What the cowboy hat says about ‘Americanism’

A problematic symbol of the West gets a reboot.

 

The chief architect of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda is a 34-year-old man from California named Stephen Miller. The great-grandson of Jewish immigrants, Miller graduated from Santa Monica High School, in Los Angeles County. In his high school yearbook, he poses in a dark cowboy hat and quotes Theodore Roosevelt: “There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”

Miller wasn’t the first aspiring politician to use the cowboy hat as a symbol of power and exclusion. In fact, the cowboy hat has become a persistent symbol for these, worn to signify who is a real American — and who isn’t. 

Stephen Miller appears in his high school's yearbook.
Santa Monica High School Yearbook

To be fair, most people wouldn’t want to be judged by their yearbook photos. Miller, however, went on to help design Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban and a policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents at the U.S-Mexico border. He has earned condemnation from civil rights groups for his intolerance and his support for white nationalism, which emerged as far back as high school, when he railed against classmates who “lacked basic English skills” in the school paper.

Plenty of American politicians have used cowboy hats to signal their preference for a certain fantasy America. It is hard to imagine Teddy Roosevelt, a New Yorker, without his iconic Rough Rider cowboy hat. The 26th president was, among other things, a eugenicist with little regard for non-white peoples. “Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the new world’s surface,” he wrote in 1894. Roosevelt and his peers went on to create a “virgin” wilderness by forcibly removing the Bannock, Crow, Shoshone and other Indigenous groups from the land to create Yellowstone National Park, even as the Blackfeet were displaced to create Glacier National Park. Such places, Roosevelt said, allowed for a person (presumably one in the right kind of hat) to discover his “vigorous manliness.”

Many conservatives have since sought to promote the cowboy image as truly American: tough, male, white. Perhaps no politician has benefited more from this prop than Ronald Reagan. An actor in Western movies like 1953’s Law and Order, Reagan leveraged that image of Americanism to win over conservative voters. Reagan even gave a cowboy hat to Mikhail Gorbachev (who wore it backwards) during a 1992 visit to Reagan’s ranch outside Santa Barbara, California. Like Roosevelt, Reagan laced his Americanism with an assumption of white supremacy. In October 1971, when he was governor of California, Reagan called former President Richard Nixon to disparage an African delegation to the United Nations as “monkeys … still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” 

The veiled singer Orville Peck.
Ryley Walker

Like his fellow California conservative, Miller developed his own idea of “Americanism” and he has clearly decided whom it includes. But if white extremism is having a moment, so, too, is a new wave of cowboy campiness, as public figures of all stripes claim their place as Americans. Rapper Lil Nas X dons a cowboy hat and Western wear in the video of “Old Town Road,” melding pop and country into a chart-topping hit. The singer Orville Peck wears his hats with seductive fringed veils, as he croons the story of two gay hustlers in the Nevada desert. With rebellious zeal, glamor and zest, these interpretations of an Old West symbol say more about American identity than the likes of Miller ever could.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.