The MAGA Teen News Cycle and Our Toxic Era of “Event Politics”

An animation showing video of the MAGA teen playing on one laptop, then two laptops, then nine laptops, with each screen stopped at a different moment in the video.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by iStock/Getty Images.

I’d naively hoped that America would spend the anniversary of Roe v. Wade talking about what the future holds for the tired and embattled women of this country, some of whom have finally won a little political power. Instead (and as usual) the nation spent the day arguing over the inflammatory actions of a bunch of dudes.

The inciting incident was a short video of an inconclusive confrontation. It was shot—absurdly, but maybe appropriately—in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It depicts an adolescent white teen—who subsequently identified himself as Nick Sandmann—staring and either smirking or smiling at a Native American elder now known to be named Nathan Phillips. In the clip, Phillips is playing his drum and singing.

What the first wave of reactions registered was a spoiled white youth in a MAGA hat, surrounded by his pals from a private all-boys Catholic school, intimidating a Native American elder who was singing a ceremonial chant in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It’d be tough to more neatly distill what many see as the problems of the present down to a purer set of symbols: This was Trump’s ethnonationalist idea of “America” literally blocking the path of a Native American. What the second wave of people saw wasn’t the clip but the response: They saw a kid being condemned as an aggressive racist for doing nothing but wearing a MAGA hat and staring. In their eyes, he was being publicly excoriated for the crime of supporting the president. The clip needed context, they argued, and what that context showed was that Phillips approached Sandmann, rather than the other way round. This, they argue, is exactly how young white men in America are persecuted and ruined, particularly if they lean conservative.

Since then, many media figures have apologized for their part in rushing to judgment. There have been many subsequent stages of discovery and response. It was revealed, for instance, that the teens had been loudly insulted by a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites—who had earlier targeted the Native American group for abuse as well, calling one man an “Uncle Tomahawk” and accusing them of worshipping buffaloes. Footage surfaced of what looks like a subset of Covington Catholic students harassing women as they walk by. Contrary to early reports, Nathan Phillips is not a Vietnam War vet. Even the media self-flagellations have acquired improbable layers: The PR firm Nick Sandmann’s family hired appears to be run by a frequent guest on CNN. It was a perfect storm, in other words, for today’s sick political news cycle: an incident that symbolically crystallized the shear and strain of America’s culture wars—without, in itself, meaning anything much at all.

This is just the latest instance of a phenomenon you could call “event politics”—that familiar flurry of knee-jerk responses sparked by a single image or clip that a little too perfectly illustrates one side’s worldview. There was the notorious Melania jacket that launched a feverish outrage cycle as soon as she appeared in it. There was the photograph of the little girl crying at the border that went viral and ended up on the cover of Time because it put a face and a feeling to the cruelty of Trump’s family separations. The problem: She herself wasn’t separated from her mother. When an alt-right troll stole a video taken by Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer and miscaptioned it as “man walking to grocery store in Berkeley mistaken for being a Nazi is beaten into a coma,” the clip went viral and was shared by—among others—Jonah Goldberg of the National Review and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.

“First of all, it seems pretty obvious that antifa’s definition of ‘fascist’ is remarkably elastic, including defenders of free speech and mainstream conservatism,” Goldberg wrote in his defense of leaving his tweet promoting the mislabeled video up. “I for one refuse to defer to masked vigilantes as the arbiter of who is or is not a fascist,” he said, adding that “the victim may indeed be a member of the alt-right, or even just a provocative ass. I don’t know.” You’ll probably recognize elements of Goldberg’s logic. In short: The details don’t matter, and neither does what the guy was doing in Berkeley—or whether he was a Proud Boy or a member of Patriot Prayer. Then things take an odd turn. “Unless there’s some evidence the victim initiated violence, there’s no excuse for antifa’s behavior in that video,” he writes, but then immediately changes his mind: “And even if he did initiate violence (there’s no evidence he did), trying to stomp a man to death is unjustifiable.”

This is motivated reasoning, the kind everyone uses when an image that seemingly proved something—whether it’s that antifa is a danger to society or that Kavanaugh-lite teens are entitled and racist—collapses into irresolution. To the people circulating it, that the image doesn’t portray exactly what they thought it did matters little. They knew the truth it demonstrated before and still know it after the image is debunked. The image was a convenient piece of viscerally persuasive evidence. It was the kind of thing one posts because one understands it, ultimately, as a recruitment tool for others.

