A red "Make America Great Again" Trump campaign hat sits atop a bookshelf in Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey's office on Nov. 1, 2017, in Titusville, Fla. (Willie J. Allen Jr. for The Washington Post)
Matthew A. Sears is an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick.

Do symbols like the red “Make America Great Again” hat matter?

This has been the question at the core of the media circus surrounding the encounter in Washington, D.C., between students of Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School and indigenous activist Nathan Phillips. Just as swiftly as the chanting and smirking boys were condemned on social media and in major media outlets, a longer video of the encounter caused many pundits to recant their initial condemnation and to apologize for treating the boys unfairly. Most outlets are now running with the lead that the students were unfairly stereotyped because of their race (white), their socioeconomic status (wealthy) and their hats (MAGA).

These polarizing tensions around political symbols are not new. In his story of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian historian Thucydides provided his readers with an indelible image of what happens when societies descend into civil strife between two irreconcilable groups. It’s not exactly clear whether Thucydides thinks we can do anything about this tendency of human nature, but he does think we can understand how and why such civil strife erupts. And he teaches that symbolism matters: The choice to wear MAGA hats says something about the politics and agendas of the people who wear them and should be considered when judging their actions.

As a case study in partisanship and polarization, Thucydides examines the discord in Athens in 415 B.C., as the city was about to launch its largest-ever military campaign.

Shortly before invading Sicily, Athenians woke up to discover that throughout the city, someone had vandalized the “herms”: short square columns adorned with a head, often of Hermes, and male genitalia, displayed in various public spaces and in front of private homes. This act of mischief was compounded by rumors that the sacred and secret rites of the Eleusinian mysteries — one of the ancient world’s most important religions — were being performed in a private home in an act of mockery.

Acts of vandalism and sacrilege were hardly rare in the ancient world, even if they could be serious offenses. But the people of Athens reacted in a rather surprising way: They interpreted these two events as the beginning of a plot to overthrow the Athenian democracy.

Wait a minute. How could drunken carousers taking a chisel to some statues and the private mockery of a religious festival portend the end of democracy? Had the stress of a long war and the trepidation of a grand overseas mission struck the Athenians out of their wits?

Well, yes and no.

A critic of Athenian democracy of the 5th century B.C., Thucydides frequently portrayed the Athenian people negatively, as being irrational and all-too-easily swayed by self-interested demagogues. Thucydides noted that the Athenians blamed Alcibiades, the rich and arrogant instigator of the expedition to Sicily, for the vandalism and the sacrilege, even though in 415 he was more or less on the side of the democrats. When Alcibiades abandoned Athens, and the campaign in Sicily, rather than face the charges, it weakened Athens’ chances in the Peloponnesian War. To Thucydides, the Athenians’ overreaction robbed them of a talented leader. Without Alcibiades, the Sicilian expedition ended in a disastrous defeat.

But here’s the thing: Even if Alcibiades was unfairly targeted, there really were a large number of oligarchs in Athens who wanted to overthrow democracy. These oligarchs, to whom Thucydides was sympathetic, favored a return to the pre-democratic “ancestral constitution,” which prevented the riffraff from having too much of a say. The war intensified the political divisions between oligarchs and democrats. After the Sicilian expedition failed, the oligarchs managed to overthrow the democracy for a period.

The oligarchs tended to be against expanding the war effort, while the democrats were for it, meaning that any act that undercut the Sicilian expedition would have struck a blow against the democrats. And so, while the mockery of the Eleusinian mysteries might have owed more to the condescension bred by wealth and privilege than any concrete political schemes, the mutilation of the herms was almost certainly meant to destabilize the democracy. Hermes was the patron god of travelers and traveling; destroying his image on the eve of a campaign abroad was inviting trouble.

On an even more fundamental level, widespread vandalism would have added instability and uncertainty to an already tense situation. The point is, the act of vandalism was a symbolic act with a political purpose, to which, rightly or wrongly, the people added the desecration of the Eleusinian mysteries as part of an anti-democratic movement. While one incident sprang from political motives, the other was probably no more than arrogant rich Athenians acting out. The personal enemies of Alcibiades, and those who resented rich elitists, took advantage of political tensions to paint both incidents with the same brush.

This is a lesson we need to consider when looking at the Washington incident. That the boys were wearing MAGA hats and other Trump apparel — and allowed (if not encouraged) by their chaperones to do so while at the March for Life — constitutes a deliberate political act and a deliberate provocation. In our current context, it is impossible to separate the MAGA symbol from anti-immigrant and anti-minority views and policies. After all, what could “make America great again” mean other than returning America to its “ancestral constitution,” in which those like Phillips didn’t have a voice?

Will we ever agree on what exactly happened on the Mall last week? Probably not. But by proudly displaying their MAGA hats, the boys of Covington Catholic presented themselves as embracing a set of exclusionary ideas. It is absolutely fair and rational to take their own self-presentation seriously.