A scholar of ancient history explains how right-wing 'intellectuals' hijack academic respectability to bolster MAGA talking points
Last week during a rally in the border city of El Paso, Texas, before thousands of his most adoring fans, Donald Trump showed America and the world--again--who he really is. Trump worked his audience up into a fever pitch as he lambasted and threatened the news media and free press. For Trump and his movement, they are the "enemy of the people." This is a fundamental principle of authoritarianism. One of Trump's MAGA hat-wearing supporters responded to the president's incitement by physically attacking a BBC cameraman named Ron Skeans.
During the same speech, Donald Trump lied about his imaginary wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and about "illegal immigrants" who come to America in order to commit crimes against white people. He spun vainglorious stories out of whole cloth about his "accomplishments" and "greatness."
Donald Trump's values and beliefs may appear incoherent, but they are not a buffet or à la carte meal from which a person can pick and choose from. Rather, they are a nasty, incestuous knot that cannot be easily untangled. Ultimately, to wear Donald Trump's MAGA hats or his other regalia is to share and endorse his racism, sexism, nativism, bigotry and anti-social behavior. To utter the words "Make America Great Again" with no sense of irony or foreboding is to announce one's betrayal of human decency and distrust of democracy.
How do Trump's MAGA hats and other clothing and slogans help to create a sense of political community for his followers? Is "Make America Great Again" an implicit threat against nonwhites, Muslims and others that he and his followers deem to be a type of enemy Other? Does Trumpism represent larger cultural battles in America about the role of academics, teachers, intellectuals and other experts in public life? Should Trump's supporters be held morally accountable for their political decision-making and the harm that they are causing to American society?
In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Matthew A. Sears, an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick. Sears' essays have also been featured by the Washington Post and the History News Network. His most recent column for the Washington Post is "Why the decision to wear MAGA hats matters."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Professors and other educators who speak out about the threat to democracy embodied by Donald Trump and his movement have been victims of a coordinated campaign of threats and violence -- including being fired from their jobs. Trumpism and the American right have birthed a type of new McCarthyism and anti-intellectualism in America. As a professor who studies literature and history, and also writes for a popular audience, how has that impacted you?
I don't know if it is "anti-intellectual" per se, in the spirit of what we saw in fascist Italy or with the Khmer Rouge, the latter being an obvious and odious example. But there is certainly a kind of battle royale taking place between different kinds of intellectuals in America and the West.
There are people like [white nationalist leader] Richard Spencer who try to give themselves an air of academic respectability. These types try to claim that their positions are actually well-thought out, well-researched and well-sourced. They are trying to piggy-back on academic prestige.
There is the so-called "intellectual dark web." These are all academics or academic-adjacent people. Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein, even Steven Pinker increasingly, and people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris can be included in that group.
This is a battle for the soul of public discourse and who gets to claim expertise on certain areas. Given my expertise and public voice, I am part of a public debate and fight over keeping or getting rid of "traditional" ideas of Western civilization and arguments and beliefs such as “The West is Best.”
As a classics professor who talks about, writes about and teaches about the Greeks and the Romans, for many of the "alt-right" or "alt-lite" I am often seen as a traitor. Why? Because I research and show how those societies were complex, problematic and different from our own. Studying ancient Greece and Rome can show us ways of how not to act and how not to organize a society. These "alt-right" and "alt-lite" types say I am "ruining" Western civilization and I’m "ruining" the classics because I don’t engage in hero worship where I say things like, “Look at these great founders of democracy, and look at these heroes like Achilles and Julius Caesar and these great men.”
Why is Jordan Peterson so compelling for a certain type of man with a very particular political and social worldview?
I think Peterson is actually anti-intellectual in many ways because he actively advocates the shutting down of entire disciplines that he does not like. In that sense Peterson is literally anti-intellectual. Peterson is appealing to a certain type of person because he is a professor. And because he is a professor he is even more appealing because he is seen to be standing against -- supposedly out of sheer bravery and determination and grit -- the cultural and social movements that are supposedly associated with academia.
