Tracking the paranoia of conservatives online can be complicated, but let’s give it a shot. Many right-wing bloggers and social media influencers attacked Vogue this week for releasing the cover of its September issue, which features Jennifer Lawrence standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. Why were Trump supporters upset? Well, it’s complicated.
On August 2, White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller got into a heated argument with CNN reporter Jim Acosta at the White House about President Trump’s immigration proposals, specifically a merit-based green card proposal and the RAISE Act in its entirety. (By the way, you can take the merit-based test on TIME’s website to find out if the Trump administration would let you into the United States as an immigrant.)
Acosta brought up the poem accompanying the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” suggesting that Trump’s proposal reverses an integral American stance on immigration. Miller replied, “The poem you were referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
From there, both sides of the political spectrum debated the clip of the men arguing. To those who oppose Trump’s policies, Acosta used the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of America’s historical intention to welcome refugees and immigrants. Trump supporters struggled to find a consistent stance on the matter: Some, like Miller, tried to poke holes in the concept that the Statue of Liberty represents the United States at all, and others said Acosta was making the issue of immigration sound more simple than it is.
The arguments died down, and the news cycle moved on, and then on August 9, Vogue released its cover story with Jennifer Lawrence. Conservatives saw the Statue of Liberty in Annie Leibovitz’s photo and began arguing online that the magazine was making a political statement.
By invoking the very image of the Statue of Liberty, right-wing critics said the magazine was in support of Acosta and those who agree with him on immigration reform. That, of course, fed into the right wing’s suspicion of a liberal media conspiracy, and Jennifer Lawrence’s open letter to Americans following Trump’s election only further cemented her as a figure representing both the left and what right-wingers believe is liberal “elitist” Hollywood.
All that said, this is not a novel controversy for conservatives, a group that loudly and habitually hates when their political opponents use certain symbols understood to represent patriotism. Though both political parties display American flags at their events, conservatives tend to believe that the flag, the Statue of Liberty, or even the Declaration of Independence are somehow hallmarks of their mindset, rather than liberalism.
As another example, when NPR (a left-leaning news organization detested by the right) began tweeting the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, which it does annually, conservatives on Twitter panicked, announcing that the station was trying to incite a coup by releasing propaganda.
On one hand, the right seems to hate being reminded of the core values liberals identify in American documents and symbols. On the other hand, it adds insult to injury for right-wingers to realize that tools they’ve taken for granted for decades can be wielded against them.
When was the last time, for instance, you heard liberals rally around a political song that used patriotic imagery, like Toby Keith’s post-9/11 anthem, which proclaimed, “We’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way”? While conservative events have historically stuck to country musicians for their events, especially those who sing about the stars and stripes and cold beer on a Friday night, liberal organizations benefit from more high-profile star power. One of the Democratic Party’s issues (among many) may be that it finds itself trapped, using only soulless, annoying promotional music (Who can forget that stupid Fight Song music video?) and celebrities who can easily be portrayed as out of touch. (Lena Dunham comes to mind.)
Yes, Annie Leibovitz’s photo is just that: a photo. However, judging by the horrified reaction it got when released online, the left may benefit from using essentially American iconography as part of its changing strategy, especially as we approach 2018’s mid-term elections. Gone are the days when the right wing could claim ownership over anything earnestly and classically American, especially now that our president has proven himself an extremist.