What does it mean to make America great again?
As much as anything else in Donald Trump’s campaign, his supporters seem to glom onto this one big idea, or parts thereof. So it’s worth looking at. And if you look at it hard enough, you realize each word raises questions, such as:
Which vision of America are we talking about? Listening to Trump supporters, I think many of them are focusing on the America that, once upon a time, held out the promise of a secure, prosperous life. As the story goes, you could get out of high school, get a job at the plant, work there for 40 years, and save enough to provide a great life for your family—a nuclear family, in a neighborhood, where everyone knew everyone else and lent a hand in times of need. That’s a compelling story. No wonder people want to get it back again.
But there are other Americas. There’s the America in which success came only to white people of European origin. There’s the America whose interventions in global affairs have wreaked havoc as much as they’ve borne fruit. There’s also the America I cherish: the America of vast natural beauty, a bedrock belief in liberty, and the inspiring (if sometimes annoying) can-do spirit. Which are we talking about?
What on earth do we mean by great? Look again at the visions of America described above (and add your own). Which were great? Was there ever a time when America was nothing but great (as the slogan seems to imply)?
Meanwhile, the word again implies that America was great at one time; which era would that have been? Would it be the America of the 1950s: a massive engine of economic opportunity and systemic racism? Do we mean the America of the 1940s, with its spirit of self-sacrifice and horrifying (though necessary) world war? What about the 1920s, with its sunny optimism and Prohibition?
Of all the words in this slogan, I see this one as the most seductive—and the most dangerous. Make implies that we can return to a great America (however the hell you’re defining it) simply by force of will. That ignores the global, impersonal mega-forces that have changed the world beyond recognition: the massive flight to cities, which changes social norms; the yawning gap between the skills of many U.S. workers and the skills demanded by the fast-changing marketplace; the constant drive for businesses to streamline workforces and cut costs; the continuing impact of automation and the rise of artificial intelligence, which eliminates jobs; etc. Etc.
Notice something about this. None of these trends is anyone’s fault. All of these trends are far beyond the ability of one person, or group, or even nation to change. Seen in this light, make looks like a mirage.
As a siren song, make America great again is compelling: many Americans have lost a lot amid the world’s changes. But as a prescription for action, it sputters. I would rather we seek a way forward in the world as it is than try—and fail—to return to what was.