He’s arguing for very traditional conservative ideas. For example, traditional ideas about the family and gender relations and power dynamics. Peterson loves to talk about "dominance hierarchies" and how he believes there are always going to be these hierarchies, even in nature, and therefore they are inevitable in human society.
In that way Jordan Peterson is giving intellectual and academic backing or respectability to the kinds of positions which a certain type of person already believes. In addition, Peterson is a man who is a full professor at the University of Toronto. He speaks with such certainty, conviction and vitriol.
I have compared Jordan Peterson to Don Quixote -- the fact that you have this knight who is centuries too late for chivalry, but still kind of rides around as if he’s one of the Knights of the Round Table while everybody just kind of rolls their eyes at him. I see Peterson as like almost being in the Old West, challenging someone to pistols at dawn -- Twitter pistols.
Maybe some people are challenged by what Peterson says, but I think at the end of the day those who read him are just happy to finally have a "respectable" academic reinforcing traditional values.” For example, Jordan Peterson has made claims about gender roles and the problematic nature of women wearing makeup in the workplace and this kind of thing. In this moment with the MeToo movement and a backlash to women's rights there is an eager audience for that.
Both Jordan Peterson and Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa, are, in their own way, telling stories about "Western civilization." They are both trying to create a usable past to advance and justify their political beliefs in the present. Do you see them as connected?
Peterson will make claims about dominance hierarchies and allude to classical myths and stories where he concludes that some people are heroes and some people are not. By implication this is taken by him and his followers to mean that trying to make a workplace more equitable and trying to avoid the cutthroat, backstabbing nature of the corporate world is just fighting against universal archetypes and human nature.
Other than that Peterson does not really appear to talk about the classics as more than just a source for him to find myths. Whereas Steve King is just, “Western Civilization is the best. I learned about the Greeks and Romans and the Enlightenment and modern Europe in school, and I learned how they’re the best. Why is it that they say that they’re the best anymore?" Steve King also says things such as, "Why is it bad to be proud of one’s heritage -- including one’s white heritage? Look what white people have done for the world.”
The problem with approaches like that is they completely whitewash the fact that the ancient world had slaves, and a lot of Enlightenment-era values were used to undergird and justify scientific racism and antebellum slavery in the United States, for example.
Those people who want to read modern or contemporary understandings of "race" into the far past -- especially the ancient world--are making any number of errors in inference and false assumptions. Such claims do not survive any type of critical rigor or sophisticated understanding of history.
The ancient Mediterranean world was multicultural, multiracial and multi-ethnic. They also try to make these convenient and bizarre claims and qualifiers where somehow the West does not include 1930s Germany. World War II is the West fighting itself. To suggest that there is some inherent superiority to the West or that the West is some kind of monolith is just ahistorical. It is also very harmful, because such blinders prevent people from looking critically at what the West has done badly, could do better and should do better.
One of the through lines here is the creation of political communities and how they bind themselves together against outsiders. How do Donald Trump's MAGA hats and other regalia represent this dynamic?
Symbols are useful for conveying a much broader slate of meanings and ideas in a shorthand way. When you see a MAGA hat -- along with whether or not the people wearing them are chanting slogans such as "Build the wall!" or saying they are "tired of political correctness" -- the entire sentiment of "Make America Great Again" implies that there was a time when America was great and it’s not any longer.
If you look at the reasons that Trump and his movement actually believe (and often explicitly say) that American is not great any longer, it's because there’s now too many nonwhite immigrants. America for Trump and his supporters is no longer great because black people have too many rights or there are too many women in the workplace.
Trump and his MAGA hats and slogans and policies are also connected to things like the Muslim ban, building the wall, calling Mexicans rapists and saying the terrorists are crossing into the border among these caravans from Guatemala. The obvious conclusion is hard to escape. It takes a certain kind of willful denial and willful ignorance to wear a MAGA hat and assume that you’re not conveying all those values and beliefs.
