Brown shirts, white sheets, red hats: Beware politicized colors

Brown shirts, white sheets, red hats: Beware politicized colors
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Symbolism is critical to the political process, perhaps essential. At the ballot box, voters take these symbols in with them to identify a candidate who aligns that symbol with their political beliefs.

Catchphrases, articles of clothing, and color are all part of our political paradigm. It allows supporters of a candidate to identify with others of like mind. Collective identity builds a base upon which a candidate wins an election and to govern.


There is nothing sinister about any of this in a larger sense. However, it can be sinister, divisive and calculating, with an ultimate goal of control and governance by fear and hate.

It is this sinister calculus that citizens should be wary of, particularly citizens of liberal democracies where freedom of speech and expression are hallmarks to that democracy.

Politicians who have motives other than good governance can hide behind the shield of these freedoms, emerging to use their symbols to assist them in taking political control for more sinister reasons.

Modern history is replete with symbols, particularly clothing and colors, where politicians legitimately gain power, pivot and seize ultimate control. Adolf Hitler and his henchmen were masters of using symbols and colors to create a national socialist agenda. The “Brownshirts,”  party enthusiasts who believed in a greater Aryan nation, come quickly to mind.

In America, symbolism and colors also play an important part in our political and social discourse. Red and blue seem to be popular colors, also white. Suffragists wore a yellow sash, and the color white has symbolized the emancipation of women unifying for a proper cause. However, the white robe of the Ku Klux Klan captures how symbols and color can be used to promote division, hate and fear for the sordid purpose of promoting a white America.

Over the past two years, another colored article of clothing has entered the political arena: a red hat. The “MAGA hat,” for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, has come to identify not just the president’s political agenda but those who have bought into his philosophy.

Who would imagine the laudable political goal of making America great again would turn into an abbreviated hate symbol, but it has. We are now seeing the visceral reactions to that red hat — creating embarrassment, tension and injury on all sides. Many of those who wear the MAGA hat do so at their own peril; some may wear it looking for a fight. The only safe place to wear the red hat now appears to be at political rallies.

None of this is good. It divides, and ultimately harms, America, which has as its motto “E pluribus unum,” or, “Out of many, one.” The red hat has come to stand in the minds of Trump's critics for a generally white exclusivity that America has not seen since another article of clothing — a white robe — was used for the same reason.

As America demographically becomes a more multiethnic nation, the country that our nation’s motto contemplates, some white Americans apparently are clinging to an America that does not exist and hasn’t for some time.

To many people, the red hat symbolizes that desperation, the last gasp of a white America of the past, not of the future. The transition to what America will be is causing political unrest, but that demographic change is inevitable. The red hat represents a lost cause, as did brown shirts and white sheets.

I am always reminded of a unified multiethnic nation, a great America, by this Helen Keller quote: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

David M. Crane served as the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. government, in positions including senior inspector general, Department of Defense, and assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a professor and distinguished scholar in residence at Syracuse University College of Law.