‘Make America Great Again’ hat wins Symbolic Systems’ symbol of the year for 2016

hatAffiliates of Stanford’s Symbolic Systems Program have chosen the “Make America Great Again” hat as the Symbol of the Year for 2016, in their fifth annual vote for notable symbols.

The citation for the Symbol of the Year reads: “Donald Trump’s red cap became a widely recognized symbol and effective distillation of his campaign. The slogan, first used by Ronald Reagan in 1980, defined a positional narrative: America was great, is not any more, but could be again. Reactions ranged from Hillary Clinton’s ‘America never stopped being great’ to an ‘America Was Never Great’ hat.”

“Lots of things can be symbols,” said TODD DAVIES, program associate director, “but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable.”

Davies said the Symbol of the Year designation is designed to “draw attention to the significance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life.” The idea was inspired by the many annual “of the year” designations and awards, especially the American Dialect Society’s annual “Word of the Year.” Stanford’s Symbolic Systems Program focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information.

The baseball cap representing Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign debuted in 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy. Although none of the hat’s elements were original to Trump’s campaign, the combination of a monochrome hat containing the campaign’s slogan proved powerful. The hats were visible in large numbers at rallies where the now-president-elect’s supporters gathered. They helped spread a message that resonated with a large percentage of the electorate and connected hat-wearers to that message.

BRANDON WILLIAMS, a 1995 graduate of the Symbolic Systems Program and a co-nominator of the “Make America Great Again” hat, said, “Trump’s campaign, well symbolized by the hat, and the hat itself, led to some of the most extraordinarily heated controversy in 2016 and the wildest election in decades.”

Nineteen recognized symbols were chosen from 43 nominations submitted in December by the program’s alumni, students, faculty and staff. Voting took place Dec. 26-30. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators. Selection indicated only that the symbol had been significant during the year, rather than an endorsement of any point of view associated with it. One hundred fifty-two alumni, students, faculty and staff affiliated with the program cast ballots in a system in which each voter could vote for any nominated symbol as Symbol of the Year, Other Notable Symbol or neither.

Other Notable Symbols from 2016 chosen by voters for their significance were:

  • Ambulance photo of Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo: A 5-year-old Syrian boy, covered in dust and blood and sitting in an ambulance, became the face of Aleppo’s suffering during the Syrian Civil War after he was injured in an air strike on Aug. 17. The image of Daqneesh was from a video posted by the Aleppo Media Centre. Omran’s 10-year-old brother Ali died from his injuries in the strike.
  • Taking a knee during the national anthem: A wave of national anthem protests across the United States began when football player Colin Kaepernick sat down during the traditional pre-game anthem. Kaepernick and others switched to kneeling on one knee to protest against “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” An 11 percent NFL viewership decline was interpreted by some as a reaction to the protests.
  • A wall: Across the world, immigration barriers are being raised again as the consequences of globalization have led to a backlash. Donald Trump pledged to “build a great, great wall on our southern border.” With many questioning or feeling threatened by the wall rhetoric, it became a symbol of Trump’s proposals and the divisions they created and reflected.
  • Gender neutral bathroom signs: Signs identifying restrooms as gender inclusive utilized different designs, but together they symbolized advances in transgender rights in U.S. states such as California, where a new law mandates gender neutrality in single-use bathrooms. The new signs also led to a political backlash against gender neutrality in (and boycotts of) North Carolina.
  • Variations on “Make America Great Again”: Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan spawned riffing variations, often as critiques or satires. Examples included the history-referencing “Make America Mexico Again” and Ted Cruz’s “Make Trump Debate Again” — both of which were sold as hats — as well as Toni Morrison’s post-election article “Making America White Again.”
  • Safety pin: The wearing of a safety pin as a symbol of solidarity with ethnic minorities, migrants and others began after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June and continued in the United States following the November election. The pin was said to convey that the wearer would support or help people who felt threatened by the consequences of these elections.
  • Dakota Access Pipeline: Energy Transfer Partners, LP, began construction on the underground Dakota Access Pipeline through North Dakota in 2016 despite strong objections from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The pipeline became a symbol for the effect of oil extraction on Native American people and the environment and drew international protests that led to a halt on drilling by year end.
  • Khizr Khan holding up the U.S. Constitution: Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son Humayun was killed as a U.S. Army captain in the Iraq War, appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention. Addressing Donald Trump, Khizr Khan said, “Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” Sales of pocket constitutions skyrocketed.
  • Bottle of water from Flint, Michgan: Ryan Garza’s photo, published by the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 15, captured a bottle of dirty water from Flint. The bottle and the ongoing Flint water crisis signified a breakdown in government, as well as an inability of media to focus sufficient public attention on important issues that affect people’s daily lives.
  • PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter: The Truth-O-Meter is a graphic depiction of the judged truth of stories analyzed by PolitiFact. “Truth” was regularly debated in 2016. Political stories were often contested, from sources with a potential interest in particular outcomes, and/or were outright falsehoods. Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact is a worthy attempt to address this problem.
  • 2016 U.S. Electoral College map: Visualizing a U.S. presidential election by coloring each state blue or red has been common practice since 1976. Such maps may contribute to political polarization by promoting a false view of states as monolithically blue or red that encourages further sorting of like-minded voters. The red-blue map of the United States was once again ubiquitous in 2016.
  • Poké Ball: A symbol of the location-based game Pokémon Go, which launched in July, the capture device known as the Poké Ball and its variants drew the eyes of hordes of mobile game players who were visible on the streets of cities for a few months in 2016. The Poké Ball heralded a new era of augmented reality in public spaces.
  • “This Is Fine” dog: Two frames from KC Green’s webcomic showing a dog who says, “This is fine,” as he is surrounded by flames, were tweeted by the Republican Party during the Democratic Convention and resonated across the parties. Subsequent commentary compared “This Is Fine” to other memes spread through social media. Green followed up with a “This Is Not Fine” comic.
  • Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign logo: Hillary Clinton became the first woman presidential nominee of a major U.S. party, and her 2016 campaign logos reflected some of her campaign’s ambiguities. Her most commonly used logo was controversial within the Democratic Party because its rightward-pointing red arrow invoked the color and direction associated with Republicans.
  • Hamilton musical and logo: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton revitalized interest in the nation’s founding, shattered records on Broadway and saved Alexander Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill. The Hamilton logo evoked the Statue of Liberty, reflecting the musical’s elevation of Hamilton as a symbol for immigrants, New York City and historical ambition.
  • The pantsuit: With Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the pantsuit became a symbol of women leveling the playing field with men. In the days leading up to the election, a Facebook group called “Pantsuit Nation” was created, growing rapidly to nearly 3 million members, many of whom donned pantsuits when they went to the polls to cast their ballots.
  • White Helmets: White Helmets are a symbol of (and alternative name for) Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), a Western-funded nongovernmental organization that operates amidst the war in rebel-controlled Syria. SCD’s mission is “to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.”
  • Glass ceiling: The glass ceiling is a symbol for invisible barriers that exist to the advancement of women and minorities in organizations. In 2016, Hillary Clinton often referred to the presidency of the United States as the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” Ironically, she held her election night party at New York’s Javits Center, under a transparent ceiling.