Depth of Field: The Metaphor of Trump and the MAGA Hat

Inside Orlando's Amway Center on Tuesday, President Donald Trump officially announced his bid for reelection. "We're going to keep on fighting for every man, woman, and child across this land," he said to the roar of some 20,000 supporters. He was in trademark form: bullish and predictably smug, spouting falsehoods about unemployment, healthcare, and trade partnerships with glib confidence. In fact, he made more than 15 fabricated statements in just under 80 minutes, according to CNN. On the topic of immigration, he said the Democrats' stance was "the greatest betrayal of the American middle class and, frankly, American life."

Jason Parham is a senior writer for WIRED. Depth of Field is his weekly dispatch about culture's most searing current images.

The rally recalled all the rhetoric of his first gambit for the White House in 2016, when he promised to "Make America Great Again." For 2020 and beyond, he guaranteed to "Keep America Great." Trump is prone to bland dictums, and he invoked words like "verdict," "witch hunt," and "destiny"—flagging the last four years, and perhaps those ahead, as a time of persecution and fate. Expectedly, he counted himself among the persecuted. It was a stark, comic contrast to the day before, on Twitter, when he announced plans by ICE to remove "illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States." The statement was neither unexpected nor the exception—in tone and texture, Trump brandishes a narrative of dislocation. It is, as I've noted previously, a language that willfully colors malice as virtue.

There's a kind of villainous genius to it, I guess. He cloaks the pillars of hate—stripping queer citizens of their civil liberties, flattening women's rights, and funneling children into detention facilities that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called concentration camps just this week—in hollow slogans like "Make America Great." Proclamations like that have kept mediocre white men in power for ages, but they don't really mean much. The phrase is entirely, wickedly subjective—how, and for whom, is he making this country better?

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The empty poetry of a Trump slogan is that it allows anyone to apply their own imprecise logic to it. The message usurps the man—it becomes something uglier, something unwieldy. Mandel Ngan's photo from Tuesday's rally perfectly encapsulates this perverted mania. Soaking in the love of the crowd, Trump stands center as a familiar political archetype: red tie, navy-blue suit, self-satisfied. Even as the crowd goes dark around him, he's decorated in light—another cheap trick, I'd wager—as a beacon, a savior, and a champion. It's a foolish kind of luster. He's the only figure in focus, and I imagine he prefers it that way. But even as your eyes may draw to him, my attention time and again returns to the red MAGA hat. More than anything, it's the hat that has become the defining emblem of a movement and administration, both polluted with power, that have sowed division to ensure their own precarious security as the country inches toward more progressive realities. The MAGA hat is as much a pop culture curio as it is a political weapon—as logo, shield, personal dogma, and insignia of contempt.

In the photo, it's the particular tension between Trump and the hat that I'm hypnotized by: man versus message. Both are competing for the viewer's scrutiny. If Ngan captures the shot seconds earlier or later, the image we get is a completely altered one, with the hat clouding Trump's face. There's a kind of twisted parable in that, too, I suppose. Knowing that he doesn't have total authority of his own message. It presents possibility. It is a reminder that the narrative of control does not exist in an indissoluble state. It's waiting to be seized, to be made anew.

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