No, those red “Make America Great Again” ballcaps really aren’t the new white hoods.
More precisely: They’re the new red shirts.
Americans recall the terror of the Ku Klux Klan’s white hoods far better than they do the terror of the post-Civil War Red Shirts and the various vigilante “rifle clubs” formed by ex-Confederates determined to block black people from political franchise. In large part, that’s because even though the Klan was the first iteration of this phenomena in the immediate postwar years, it had a revival in 1915 whose effects remain with us even today.
It’s a more potent symbol of racial bigotry in the popular imagination because it is fresher in our memories. However, as historical antecedents go, the Red Shirts were actually much closer in their essential nature to the out-front hatemongers who happily don their red MAGA ballcaps in the age of Donald Trump.
For starters, it’s important to remember that the Klan’s white hoods were about, among other things, hiding the faces of their members from public view. The whole point of the costumes, in the first place, was to frighten superstitious ex-slaves by pretending to be ghosts, a supernatural threat. They call themselves “the Invisible Empire” because they consider it more ominous and dark, not to mention that it conveniently shields the wearer from public consequences.
The Red Shirts, in contrast, were unbothered by such considerations. They boldly wore their eye-catching symbols without any facial coverings, nor any attempt to do so. Their entire modus operandi involved being as public and flagrant as possible, in large part to reinforce the indisputable embrace of their political violence by the larger mainstream body politic of white people in the postwar South.
But today’s MAGA-hatted thugs bear an even more important resemblance to the Red Shirts in the role they play in the cultural currents of American politics. What they are about, even beyond intimidating vulnerable minorities, is inverting reality on its head in the style we’ve all come to expect from modern projection-fueled conservatives: making, as historian Stephen Budiansky puts it, “a victim of the bullies and a bully of the victim.”
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