seize the viewer. When watching him speak, supporters of Trump were drawn to look toward the hat and its message embodying the ideals of the “traditional” United States and unintentionally weigh these themes in his speeches. Furthermore, his persistence in wearing that hat over the course of his campaign illustrated his persevering ability as a leader. Thus, the positive sentiments the object evokes for Trump’s followers magnify the favorable aspects of his nature and reflect their pride in the nation. The hat distracted them from Trump’s questionable characteristics and history to present him as a candidate striving for greatness.
Because the messages of Trump’s campaign did not speak to all Americans, the MAGA hat accordingly came to represent an opposing meaning as well. As the campaign’s slogan promoted a specific vision for America, seeing the phrase written out on the hat would cause those who dissented with its message to feel uneasy. The hat’s words reminded them of the unwanted, commanding grasp Trump and his movement wanted over the country in order to institute their ideals. Following this, the highly controversial statements and propositions made by Trump also came to be embodied by the hat. His persistent endorsement of the object built up opposite, negative associations as his shocking comments became ominously seared into the meaning of the hat. Its red color furthermore presents a loud and offensive quality, instead of an intended patriotic and courageous one. To opposers, the hat represents a pair of devilish horns instead of a glowing halo, symbolizing Trump as a tyrant rather than a savior.
Therefore, these attitudes toward the hat provoke an even stronger aversion toward Trump. Opposite to its effect on his supports, Trump’s appearance with the hat distorts his image for those who oppose him in an unflattering light. Its blazing red immediately heightens their negative bias toward him, as the words he speaks become smeared with the baneful emotions surrounding the hat. Through this, instead of being seen as a strong leader, his appearance with the MAGA hat was regarded as obnoxious. Thus, the hat’s reprehensible aura perceived by opposers of Trump fueled a greater passion against the candidate. It drew upon all the questionable aspects of his character rather than the hopefulness of his campaign and caused these traits to fester in the mind of the viewer.
The distorted images of Trump that arise from the conflicting interpretations of the MAGA hat make it difficult to see the candidate in a neutral point of view. As a result, the viewpoints toward Trump grow more exclusive and isolated as clear groups of supporters and opposers are formed. For Trump supporters, their expression of support is clear. They proudly wear the hat as a way to affirm their own sense of self-image, civic duty, and belonging to the nation by displaying the “Make America Great Again” ideals (Smith 216). Following this, the simple appearance of Trump’s brightly colored symbol is enough for members of Trump’s movement to recognize each other without any verbal communication, forming a connection and instant community amongst themselves. By seeing the bold expression of the hat from their constituents, an individual supporter is able to further validate his or her stance by feeling a part of a larger movement.
However, the hat causes members of Trump’s movement to bond with one another at the expense of offending others and distancing themselves from outsiders who do not fall under Trump’s ideological banner:
“If I’m passing somebody on the street who’s wearing that hat,” explains a woman to CNN, “I feel like they almost are saying ‘Hey, by the way, I oppose everything you believe in and stand for’” (Spodak).
The visible label that distinguish members of the Trump community heightens the polarization between supporters and opposers of Trump. In doing so, the hat unifies the collective members from each group behind a common interest, but ultimately divides the two stances according to their perceptions.
Thus, the ability of the hat to distort an onlooker’s view toward Trump causes supporters and opposers to look through opposite sides of a distorted lens. One side magnifies the inspiring, forthcoming character of Trump while minimizing his vices; the other side intensifies Trump’s repugnant, bombastic nature and conceals the intentions of his campaign. Therefore, the MAGA hat, while simplistic and minimal in its design, comes to represent very powerful beliefs and emotions. Its fiery red color cuts through a crowd and immediately evokes a reaction from anyone who catches sight of it, striking the onlooker with either determination or indignation. The MAGA hats have been dubbed “a disruptive technology” for stirring such passionate feelings (Spodak). As such, their influence over the voters of the 2016 presidential election is evidently profound.
Eidenmuller, Michael. Jimmy Carter – A Crisis of Confidence Speech – American Rhetoric. www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jimmycartercrisisofconfidence.htm.
Lilleker, Darren, et al., editors. “US Election Analysis 2016: Media, Voters and the Campaign.” Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Nov. 2016. eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/24976/1/US%20Election%20Analysis%202016%20-%20Lilleker%20Thorsen%20Jackson%20and%20Veneti%20v1.pdf.
Miranda, Carolina A. “It’s Been Worn, Memed and Burned: How Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ Hat Reflects a Nation’s Anger.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 15 July 2016. www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-ca-cam-anger-donald-trump-make-america-great-again-hat-20160706-snap-story.html.
Smith, Gareth, and Alan French. “The Political Brand: A Consumer Perspective.” Marketing Theory, vol. 9, no. 2, 2009: 209–226. doi:10.1177/1470593109103068.
Spodak, Cassie. “How the Trump Hat Became an Icon.” CNN, 17 Feb. 2017. www.cnn.com/2017/02/17/politics/donald-trump-make-america-great-again-iconic-hat/index.html.
Stevenson, Seth. “A Look at the Brilliance behind Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats.” Business Insider, 22 Aug. 2015. www.businessinsider.com/the-real-reason-donald-trump-is-selling-those-make-america-great-again-hats-and-its-not-the-money-2015-8.
“Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Burned over Daca Deal.” BBC News, 15 Sept. 2017. www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41279520.