Let’s say you are a newcomer to America, or a relative newcomer, and you are not white and perhaps you do not speak English or you may not be a Christian. If you see a MAGA hat, or hear the words "Make America Great Again," what can that mean to you other than people like you have made America less great, and "we" want to get back to the point in time where there were fewer of "you" in the country? In this time before, when American was "great," "we" could just be openly Christian all the time and be openly proud of being white.
Was America great when there was racial segregation? Was America great when we were interning Japanese-Americans? These are questions that people wearing MAGA hats should be made to answer.
Trump's MAGA hat and other regalia are a type of permission for bad behavior. They neuter any sense of personal responsibility for one's own bad behavior.
It makes sense that wearing a MAGA hat makes you feel like part of a broader movement and a broader community. You are granted permission for your behavior by the group. The language is very powerful too. Who could be against "Make America Great Again"? What’s wrong with that? The group membership and slogan gives permission and cover for excessive and odious practices and beliefs, while still offering plausible deniability.
The MAGA hat and other Trump clothing and slogans operate according to the same logic as when someone wears Confederate paraphernalia and then tries to claim that “Oh, it just means I am a redneck.” Or, “I’m celebrating Southern heritage.” What is actually being said and signaled to is a claim that it was better when black people could be owned as slaves and the state supported it. White people probably should have been allowed to keep owning slaves, and Jim Crow segregation was a great thing.
Here is an obvious comparison. Through the white racial lens and paranoid thinking, a black person wearing a "hoodie" is somehow an existential danger but a white person wearing a MAGA hat is not threatening to people and groups that Trump and his movement have deemed the enemy.
That is a great comparison. Trayvon Martin would have had a birthday recently. I wonder how many of the same people who claim that a MAGA hat is "just a hat" and "that we are reading too much into it" would also have applied the same logic to Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie. These Trump supporters and others have said things such as "No wonder George Zimmerman was afraid of Trayvon Martin. He was a thug and he was wearing a hoodie." Yet somehow a MAGA hat is a neutral object.
There have been many documented cases of Trump's supporters either wearing his MAGA gear or chanting his slogans while engaging in hate crimes and other violence. Trump and his values at this point are known commodities, there is no mystery left. To continue to support Donald Trump is to support racism, sexism, bigotry, violence and other antisocial and dangerous politics and beliefs.
To wear Donald Trump's MAGA hat and other uniforms is an endorsement of everything he stands for. People who support Donald Trump need to be held morally accountable.
People need to be held accountable for the electoral decisions that they make. This is especially true of the moral values that are conveyed by political choices. If you vote for a person who you know is a sexual predator, for example, that you know is a racist, you know he’s a business cheat and that he’s probably colluding with Russia, you can’t then shrug off the consequence of your decisions or just claim ignorance. You voted for that man and his policies. And to wear Trump's clothing and to chant his slogans now, knowing all the harm he is doing and the types of people -- white supremacists, for example -- who claim Trump as a hero, you have to be called on it. There has to be responsibility.
I have a scenario. In a few decades finding your parents' or grandparents' MAGA hats or other regalia will be the equivalent of someone in this moment discovering their relatives' Nazi paraphernalia. Nazism and Trumpism are, of course, not yet the same thing. Is this too extreme a comparison?
I think it’s similar. But I think a better analogy would be like finding a Ku Klux Klan hood or robe. I’ve made the comparison before. Every time I watch a documentary about the civil rights movement and all the hateful violence they faced I wonder what the white people who were doing those horrible things were thinking. What was going through their minds?
We are living in an era with Donald Trump and the Republican Party and the right-wing movement in America where things of similar gravity are happening. It’s our job to not be the people who stand by idly and let mobs harass black kids who in an earlier era not too long ago were trying to go to newly desegregated schools. In a few generations from now, finding a MAGA hat in your grandparents' closet would be like seeing your grandfather's or grandmother’s face in one of those lunch counter photos, harassing the black people who are trying to fight Jim Crow and win their equal human rights.
I hope there is a future in which the MAGA hat is looked down upon and that political and social matters in this country do not worsen and escalate.