The Indigenous Peoples March, held in January this year, has been overshadowed by a controversy regarding the confrontation between a Native American Omaha elder and a group of Make America Great Again (MAGA) teens from Covington Catholic school. The students, ostensibly attending a misnamed ‘pro-life’ rally in Washington, were filmed harassing the indigenous American elder. No doubt millions have viewed the viral video footage of the confrontation, and various interpretations have been offered regarding the responsibility for the altercation.
The most public image of the conflict is that of a smirking Nick Sandmann, one of the dozens of Covington Catholic school students wearing the MAGA hat, confronting the indigenous American man. The MAGA-wearing students, after initially being blamed by social media commentators for harassing the Native American elder, have been turned into victims by right-wing and conservative media outlets willing to excuse or at least minimise the causative factor of racism and white supremacy in this incident.
Jason Wilson, writing for The Guardian newspaper, documents how the conservative Right reframed the confrontation into one of a ‘rush to judgement’, where the Covington students are the victims and the indigenous peoples marchers are the aggressors. Wilson perceptively deconstructs the PR campaign the conservative and right-wing media have waged to promote the myth of white victimhood. Much has been made of the presence of a cult, the black Hebrew Israelites, at the indigenous peoples march.
There is no question that the black Israelites are a cult, who misuse and misread history for their own narrow purposes. It is true that this grouping in homophobic and anti-Semitic. But it is interesting to note that the black Hebrew Israelites were never directly confronted by the Covington Catholic MAGA teens. The latter harassed and intimidated the one person who was trying to bring civility and maturity into the incident, the indigenous Omaha elder.
Interestingly, a Louisville public relations company, RunSwitch PR, was hired by the Sandmann family to promote the version of events supportive of the Covington MAGA students. In this age of perception management, having a PR company on side definitely tilts the balance in one’s favour. Propaganda is not the exclusive preserve of Communist systems. Corporate propaganda has become a mainstay of capitalist societies.
The MAGA hat
There is no question that the slogan “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) is an effective propaganda weapon. The MAGA hat, emblazoned with the Trumpist slogan, is now a ubiquitous feature of American political life. It has become a statement of tribal loyalty, a shared white victimhood that rages against ethnic minorities, civil rights, and any perceived encroachment on the privileges of the nativist white majority.
In fact, the MAGA hat has become a more successful and widely implemented symbol of white supremacy than the white hood and bedsheet of the KKK. In the past, there was (and in some Southern states still is) the Confederate flag, a relic of a bygone era of slavery and white privilege. That flag has an atavistic quality about it, symbolising as it does, an economic and political system that was defeated in the ravages of war.
There exists, until today, a neo-Confederate movement, which attempts to rehabilitate the slaveholding South and resist racial integration. This movement, with its own reservations, has endorsed the presidency of Donald Trump. Proponents of the neo-Confederacy look to the antebellum South for values, ideals and as an exemplar of “Anglo-Celtic” heritage. But this movement cannot shake the stigma of being stuck in the past – it required an update for the 21st century.
The MAGA hat is the perfect upgrade for an outmoded and obsolete racist message. Robin Givhan, writing in the Washington Post, states that the MAGA hat is not only an expression of garrulous narcissism – exemplified by Trump himself – but something much deeper:
The MAGA hat speaks to America’s greatness with lies of omission and contortion. 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.
By turning the Covington MAGA teens from perpetrators to victims, the conservative media have successfully ignored the legitimate issues raised by the indigenous peoples march – one major issue being the mistreatment of indigenous children. Trump, by allying himself with the MAGA teens, disguised his intervention as concern for the well-being of the Covington students and the alleged ‘rush to judgement’ by the media. However, his posturing of concern for children is rank hypocrisy, given the Trump administration’s mistreatment of children at immigration detention centres.
Donald Trump is the modern version of George Wallace
When discussing the Trump presidency, much is made of the contrast between him and his predecessor Barack Obama. Trump’s detractors on the conservative side of politics emphasise the differences between past Republican presidents and the current incumbent. The implication of this viewpoint is that Trump represents a striking break with the past. While there is merit in this evaluation, I think it falls short in one major respect. We have seen Donald Trump before – his name was George Wallace.
The late George Wallace, the former racist governor of Alabama and diehard segregationist, gained national attention in 1963 when he made his symbolic stand in the schoolhouse, protesting the racial integration of the University of Alabama. After that stunt, Wallace became the public candidate of white resentment, the counter-reaction to the growth of civil rights and formal racial equality. While ultimately unsuccessful, his campaign advocated many of the themes and ideas updated and recycled by Donald Trump.
Wallace, when campaigning for the presidency, tapped into a reservoir of white racial resentment against the perceived rising tide of civil rights. But he also portrayed himself as the anti-establishment candidate, the maverick outsider willing to take on the liberal and cosmopolitan elites that have purportedly excluded the white working class. In tones eerily echoed down the ages by Trump and the Republican right, Wallace contemptuously sneered at the media and the federal government for allegedly giving too much ground to those pesky and demanding ethnic minorities.
Trump is not a brazen segregationist like Wallace, and his only fixed ideology is that of financial speculation. However, his politics has strong similarities to that of Wallace – while Trump popularised MAGA, Wallace had the similar ‘Standing up for America’. In fact, when comparing the political rhetoric of the two candidates, it is difficult to determine where Trump’s viewpoints differ from those of Wallace.
Indigenous nations and anti-racism
There can be no serious anti-racist politics without including the recognition of the indigenous nations of the Americas. Multiethnic solidarity does not submerge all nationalities into one ‘rainbow coalition’ – as nice as the latter sounds. Anti-racist politics recognises the specific demands of each ethnic group, but brings them together to create a nation of solidarity. Focusing on issues of race and gender does not involve marginalising class-based struggles or ignoring economic issues.
It is appropriate to highlight an article by Armenian American writer Anoush Ter Taulian, who wrote about the reasons why she marched in the indigenous peoples march earlier this year. We would do well to learn from her example.