Freedom of speech is a serious subject in the United States. Of all the 27 amendments to the constitution, none have the power to get people up in arms and onto the streets quite like the first - with the possible exception of the one about shooting things. While every liberal democracy prides itself on tolerance and diversity of opinion, Americans have a more uncompromising attitude than most when it comes to what is and isn’t acceptable. Propaganda that would be dismissed by some as hate speech is protected by law. The right to express yourself takes precedence over almost everything.
In a situation where everyone is theoretically able to say whatever they like, there is bound to be conflict. The freedom to express something that can simultaneously be both “patriotic” and actively hostile is a dangerous cocktail for anyone to mix, and can feasibly affect anything. Stopping a debate from spilling over and contaminating everything it touches is a constant struggle for anyone who wants to uphold the constitution. This reality has been brought into even sharper focus during the premiership of America’s contentious 45th president.
Trump’s power and success arguably has little to do with coherent policy or common sense, but his ability to harness rhetoric and weaponise the podium provided by the presidency. Positioning himself as the mouthpiece for “forgotten” Americans, Trump likes to claim that he says the things that everyone else is too afraid to say - the ultimate embodiment of an all-American value. It’s one reason he enjoys such fanatical support. This support expresses itself in several ways, none more noticeable than the tribal and instantly recognisable MAGA hat.
Eponymous with Trumpism and everpresent at every rally the president has held since he burst onto the political scene, a MAGA hat marks you out as a member of a very particular club. There is no grey area where the bright red baseball caps are concerned. Wearing one tells the world that you are one of the Trump diehards. This, given the current political climate, undoubtedly has its advantages. But it isn’t all plain sailing.
No industry has highlighted just how divisive a MAGA hat can be more than the restaurant business. In the last few months alone, food has found itself at the eye of a political storm, following customer evictions, bans and more based on their choice of attire. This is without considering the abuse dished out to Trump representatives such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Scott Pruitt in various eateries across the country.
At the end of January, prominent chef and cookbook author Kenji López-Alt announced a blanket ban on anyone planning to visit his new restaurant wearing a MAGA hat. In a tweet that was soon seen around the world, López-Alt compared the hats to Klan hoods and swastikas and declared them a “symbol of intolerance and hate”. A few months earlier, Replay Lincoln Park bar in Chicago issued an almost identical proclamation. Clearly, not everyone in the industry is on board with the Trump programme. Reaction to both has been, predictably, mixed.
López-Alt was quickly met with a tide of outrage from MAGA sympathisers, and was almost immediately forced into a climb-down. As part of a hastily written apology, López-Alt stated that, “...Making a public statement without taking my team’s thoughts into consideration was disrespectful and reckless.” He added that the backtrack was motivated by fears over staff safety, after the restaurant had received a number of “threatening” emails in the aftermath of the tweetstorm.
While this position proved disastrous for López-Alt, Replay Lincoln Park had an entirely different experience. Being based in Chicago, a city that has had a more turbulent relationship with Trump than most, the bar received relatively strong support for their stance. In fact, dozens of restaurants across the city have adopted actively anti-Trump outlooks, criticising everything from his lies over the causes of Chicago gun violence to his immigration policy. The contrasting experiences of these equally anti-MAGA businesses prove that the diversity that is a necessary consequence of free speech can produce unpredictable results. In some cases, it might even make financial, as well as ethical, sense.
Almost all criticism levelled at a business looking to ban a MAGA hat has focused on potential freedom of expression infringement. However, a recent ruling in New York has actually made it easier than ever for a business owner to issue an embargo. Ruling on a case brought by cap-wearing Philadelphian accountant Greg Piatek, a judge declared that not only is supporting Trump not a religion - and therefore not covered by the First Amendment - but that discrimination based on political belief is not actually illegal. As zealously as some supporters may disagree, wearing a MAGA hat is not the same as a kippah or a burqa. This may encourage other anti-Trump businesses to adopt a hat ban in the future.
If you accept an American interpretation of freedom of speech, it means believing in everything that it entails. If one person can express themselves, so can another. The reality is, while Trump fans are free to express their enthusiasm for the president however they wish, chefs and restaurant owners are just as free to disagree with and reject it. It might be frustrating, but not everyone agrees that they need to make American great again. Freedom of expression is a double-edged sword, and no one is free from the consequences. Even if they live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.