Too Many People Are Still Waiting to Make America Great the First Time

The sun sets behind a large flapping American flag under a blue sky.
The sun sets behind a large flapping American flag under a blue sky.

Make America Great Again.

The slogan sounds innocent enough, right? There are baseball caps with that slogan on it, for crying out loud.

Seriously, how do you argue with making America great again? You’d have to be a real hater to want America to stay … un-great. If you have a problem with America’s greatness, maybe you also have a problem with loving Mom or not slapping babies.

On its face, “Make America Great Again” feels like one of those slogans that everybody ought to be able to get behind, if only because America’s close relationship to greatness ought to feel like a self-evidently good thing to Americans. So, why isn’t everybody on board?

I suspect that many folks experience a bit of hesitation about such a tag line, because they’re not quite sure what all the words mean when strung together by somebody like Donald Trump. I mean, each of the words is easy enough to understand on its own. But when put into the same sentence together, some obvious questions arise.

What work does the word make do in such a sentence, for instance? Ordinarily, it would seem innocuous enough; it’s a word like“build” or “construct” or “produce,” fine words all … at least initially. But the thing is, you can build tenements, or construct walls, or produce great anxiety. Let's be honest, make, issuing from the mouth of Donald Trump, sounds vaguely threatening and coercive.

Of course, I could just be projecting my own anxieties onto a word like the make in “Make America Great Again.” I could be reading something more sinister into it than actually exists. Lord knows, I’ve misread people’s intentions before.

But then I shake off my credulity and start remembering.

Remember Donald’s call “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States?” Remember when he was talking about ISIS and oil, when he promised “to bomb the shit out of ’em?” Remember when he said that if he were to the win the election, how news organizations that had found fault with him would “have problems?” Remember when Donald Trump threatened to deal with Isis by taking out their families?

Remember that?

You don’t have to go too far before you realize that coercion is a primary color on the Donald’s palette. Having heard him inveigh against just about every category of people except rich, white males (which is to say, people like him), I don’t think I’m being especially reactionary in wondering if what Donald Trump means by make in this context and what most folks mean by it have even a casual relationship to one another. You can make friends or an apple pie or you can make the scrawny kid on the block say “uncle.” Same word, but Donald Trump appears to believe the latter offers a much better chance than the former when it comes to making America great again.

Which brings me to another question: in the sentence “make America great again,” what does “great again” mean exactly?

To be fair, there exist plenty of people in America convinced that somewhere along the road the United States sold its virile birthright for a mess of effete politically correct pottage. There was a time when America roamed the world’s beaches kicking sand in the faces of the rest of the world’s “losers.” Militarily, economically, manufacturing-wise, technologically, medically, educationally, culturally, athletically--the U.S.A., until recently, stood uncontested on the winner’s platform in just about everything that mattered.

But then something happened. Whether we actually started losing or not is really beside the point, because enough people feel like we have. And those people are mad as hell.

Now, if someone wanted to poll the possible causes of the great American decline, there would be a number of culprits somewhere along the short spectrum from Barack Obama to politically correct, East Coast, Volvo-driving, liberal intellectuals--which in the flushed minds of the enraged often amount to pretty much the same thing.

And while I wouldn’t put Barack Obama or the kindred spirits who operate as his progressive minions at the heart of this decline, I do recognize that there are a lot of areas in which America has performed a truly breathtaking face plant: healthcare coverage gaps, education costs, rate of African American incarceration (or just the rate of incarceration period), manufacturing losses, number of homeless, children in poverty, worsening middle class standard of living, and so on. I get it. If you ask the angry people Donald Trump calls his base, they’ll name some of these same problems. But if you push very hard for an answer to what “great” means, or which time period is being evoked when “again” gets tossed around, there are only vague references to a bygone era when America was great, and is badly in need of returning to again. And that’s a problem … at least for a significant number of people who suffered in that otherwise dewy-eyed land of American greatness, with its malt shops and Sunday picnics after long rides in the Buick.

Upon reflection, it seems that a lot of contemporary folks aren’t yearning for the good old days when America was great the first time around. Apparently, a remarkable number of people didn’t make it through the sausage grinder of America’s past greatness in one piece. In fact, there is a sizable community of the non-maudlin who would say that America’s violent racism, its oppressive sexism, its deadly homophobia, its ugly xenophobic ethnocentrism, its bigoted anti-catholicism, its shameful anti-semitism ought to sandblast (at least some of) the shine off of America’s self-congratulatory pose of former “greatness.”

Interestingly enough, folks who lived on the wrong side of the white, male Protestant divide for so many years aren’t nearly as wistful about making “America great again,” because to them such a call to nostalgia feels like a sentimentality they can ill afford to entertain--fraught as it is with anguish and humiliation.

Donald Trump and angry Americans notwithstanding, there are now too many people who have no investment in a sepia-toned picture of an American life that hurt so many for the benefit of so few.

If you want to realize America’s true greatness, you’re going to have make room at the table for all the people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. But, on the other hand, making a table like that, would actually be great.