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Know the West

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.