Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Make "Make America Great Again" Great Again

"Make America great again?"
Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign slogan has long carried a lot of negative connotations for his political opponents, many hearing in it a hostility toward people of color and an aversion to the idea of white men having to share power with anyone else.  When Trump said, "Make America great again," his detractors heard "Make America white again," or "Make America illiberal again."  So, of course, did the Trump base.  And in fact, that's what Trump was pretty much suggesting -  going back to the 1950s and putting black people back in low-paying service jobs and preventing them from voting, keeping Mexicans from emigrating into this country, or putting women back in the kitchen, all of that stuff.  
The only thing is that, putting aside that coded message for a moment, it was easy for anyone in 2016 to argue that America was no longer great. Because a country that lags behind the rest of the developed world in health care delivery, public transportation, math and science education, and children's welfare while ranking first in gun deaths, low voter turnout, billionaires, and pregnancy-caused deaths is not great.  It is in fact the opposite of great.  A country that used to have good-paying jobs you could build a life on but has since outsourced them to other countries and has not replaced them with the sort of jobs you need to sustain the middle class is also the opposite of great.    
When people who voted for Trump heard him say he wanted to make America great again - a phrase, by the way, that he stole from Ronald Reagan - not all of them heard the exclusionary, discriminatory message he was sending.  Many of them heard the idea of bringing America back to a time when its manufacturing base was second to none, its educational system was among the finest in the world, and its public works were public and worked.  I've seen memes on Facebook suggest the same thing, asking if we remember how, in the 1950s, people were more polite, only one parent had to work, and children could play by themselves in the park or in the street without their parents having to worry about their children's pictures ending up on milk cartons.  And besides, back then milk was sold in bottles - and delivered by truck.  If people want to go back to the 1950s, it's the best of the 1950s they want to return to - a respected war hero as President, movies with fewer special effects and more character-driven stories, and pop stars who could actually sing and play music - that is, a culture far less coarsened than it is now.  Many of them do not want to go back to the dark side of the fifties - right-wing demagoguery, war in Korea, a mendacious political hack as Vice President, and black people being denied their civil rights.
Ironically, we either have or are about to have all of that.  Trump has restored the worst elements of the fifties without bringing back good-paying jobs or the sense of decency associated with the Eisenhower years.  Even more ironically, his 2020 campaign slogan is expected to be "Keep America Great" - "because I already made America great again!"     
The Democratic response to Trump's 2016 slogan was pathetic.  Hillary Clinton insisted that America "never stopped being great," and even Martin O'Malley insisted that "America already is great" -  the rebuttal, I suppose, you would expect from the incumbent party in control of the Presidency, as the Democrats were at the time.  But these rebuttals ignored all of the problems Barack Obama had not been able to solve.  (I know, I know, he had to deal with Republican majorities in Congress, but that excuse is only valid up to a point, as Obama was never really the liberal Republicans made him out to be.)  Many people thought that Trump was an honest broker for telling the truth about America - namely, that it was in decline.  But how many people who voted for Trump ever suspect - despite ample evidence during the 2016 campaign - that Trump would accelerate America's decline?  And do Trump loyalists, those die-hard base supporters who did vote for him knowing what he really meant by "Make America great again" - restoring white patriarchy - and continue to support him, really think America is great again when they still can't get a good-paying job or send their kids to college?
Back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was laying the groundwork for America to become a right-wing, supply-side utopia and his successor George H.W. Bush was locking in Reagan's changes, it was the Democrats who said that America was in decline, and even though none of them ever said they wanted to make America great again, in those exact words, they did say they wanted to return America to being a place that was on the rise.  Walter Mondale promised an "American Renaissance" in jobs and education when he accepted the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.  Gary Hart wanted to redefine Democratic liberalism and pursue new policies that would prepare America for a new post-industrial economy.  Michael Dukakis espoused policies that would provide the same opportunities for Americans that his immigrant parents had, and his 1988 campaign slogan was "The best of America is yet to come."  (In other words, make America better.)  And I definitely remember Richard Gephardt - who was talking about unfair trade practices long before Trump - say in in 1989 that America was "in decline."  And even before Reagan became President, Democrats were talking about renewing America's exalted position; Jimmy Carter's 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech was in fact a call for Americans to rediscover civic virtue and return the nation to greatness.  This was all before Bill Clinton came along and redefined the Democratic Party as a party happy to get along and go along with the corporate neoliberal forces that make America anything but great.
Trump clearly has no interest in truly restoring America's greatness.  The only thing he really wants to aggrandize is himself.  The message of restoring America's greatness - a greatness that disappeared sometime between the last moon landing and the first oil crisis - was, Reagan notwithstanding, a Democratic message untainted by racial and patriarchal overtones before Trump stole it for his own nefarious schemes.  This is yet another message that Democrats have to steal back.
Which means they can no longer pretend that America never stopped being great.  Those who do pretend so are themselves great . . . a great disappointment.     

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