Social coercion and the red MAGA cap (from the bitch who didn’t wave back)

Located near the university and downtown, my neighborhood is far more likely to host signs proclaiming “Hate has no home here” than displays of GOP boosterism. And I could recall having seen enough red lawn signs in this guy’s yard to be unsurprised when he emerged from his well kept brick home in a bright red ball cap. A rake in one hand, he waved dramatically at me with the other. It’s a nonevent that’s only stayed with me because I did not wave back. I am, you see, the bitch who dared to be “rude” — liberal “incivility” being one of the few sins on the GOP radar these days.

But first more context: In a neighborhood peppered with signs celebrating diversity, climate science, voting rights, and the like, this fella, an oldish white guy with an immaculately kept lawn, has boasted his passion for Fred Upton, the WALL, and the critical importance of LOCKING HER UP. He strolled out in his bright red Trump cap on the very day Pence had visited nearby. It’s a fact that I doubt was lost on many of us who passed by his lovingly tended home pushing strollers, jogging, or, like me, walking an old dog obsessed with piles of moldering leaves.

He’s remained loyal to his MAGA convictions, then, as children have languished and died in concentration camps, as Kurds have been slaughtered, as the suicide rates of LGBTQ youth have skyrocketed, as the Amazon has burned and the poles have melted. But despite the direct link between the symbolic red cap and these somber realities, he gets to conveniently conceive of his made-in-China Trump cap as nothing more than an individual, private choice. A gentle expression of mere political disagreement, right? For god’s sake, you hypersensitive bitch, it’s just a hat. Lighten up!

Emerging from his house in that cap on that day, wielding a rake — or was it a pitchfork? — he looked around to see who might be seeing him. He was performing a public political morality, albeit more subtly than if he had been standing on a soapbox sporting a swastika armband with a bullhorn at his lips. My dog and I were passing by on the other side of the street, already well out of earshot, when he waved at me as if he were doing flag semaphore on the tarmac. He was daring me, I knew, and I did not blink. I saw that he saw me seeing him and I kept walking.

As my dog and I completed our meander home, I imagined how this event would play out at his house. I suspected it would be a story of his victimization, of how uncivil and unfriendly his liberal neighbors are, of how he tries to “get along with them,” but this is the thanks he gets. “The nerve!” His non-interaction with me will likely become further justification for what he already knows: the nation is out of control, and power must remain in the hands of “traditional” folks like him, you know, god-and-country, salt-of-the-earth types. The phrase “hell in a hand basket” will probably feature into his righteous, self-justifying account.

And (only) partly because he will probably exploit my “rudeness” for his own rationalization, some progressives will insist that I should have waved, been “friendly,” “taken the high road.” Love conquers all, they might remind me. What would it possibly have cost me to be neighborly to an old man despite the fact that we don’t see eye-to-eye on every political detail? Have I learned nothing from the cozy love story of Ellen Degeneres and George W.? But we know these aren’t “mere” political disagreements, don’t we? And Mr. Maga isn’t a geriatric innocent. He is an enthusiastic member of an increasingly lawless, anti-democratic, crassly self-serving elite, one who, on this particular day, tried to coerce me into acknowledging his mini-celebration of conservative extremism.

In short, this guy attempted to exploit my “normal” sense of social obligation to secure the attention he needs to prop up his own identity. And, let’s face it, as a woman I’m supposed to be permanently on call for old white men’s emotional demands. If you’ve ever had a guy test you by theatrically leaping in front of you to hold the door open, you know what I mean: Are you going to gratefully acknowledge his chivalry or are you a feminist bitch? If you think this doesn’t happen anymore, watch how quickly Sir Lancelot turns on you if you refuse to properly demonstrate your gratitude, accept his “compliments,” or follow his “helpful” parallel parking advice. Fucking feminist bitch.

Mr. Maga is another reminder that the social expectation we continuously heap on others is incredibly fraught, especially when aimed at those less empowered than we are. In short, my polite gesture, or social overture, so innocent, so very civil, places a demand on others to respond as (raced and gendered) social norms dictate. Of course, the strength of the demand varies depending on folks’ place in the social hierarchy. The apparent innocence or jocularity of the various gestures often disguises the way that these can function more as expressions of privilege and entitlement — smile, wave, laugh at my joke! — than as opportunities for authentic social engagement.

The stakes can be pretty high, because whatever identity one has committed to enact, maintain and defend depends on being able to repeatedly command appropriate acknowledgement from others. It’s like an endless play in which much of the cast has been assigned the role of propping up the self-serving story of a few self-proclaimed stars. And though I accept Mr. Maga’s right to exercise authority over his own person and his manicured patch of turf, he cannot compel me to participate in his self-aggrandizement or proto-fascist passion play. It turns out that I am okay with being the feminist bitch who refuses to smile and wave.

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