Alexandre Bissonette wore the hat.
A Canadian, Bissonette hadn’t voted for Donald Trump. He lived in a French-speaking province, far from the U.S. president’s campaign rallies and “America first” appeals. But some of the first photos to emerge of the 27-year-old after he stormed a Quebec City mosque and killed six Muslim men in January 2017 showed him wide-eyed with a slight smirk and a red “Make America Great Again” cap casting a shadow over his pallid face.
“Make America Great Again” has become more than a U.S. political slogan. For Bissonette and other white nationalist, radical right and anti-immigrant extremists all over the world, it’s a symbol; a kind of political messaging that transcends the specifics of country and language.
“The hat and the MAGA acronym have really become shorthand for this white nationalist movement,” said Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and an expert on the far right.
Searching for MAGA symbolism is one of the easiest ways to notice online extremists and members of hate groups, Perry and other researchers have found — a game of “Where’s Waldo?” for racists. A 2018 study by extremism researcher J.M. Berger that analyzed tens of thousands of alt-right Twitter accounts found the most common word in their profiles was “MAGA” and the most frequent pairing of words was “Trump supporter.”
And this embrace of pro-Trump symbols isn’t limited to social media. MAGA hats and slogans have shown up in Britain at rallies supporting anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson, on banners in Australia following the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, and as an accessory for prominent European white nationalists who wear it to troll their fellow citizens.
Canada’s far right has a particular affinity for MAGA apparel. It often appears on white nationalist media personalities and far-right trolls attempting to disrupt anti-racism demonstrations. The head of the World Coalition Against Islam, a Canadian extremist group that openly refers to Muslims as “sewage,” routinely wears a MAGA hat at rallies.
“In Canada, the MAGA hat is widely seen as a hate symbol — a middle finger to other Canadians, especially to women and people of colour,” Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which monitors extremism, wrote in an email. The country’s oldest retailer, the Hudson’s Bay Company, recently apologized for selling “Make Canada Great Again” hats and removed them from its stores after public backlash.
MAGA symbols abroad aren’t solely the province of extremists, but they tend to attract a certain type. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politicians, in particular, have adopted the Trump-associated slogans and paraphernalia.
Leader of Italy’s far-right League party Matteo Salvini posed with a MAGA hat on his office shelf and held an “Italians first” rally, while Islamophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders promised to “make the Netherlands great again.” The anti-immigrant Alternative For Germany party’s deputy leader Beatrix Von Storch, whom German prosecutors investigated for inciting hatred against Muslims, wore a red “Make Germany Safe Again” hat during an election campaign.
Beyond mimicking Trump’s rhetoric to rile up nationalist sentiment in their own countries, the international far right embraces the U.S. president because he helps bolster the narrative of rising support for a global anti-immigrant, anti-establishment movement. When the most powerful person in the world says that “Islam hates us” and attempts to ban Muslim immigration, it’s proof that perhaps other world leaders can achieve a similar goal.
“Trump’s campaign was anti-Muslim, and he has enacted anti-Muslim policies while in office,” said Matthew McGregor, campaign director for the British-based anti-racism advocacy group Hope Not Hate. “He has given the far right encouragement and left them with the impression that things are going their way.”
Far-right extremists have also long attached themselves to symbols, slogans and anything that identifies them as an in-group separate from the broader public. Some extremist groups have taken up Nordic symbols; others use thinly veiled references to Nazism, such as “88” for “Heil Hitler,” as a wink to others in the movement. European neo-Nazi groups even sometimes carry Confederate flags in their demonstrations. In that sense, it’s natural that extremists who view Trump as a gateway to white nationalism have embraced his emblems.
“It gives them credibility that if this is from the president of the United States, then it must be all right to have those views,” said Amira Elghawaby, a human rights advocate and board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
But if the support of mass shooters and violent neo-Nazis would make the average politician issue forceful condemnations and distance themselves from rhetoric and symbols that appeal to extremists, Trump has essentially done the opposite. He has claimed there are “very fine people on both sides” of Charlottesville’s white nationalist Unite The Right rally, helped promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros and broadcast white supremacist talking points from the Oval Office.
The Christchurch attacker’s manifesto included a section on Trump that encapsulates many far-right extremists’ views of the U.S. president. Although the attacker disagreed with some of Trump’s policies, he claimed he supported Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
The day after the attack, however, Trump again dismissed the threat of white nationalism, even as he borrowed its language to describe immigration as an “invasion” that must be stopped. It was another example of why Trump’s symbolism still resonates with extremists — he has done little to convince them that his views are not their own.
Or, as Perry puts it: “He still wears the hats.”