The 2020 Republican National Convention is now in full, frenetic swing. Monday night featured speakers such as former Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle and Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who became famous for brandishing guns at unarmed Americans protesting police violence. Tuesday will feature supporters and surrogates such as former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, first lady Melania Trump and Covington High School graduate Nick Sandmann.
What you will hear a lot about, though, is the apocalyptic culture war President Donald Trump is fighting on America’s behalf.
What you won’t hear much about this week is an official RNC platform — because there isn’t one, literally. What you will hear a lot about, though, is the apocalyptic culture war President Donald Trump is fighting on America’s behalf. This is perhaps fitting since one of the signature achievements of Trump’s presidency has been the normalization of hate speech, as exemplified by his campaign’s very own MAGA slogan.
Indeed, the convention comes on the heels of a new culture skirmish in Akron, Ohio, tailor-made for Trump and his allies. Earlier this month, a photo allegedly taken at a Kansas Goodyear diversity training went viral. The slide indicated that while it was OK to wear apparel supporting LGBT rights or the Black Lives Matter movement, apparel saying All Lives Matter or MAGA was not allowed. (Any attire supporting political candidates — Democratic and Republican — was also banned.)
Goodyear clarified that this was not a corporate policy, and indeed denied that the image was part of any official company training. But the damage was done. Right-wing media outlets were outraged. Trump himself tweeted in his usual carnival barker style, howling “Don’t buy GOODYEAR TIRES— They announced a BAN ON MAGA HATS. Get better tires for far less!”
Now, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is wading into the fray, releasing a new campaign ad in Ohio voicing his support for Goodyear (the company is based in Akron.) But is MAGA purely a political slogan, or has it become more than that?
Trump and the right insist that MAGA and Black Lives Matter are equivalent political statements, and that banning one and not the other shows bias. But it’s not that simple. Clearly, some “political” displays are hateful and intolerant and others are not. Displaying an American flag and displaying a Confederate flag send very different messages, even though both are arguably political statements.
Trump and the right insist that MAGA and Black Lives Matter are equivalent political statements, and that banning one and not the other shows bias. But it’s not that simple.
To start, we need to understand exactly what Black Lives Matter means. The phrase and hashtag were initially developed by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi following the acquittal of vigilante George Zimmerman for killing teen Trayvon Martin. The BLM movement is a response to police violence — it’s a demand that law enforcement stop terrorizing, shooting and harming Black people such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake. It’s a call for political equality and an end to discrimination. It’s not a call to harm or hurt or hate anyone.
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Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again, on the other hand, is a reactionary demand to go back in time. And what does that mean, practically? Trump’s words and policies have made this context quite clear. It means a return to a time when Black people, LGBT people, women and other marginalized people had fewer rights. In 2018, Trump attempted to whip up a xenophobic panic about migrants from Central America, insisting that poor, desperate people seeking shelter in the U.S. were criminals spreading disease. He’s used deliberately racist anti-Asian language about the coronavirus, effectively smearing and targeting Asian Americans. He’s enthusiastically defended Confederate monuments — showing that Trump himself sees Confederate imagery and MAGA as continuous.
Trump’s core supporters have doubled down on this message, adding to the association between MAGA and harassment. Trump supporters have repeatedly invoked MAGA and Trump’s name as they lean into hatred. Trump’s election was followed by a surge of hate crimes, including incidents in which “Whites Only” and Trump Nation” were painted on a church with a large immigrant population, and an attack on a gay man by an assailant who said, “the president says we can kill you all.” Hate crimes against individuals rose to a 16-year high in 2018, according to the FBI.
In a society with a racist history and ongoing discrimination, all political symbolism is not going to be equal. Black rights movements or immigrant rights movements or LGBT rights movements are political calls for equality and freedom. When a marginalized, historically disempowered group calls for empowerment, it’s not the same as when the majority demands even more power.
Many white Americans will argue that BLM is a hostile, even scary message. Trump enthusiasts will also argue they are simply supporting their political candidate of choice — what’s so threatening about that?
But the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t created because its founders wanted to deport white Americans, or keep them out of the military, or undermine their bodily autonomy. The MAGA movement in contrast is a rallying cry for people who are nostalgic for a past of greater inequity and oppression.
Through his campaigning and his presidency, Trump has reinforced this association. Because it’s mainstream, and many people support it, you’re not supposed to identify it as hate. But making bigotry an everyday, expected part of public life doesn’t make the bigotry better. It makes it worse.
Symbols of hatred — and that includes hats which implicitly call for a return to a time before, say, the civil rights movement — are everywhere in Trump’s America. When people wear MAGA hats, whether at a protest or a tire plant, Trump supporters insist there’s no hate in their hearts. But what does that matter, if there’s a symbol of hate sitting on their heads?