Event politics are in part, I suspect, a response to uncertainty. We’re in a moment when so much is truly bananas—the president can’t spell hamburgers and was investigated by the FBI for being a possible Russian agent, to pick two examples at random—that reassuring framings are welcome. An unmoored people likes to be reminded of what the heroes and villains are, and social media allows snippets of events to circulate freely in a contextless vacuum. If we can’t know what’s going to happen because a changeable clown is in charge, we can at least discuss what individual images mean, with satisfying if deluded definitiveness. And Trump, with his flighty attention span and obsession with sound bites and shorthands, is an ideal emcee for our age of event politics. Imprecision is his default mode; his way of never being wrong is by never being right. Did he say San Antonio was a border town that had a wall, even though it isn’t and doesn’t? Fine, he meant San Diego. Who cares. He cherishes the spectacle of people who care about these real places—with real people—getting upset, as long as he’s at the center.

Similarly, that “I really don’t care. Do u?” jacket—worn by Melania on her way to McAllen, Texas, during the family separation crisis her husband created at the border—was an express invitation to project meaning onto her wardrobe. Of course we obliged. The explanations she’s supplied since are ciphers themselves that shred meaning instead of creating it. “It’s a jacket,” her spokesperson said, practically rolling her eyes at the media and the American people for daring to read into a jacket that had words written on it. But later Trump would throw her own spokesperson under the bus. She told ABC’s Tom Llamas that the jacket was “for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me. And I want to show them that I don’t care.” What was weird about that revelation was that it settled nothing: The admission that she’d lied about her jacket then didn’t make it feel like she was telling the truth now. Nobody knows what that jacket was really about. I doubt anyone ever will.

This is where event politics always seem to wind up: A ton of energy gets spent, but there’s no cognitively satisfying conclusion—no understanding, resolution, or shared meaning that helps the country progress in its conversations with itself. “It’s a jacket” might be the White House equivalent of the “it’s just a hat” defense of the Covington Catholic teens’ MAGA caps. It’s not true, and everyone knows it, but it seems dumb to overlegislate such petty terrain. And yet: Plenty of us have seen enough people in MAGA hats screaming Trump’s “lock her up” and “build the wall” catchphrases to associate those hats with people who want to … imprison their enemies without due process and lock out the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Neither of these associations is exactly congruent with American idealism or American greatness. The hat’s text is in a fight with the hat’s subtext, and a kid smirking under its brim makes that obvious contradiction visible. Of course that image went viral. In a healthier country, that image wouldn’t have been so furiously overread because the other side would long ago have easily conceded that yes, there is something wrong and disturbing about Americans screaming “lock her up” and “build the wall.” That is not the country we have.

Unsurprising, then, that when an image feels like one of the only weapons people have, they use it. I suspect, though, that event politics are a lot better at preserving power than disrupting it. It’s modern-day bread and circuses—a way to get the masses worked up, only instead of keeping us happy, it gets us squabbling for meaning when there’s none to be made. Remember covfefe? “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!” Trump tweeted after he sent out that tweet by mistake. Amazingly, many of his followers tried. He’d do more or less the same thing with the Clemson “hamberders”: create a bizarre spectacle, then enjoy the fights people had over what it all meant.

It doesn’t mean much of anything. And because it doesn’t mean much, the net result, the one thing that definitely happens, is that folks trust those on the other side even less after all’s said and done—having seen them reach hasty or unsupported or convenient conclusions. Humans are weirder than the impoverished vocabularies we’ve developed for the scenes they create, and I’m not at all convinced that even Phillips and Sandmann—the figures at the center of this storm—fully understood what was happening between the two of them that day. (In fact, both have admitted as much.) Sites where multiple sides show up to demonstrate are generally ripe for this kind of confusion—as Shane Bauer wrote back in 2017 of the protests in Berkeley. If you’ve attended one, you know that crowds develop currents that aren’t even legible to the people inside them. What seemed clear watching that clip is that, while many in the Covington Catholic group are moving to the beat of Phillips’ drum, Sandmann isn’t. While many in the crowd make room to let him pass, Sandmann doesn’t. There’s an obvious electricity in the moment that scanned, to many, as tension. It does to the teens present too. When the moment stretches out over a long minute, one says: “What’s going on?”

If we want to try to extract some meaning from all this, it might reside not in the video, but rather in the desperate intensity of our attraction to spectacles like these that throw anecdotal fuel on the fire of our structural convictions. Two male Americans stared at each other, and the country couldn’t stop talking about it. That’s absurd and disorienting and made nothing better, but it’s understandable. We’re at symbolic war now, and the jagged and sad irresolution of that encounter feels symbolic, too—of a country with a long racist past that isn’t over but which also won’t quite sharpen into the satisfying narrative arc we crave. We don’t know where we’re going or what it means. The wrongheaded theory underpinning all this overinterpretive zeal is that America’s problems work just as fractals or microcosms do—the smallest incident will replicate the flawed whole.