Justin Peterson, a 37-year-old graphic designer who lives in Orlando, Florida, owns nearly 100 baseball caps, including several featuring the familiar “C” logo of the Cincinnati Reds. But when he and his wife visited her family in Cincinnati over the recent Independence Day holiday weekend, Peterson didn’t bring his red Reds cap. Instead, he opted for the team’s alternate black hat.
“Unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable wearing red baseball hats anymore,” Peterson said. “I don’t want someone assuming I’m something that I’m not, or that I represent something that I think has become pretty ugly.”
There are plenty of people who are proud to wear President Donald Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” caps, of course, as evinced at recent rallies. When Trump’s campaign introduced them in 2015, he was dubbed a “marketing genius.” Hats flew off the shelves in the store at the Trump Tower in New York’s midtown as Republican supporters and Democrats alike vied to obtain the accessory of the summer.
But four years later, some sports fans, like Peterson, have become reluctant to wear their favorite teams’ red headwear, or have even stopped wearing it altogether, because they don’t want people to think they’re wearing one of the MAGA hats, which are also red.
Put more simply, they fear being mistaken for MAGA.
Since teams throughout the sports world produce baseball-style caps for sale, the potential for MAGA confusion extends beyond baseball teams like the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals, and includes fans of the Kansas City Chiefs (a football team), the New Jersey Devils (hockey), Liverpool FC (soccer) and many other red-themed teams. It appears to be the latest example of how Trump’s presence tends to have a polarizing effect on almost anything it touches, even something as seemingly innocuous as the humble ball cap.
Promotional caps have also been affected. People responding to a reporter’s inquiry said they had stopped wearing red caps advertising things like Maker’s Mark bourbon and Sriracha hot sauce.
On a recent episode of humorist John Hodgman’s podcast, “Judge John Hodgman,” a woman asked if her husband should stop wearing his red promotional caps from a software company. Hodgman’s response: “If you’re not a Trump voter, stay away from it. Stay away from anything that might resemble a MAGA hat.”
Louis Orangeo, 27, a procurement analyst in Bloomfield, New Jersey, did vote for Trump in 2016 and is prepared to vote for him again in 2020, although he isn’t 100% sure. Orangeo said he bought a MAGA hat after the election, “mainly to troll people” but stopped wearing it because of negative responses. “I hate having to explain it and defend it,” he said. “It always gets a look and a sneer.” He does wear a minor league baseball team’s red cap plenty, and nobody has ever said anything.
But Peterson, the Orlando graphic designer, decided to mothball his red caps after his wife pointed out the potential for confusion or confrontation. And others have made similar decisions after noticing the responses to their red hats.
“One of my favorite hats is a red University of Wisconsin Badgers hat,” said Corey Looby, 31, a database manager from Madison, Wisconsin. “But when I traveled, I would regularly notice glares from people I passed on the street. I don’t want to be associated with MAGA, even mistakenly, so I stopped wearing it.”
The phenomenon is by no means universal; some red-capped fans said the potential MAGA connection had never occurred to them until a reporter brought it up. “I don’t like engaging in political conversations. I just want to be friends and talk about other topics, not politics,” said Jason Stygar, 34, an audio engineer in St. Louis. “But as a lifelong Cardinals fan, I love my red hat — I’ll wear it anywhere and everywhere. It had never even occurred to me that someone would mistake it for a MAGA hat, and nobody’s ever bothered me about it.”
And some are wearing red caps in defiance, regardless of politics.
“I am not pro-Trump or anti-Trump, but I do have a Detroit Red Wings hat and get weird looks when I wear it,” said Nick Landry, 28, project manager for a carpenter subcontractor in Milford, Michigan. “I continue to wear it as a social experiment, hoping people will feel like idiots when they realize that it’s not a MAGA hat and that they’re feeling vitriol over something so stupid.”
Whatever one’s opinion of Trump, these stories are a testament to the MAGA hat’s success, both as a popular piece of apparel and as a cultural signifier. Because there are plenty of knockoffs, it’s hard to calculate how many of the hats have been sold or distributed since they debuted in 2015 (the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment), but they have become sufficiently ubiquitous, at least in some circles, to overshadow all other red ball caps.
Aside from wanting to avoid controversy or the potential for mistaken tribal identity, some people who say they have taken their red headgear out of circulation see this choice as a matter of courtesy or even empathy toward immigrants, minorities and other groups that they consider targets of the president’s policies.
“It breaks my heart to think I can make someone be on guard and uncomfortable just by wearing a red hat,” said Jeremiah McBrayer, 42, an information-technology worker from Missouri who shelved his red headwear after seeing some negative responses to it at his local Home Depot. “It is just sad and unfortunate that this is where we are in our country now.”
Has all of this led to a decline in non-MAGA red cap sales? Two leading cap brands — New Era Cap Co. and ’47 — did not respond to requests for comment; neither did Lids, a chain of cap retailers. Another retailer, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., declined to comment, citing a company policy of not discussing sales figures.
But managers at several sportswear shops said red caps have been harder to obtain from distributors lately, and some of them said the scarlet scarcity was directly related to the MAGA connection.
“Three of our vendors specifically mentioned this trend,” said Benji Boyter, who runs the retail operation at a South Carolina golf and tennis resort. “One of them mentioned it in the sense of staying away from too many red hats, while the other two casually mentioned something along the lines of ‘You’ve got to be careful with red hats these days.’ ”
Many of the people eschewing their red caps said they feel conflicted. On the one hand, they are engaged in a form of protest and resistance. But in doing so, they’re granting Trump power over their apparel choices and how they express their support for their favorite teams.
“It’s like, he can’t take red hats from us, too,” said Lendsey Thomson, 33, a sports lawyer in Kansas City who has stopped wearing his favorite red “KC” cap. “But, alas, he kind of has.”
At least one fan has decided to reclaim that power. Dave Tarr, a 64-year-old retiree and Arsenal soccer fan in Charleston, South Carolina, put aside his beloved red Arsenal cap during the 2016 election campaign. “And then a few months ago,” he said, “I just decided that I wouldn’t give Trump or his minions the satisfaction of not doing something that I wanted to do.”
So Tarr brought his Arsenal cap out of retirement and began wearing it again. So far, he said, nobody has said anything about it.