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The Greatest (Presidential) Hat Trick of All Time

By Carley Sambrook ’17

“Here’s the general rule: You don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president. That’s politics 101. You never look good wearing something on your head.”

– President Barack Obama

Funny Hats: A Presidential History

Measuring six feet and four inches, Abraham Lincoln is the tallest president in the history of the United States. To think of Lincoln is to picture one of his many extended top hats. Lincoln’s hat was a fashion statement, storage for important papers, and a means of further accentuating his towering frame. The 16th President’s use of the top hat was so iconic that the silk hat he wore on the fateful night at Ford’s Theater is one of the most valued items of the Lincoln Collection at the Smithsonian Museum of National History.

Throughout history, American presidents and presidential candidates have worn all sorts of hats. Some have worked, and some have definitely not worked. What framework exists to guide presidential hopefuls in the art of the hat? A poll of the past shows inconsistent results… Take the downfall of Mike Dukakis after the tank episode of 1988. Even though the helmet Dukakis wore was standard procedure for tank driving, the resulting appearance made him the butt of jokes and the beneficiary of many a chuckle. Dukakis should have (literally) taken a page from the 1968 Nixon campaign. An excerpt from the Nixon Campaign Plan Book explicitly states,

“The 37th President of the United States of America NEVER WEARS HATS…no honorary hats…no protocol hats…no “great photo” hats…no “the law requires” hats…no “it’s the custom” hats…no cute hats…no beanies…no stovepipes…no firehats…no captain’s hats…no caps…no Indian headdress…no feather hats…no hard hats…no soft hats…no ladies hats…no mens hats…no fur hats…no paper hats…no grass hats…no thorn hats…no “Nixon’s The One” hats…no nothing.  HATS ARE TOXIC–AND CAN KILL YOU.”

And the helmet killed the Dukakis campaign. They never recovered from the incident.

Fast forward to 2016 and even Ted Cruz knows not to wear a funny had. Cruz was visiting the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, Wisconsin in advance of the Wisconsin primary when his 7-year-old daughter attempted to put the state’s iconic “cheesehead” hat on her father’s head. He steadfastly refused, telling reporters “There is an ironclad rule of politics, which is no funny hats […] I will cheer on the hats of others, but I think the people of Wisconsin wear their cheeseheads so powerfully that I would not presume to intrude in the elegancy in which the people of Wisconsin wear those hats.” Probably a good choice.

The Trump in the Hat

It has been a tough year for the morale of the American people. With many still recovering from the main shock factor of Donald J. Trump’s crusade for the 45th presidency of the United States (the fact that he is indeed running for president), we’ve been hit with a flurry of sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and racist comments at every turn. What’s terrible is that somehow the Donald is getting away with it. And what’s worse, he’s getting away with it while wearing a hat.

Trump first wore the now iconic “Make American Great Again” cap, with its blue block letters and rope detail, on a tour of the Mexican border in July 2015. There was no situational, cultural, nor weather incentive to wear a hat; as with most of Trump’s decisions and actions, he just did it. Jerry McLaughlin of Brander’s.com reflected, “I don’t think Trump has put nearly that much thought into his hat. But that’s the beauty of Trump. The hat is random and startling, and so is the Donald, and therein lies the key to much of the media coverage both get.” The hat (which now comes in camo, for those interested) is now synonymous with Trump’s campaign.

We remember few campaign slogans of presidential candidates, especially those of the candidates whom we do not support. Trump has monopolized the campaign catchphrase focus of this election, and created a level of brand awareness unlike any other in the history of presidential elections. But let me be clear. Donald J. Trump is not a politician. He is an accomplished business man who realized the potential to drill his campaign slogan into the minds of followers and haters. The hat, which constantly appeared in photos of Trump and of his supporters, cemented his political brand.

Sour Puss & Cereal

Besides the clear pirating of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again,” multiple issues arise with Donald Trump’s now iconic “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. Most importantly, as with much of his behaviour throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, how does he pull it off?

Perhaps the first key here is that no action, statement, or photo of Trump surprises us anymore. Seth Stevenson wrote for Slate.com, “Juxtapose almost anything with Trump’s sour puss, and you’ve got yourself an indelible image.” This removes all Dukakis risk from the equation. Trump brings confidence and an entertainment factor to the 2016 presidential race. He doesn’t have to act as the traditional politician would; instead, he can concentrate on putting on a show.

The focus of the Trump campaign has been to establish a strong personal identity and presence instead of following the traditional path to voter’s hearts through specific policy stances and concrete plans. He makes sweeping statements (“I’m going to be the greatest jobs-president that God ever created.”) without outlining how he plans on accomplishing these formidable tasks. And yet he still succeeds. Tom Basset, CEO of Basset & Partners, provides the following comparison, “Think about it this way: When trying to sell consumers a product that has many similar competitors—for example, a cereal—the advantage is won by establishing an identity with strong cultural associations, not by arguing about the cereal’s fiber content or even flavor.”

At the end of the day, people are tired of political correctness. They have no interest in following the typical straight-laced candidate of yore (they may still vote for said candidate, but that’s a different story). Trump adds shock-value and pizazz. He pronounces that Mexicans are rapists? Fine! States that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and wouldn’t lose votes? Great! Wears an ill-made, funny hat in every possible photo-op? Superb! Trump can do no wrong. He’s going against the grain, and the people love it.