It matters that new National leader Todd Muller has a MAGA hat on display in his office.
This isn’t just an insignificant trinket a humble tourist picked up while attending the US political campaigns in 2016.
Remember, this is a man who in his maiden speech to parliament admitted he has long been fascinated by US politics.
Of all the American political memorabilia he could have chosen to decorate his sparsely populated display cabinet, he reserved a spot for a mass-produced hat available on Amazon for $7.
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Politicians are careful storytellers. They share with the public the bits and pieces they want us to see and ensure their darker side is buried deep beneath a veneer of studio makeup and fake smiles.
So what exactly is Muller trying to tell visitors to his office with a MAGA hat?
He certainly isn’t embarrassed of its presence in his office. He defended it to media by saying few complain about the Hilary Clinton badge he also acquired when he attended the previous American election.
This is an easy comparison to make for those who haven’t felt the weight of this hat worn on the heads of a chanting mass of white nationalists. One can only wonder if he would brandish it as openly if some of that chanting was targeted at white men in their 50s.
His defence could almost be excusable if we were still living in 2016 and Trump had just secured his unlikely victory. At the time, it was simply part of a strange moment in political history.
The thing is that more than three years have passed. And while Hilary Clinton’s badge has been discarded in the trash heap of history, the MAGA hat has steadily grown into a powerful symbol that represents a particular arm of US politics.
“MAGA is an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain non-white groups,” wrote US-based law professor Jeffrey Omari in his 2019 essay.
Omari, who was moved to write the piece after a student wore a MAGA hat in one of his classes goes on: “For its supporters, MAGA indexes an effort to return to a time in American history when this country was “great” for some—particularly, propertied white men—but brutally exclusionary for others, most notably women and people of colour.”
We have to assume that Muller isn’t ignorant of how these things work. As a former student of politics, he’ll be acutely aware of how words and pictures can be melded into powerful symbols.
Once something is imbued with that deep political meaning, it’s no longer just a hat, badge or flag.
The reason we today wave a judgmental finger at those who collect Nazi memorabilia isn’t because we don’t like the shape of a swastika. It’s because of the symbolism woven into the sharp edges of the insignia.
This isn’t a reductive parallel between Nazi Germany and modern America; it’s a reminder that we don’t have to accept a nonchalant display of a harmful symbol – especially not when it comes from a man bent on leading the country.
Muller has had ample opportunity and reason to remove that cap from his cabinet over the last three years, but he hasn’t.
That hat sat proudly in the cabinet while it was also brandished by white nationalists at political rallies. It sat there through a Muslim travel ban. And it sat there while thousands of women took to the streets in this country to protest what Trump represents.
None of that could move Muller to remove the hat from visibility.
But watch closely. If he does end up removing the hat in coming days or weeks, we’ll be given our good hint of what the new leader of the National Party really cares about.