Most of us have heard Republican candidate Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” ad nauseam during this presidential campaign season. So what does this ‘greatness’ mean? And when did it occur, exactly? And is it possible to recreate it in the next 4 or 8 years?
NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed a few college republicans during All Things Considered to obtain their view of what it means to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Given that some Americans have lived through many presidents and decades of U.S. history, this slogan might resonate with them. But how do today’s college students answer that question? Most of them only have real memories of Barack Obama as president. They don’t recall 9/11 with much clarity, as most of them were in preschool. So what sort of historical memory informs their idea of a golden age in US history?
The two college republicans at The Ohio State University interviewed by Siegel responded to Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” by citing our popularity in the world, and our unity and patriotism after 9/11:
First and foremost, I think he wants America to be respected as a world power. Right now we are not respected at all. You know, when Obama said that, you know, when Syria uses chemical weapons against their people, that is the red line; and when they cross it, we will do X, Y, Z.
We didn’t do a damn thing. Pardon my language. But we know that we’re not No. 1 in the world, and we know that we’re not the best. And we want to be the best. And the fact that Trump wants that, too, is just phenomenal.
I remember when it happened. They shut down my preschool, and my mom came and picked me up. She had to pull over to the side of the road because she was crying. And then after that, I remember at least for a little while, everyone felt good about being American and proud about being American. We knew who we were.
Interesting responses. I wonder when we were “respected” as a world power. During our imperial age at the turn of century when we colonized the Philippines? After WWI when we joined toward the end, yet failed to join the League of Nations? After WWII and during the Cold War? During the more recent invasion of Iraq?
I imagine most Muslim Americans are not keen to return to the days and months immediately following 9/11. Many Americans are probably not keen to return to the Bush presidency and invasion of Iraq following 9/11.
I couldn’t resist asking my current US history survey students the same question: When was America great? Their response (to my great relief and pleasure): “what does ‘great’ mean”? And for which group of people?” Is this a foreign policy question? When were we the ‘best’ in the world? Is this a domestic policy question? Things were great for white males in the 1950s in the U.S. Unless you were a communist. Or gay. Or Russian. Most African Americans and women and minority groups would not like to return to the 1950s. In fact, most women and minorities prefer not to go back in time at all.
Is the time right after the Revolution our golden era? Average Americans were better off economically as colonists under Britain than the early years as a struggling new nation. And white male upper class Americans were arguing for the type of government they thought best, while working class white male citizens just wanted to get paid from serving in the Revolutionary war and avoid bank foreclosures. And slavery was legal. Is WWII what we want to return to? The Cold War era? The 1920s and prohibition? So many options, and so much nuance and complexity. None of which make a neat and tidy presidential campaign slogan.
Maybe I’ll just spend my time in the kitchen Making America Cake Again, and whip up some historical election day cake. Although, if I’m to be accurate to the early U.S. tradition, the cake would be my only contribution to election day since I would not have been allowed to vote.