I never heard a reporter or a debate moderator ask Donald Trump what he meant when he said, "Make America Great Again." It was specifically the word "again" I wanted him to account for: When exactly was America great, Mr. Trump?
Apparently New York Times reporter David Sanger did pose a version of this question to Trump in an interview last March, although his answer didn't make it into the article the Times ran. But the transcript of the interview has Trump first citing the turn of the 20th century, when the American "machine" was in full gear, and then going on to say:
I would say during the 1940s and the late '40s and '50s we started getting, we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do, yeah around that period.
The late 1940s and the 1950s... I wasn't alive back then, so most of my initial impressions of the 50s were formed in the 80s by movies like Grease, Back to the Future, and that forgotten gem Peggy Sue Got Married. In our country's popular imagination, the 50s was all drive-ins and sock hops and soda counters. It was a kind of golden age when America saw a post-war boom in both money and mood, when the middle-class was in ascendancy, and when teenagers were having fun in the most innocent kinds of ways. It was a cozy, family-oriented, all-American kind of time. An apple pie kind of time.
But Donald Trump was alive in the 1950s, so he should know more about it than I do. He should know that it was a time when blacks were fighting for the right to sit at those soda counters, to attend the same schools as little white children, to protest peacefully without getting hosed down or beaten up in the streets. It was a time when those innocent teenagers in poodle skirts were ostracized if they got pregnant out of wedlock and forced into unhappy early marriages or back alley abortions. When most of those girls soon turned into women who wasted away in suburban kitchens, their contribution to society measured by how efficiently they could get the housework done. It was a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and countless closeted people were driven by guilt and shame to suicide.
On top of all this personal misery, the late 40s and 1950s was also a time when America was grappling with having largely closed its doors to Jews escaping Hitler and having interned its own Japanese citizens in prison camps during the war. It was a time of rampant xenophobia and paranoia, when people looked askance at their neighbors and wondered about their clandestine communist tendencies, while Joseph McCarthy was on television going after major artists and cultural figures for their "un-American activities" and ensuring that they never worked again.
David Sanger, as far as I know, didn't press Trump in his interview to explain how all this made for a "great" country. The obvious truth is that America was great in the 1950s for one demographic: white, straight, Christian, pro-capitalist, American men. It is easy to interpret Trump's grandiloquent campaign slogan as a promise to that same demographic -- the inheritors of those who most reaped the benefits of the 1950s -- that he will once again ensure their power and centrality in society, at the expense of just about everyone else.
In these grim early days of President-Elect Trump, there are many indications that he is in fact going to spend his tenure trying to turn back time. He is hinting that he will appoint a Supreme Court judge who could work to overturn Roe v. Wade, sweeping American women right back into the dark ages of illegal abortion. In the wake of his election, there have already been a spate of racially charged attacks in Trump's name that wouldn't have been out of place on the streets of Birmingham in 1955. And he just announced that he's putting a known anti-Semite at the head of his White House team.
Thanks to Trump's campaign, there is also a publicly sanctioned fear of the "other" in the American air, the likes of which we haven't seen since the deep freeze of the Cold War. And in case you're nostalgic for the days when teachers taught you to "duck and cover" under your desk, Trump has planted a terror of nuclear war in our hearts again, not only because he cavalierly talks about dissolving the Iran deal and encouraging Japan and South Korea to have more nukes, but because he will soon have the codes, and no one can sleep peacefully at night picturing his itchy Twitter finger lingering over that button.
It is the worst of the 1950s come back to haunt us, sans sock hops and poodle skirts.
I am trying to cheer myself up by telling myself that we -- that you, the Americans who lived before I was born -- survived that harrowing decade, and that the country came out the other side of all that fear and violence, stronger and more unified for it. This is what is meant by progress: over time, we progress forward toward ever greater equality and freedom. And ultimately love.
As much as he would like to, one bull-headed demagogue cannot turn back the hands of time. At least not in this country, at this moment. (Unlike Germany in the 1930s, we have checks and balances built into our government system, as well as the right to free speech, free assembly, and free press.) He might appear to momentarily stop the clock, but he can't ultimately halt its forward march. It is not, thankfully for the vast majority of us, 1955. It is 2016. And, like Plato before us, we've seen the light of truth, and we're not willingly going to crawl back into that cave.