The story of an intransigent white male in a MAGA hat has captivated the country. This individual has infuriated liberals with an act of seemingly racist obstruction—and rallied support among equally infuriated conservatives who say that his actions were simply a reasonable response to aggression against his community.
What I’m setting up here is what opinion-journalism professionals like to call the old switcheroo. The description above could apply equally to Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student who provoked a national moment of polarization by staring down a Native American protester on the National Mall, or Donald Trump, the president, who, elsewhere on the National Mall, has provoked the longest government shutdown in U.S. history by staring down Democrats who don’t want to let him build a wall on the border with Mexico.
The latter story has enormous stakes for government employees who have been furloughed or told to work without pay, not to mention America’s relationship with its Southern neighbors. The former has been dismissed as a low-stakes distraction by many observers. But Sandmann and Trump are really just involved in the same story on different scales. Like similar iconic images from U.S. history, the Covington Catholic students’ confrontation with Nathan Phillips resonates because it captures a fundamental conflict. The issue at stake is cultural diversity—whether white people, particularly men, need to stand their ground, as it were, against what is perceived as an encroaching nonwhite/nonmale threat.
As my former colleague Tommy Craggs wrote at the time and political scientists have subsequently confirmed, this was what the 2016 election was about. Trump’s winning electoral approach was to make the presidential vote a referendum on white identity by disparaging the nonwhites and non-Christians who he held responsible for America not being “great” anymore. While previous elections had involved Republicans who were relatively liberal on immigration and Democrats who were relatively conservative on criminal justice issues that disproportionately affect nonwhite communities, Trump turned every national political issue into a question of whether you are with or against the white guy. It’s the issue that’s at stake any time there’s an argument over whether to believe a black person who says he was assaulted by a police officer or falsely accused of a crime, or whether to believe a woman who accuses a man of sexual misconduct. It’s the dichotomy at work when Trump labels an Indiana-born organized crime prosecutor as a “Mexican” drug-cartel sympathizer because he has a Latino surname, or reflexively blurts out that he wants more immigrants from “industrious” countries like Norway and fewer from the “shithole countries” in Africa. It’s what’s at stake when right-wing media try to dismiss a rising-star Democratic representative as inherently unserious because she is attractive and female. It’s what’s at stake when the president suddenly shuts down the government in order to demand a strategically pointless wall that isn’t supported by a single border-district House representative (including the Republican one) but is supported in the whitest parts of the country, a wall that literal white nationalists have been demanding for years. Are you with “us” or against us?
That was the question at stake when Phillips approached the crowd of students in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Friday too. However you read Sandmann’s claim that he thought blocking a nonwhite individual’s path while wearing a Donald Trump hat would defuse a tense situation—and as a person who has witnessed a good number of extremely dumb fake-tough macho posture-offs myself, I don’t find it plausible!—it can’t be disputed that the broader group of students jeered and made a joke of Phillips. They reacted to his (very slow) approach with bafflement and amusement, which turned quickly into a mass “tomahawk chop”—a caricature of savage-Indian chanting that was invented by white sports fans. A real live Indian—LOL, can you believe it? Whoop whoop, chop chop chop! Another encounter caught on video shows a group that appears to include Covington students catcalling and shouting “MAGA!” and “Build the wall!” toward a group of women. Naturally, Trump’s reaction to this behavior was to celebrate it.
Yes, Covington Boys v. People Who Don’t Look Like the Covington Boys was purely symbolic, as cultural conflicts go—but when the president has made the backlash to cultural diversity the entire purpose of an administration that has shut down significant parts of the government for a month in a seemingly hopeless attempt to show Mexico who’s boss, it seems strange to argue that such a conflict is just a sideshow.