This is where event politics always seem to wind up: A ton of energy gets spent, but there’s no cognitively satisfying conclusion—no understanding, resolution, or shared meaning that helps the country progress in its conversations with itself. “It’s a jacket” might be the White House equivalent of the “it’s just a hat” defense of the Covington Catholic teens’ MAGA caps. It’s not true, and everyone knows it, but it seems dumb to overlegislate such petty terrain. And yet: Plenty of us have seen enough people in MAGA hats screaming Trump’s “lock her up” and “build the wall” catchphrases to associate those hats with people who want to … imprison their enemies without due process and lock out the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Neither of these associations is exactly congruent with American idealism or American greatness. The hat’s text is in a fight with the hat’s subtext, and a kid smirking under its brim makes that obvious contradiction visible. Of course that image went viral. In a healthier country, that image wouldn’t have been so furiously overread because the other side would long ago have easily conceded that yes, there is something wrong and disturbing about Americans screaming “lock her up” and “build the wall.” That is not the country we have.
Unsurprising, then, that when an image feels like one of the only weapons people have, they use it. I suspect, though, that event politics are a lot better at preserving power than disrupting it. It’s modern-day bread and circuses—a way to get the masses worked up, only instead of keeping us happy, it gets us squabbling for meaning when there’s none to be made. Remember covfefe? “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!” Trump tweeted after he sent out that tweet by mistake. Amazingly, many of his followers tried. He’d do more or less the same thing with the Clemson “hamberders”: create a bizarre spectacle, then enjoy the fights people had over what it all meant.