Usually, a slogan is just a slogan. Perhaps it’s a catchy rhyme or humorous phrase. Really, they’re just mnemonics; memory aids. I’ve been known to walk around all day singing “Chicken parm, you taste so good”. It’s ridiculous, and taken out of context, people should be giving me strange looks for singing about my food. But everyone knows that I’m referencing Nationwide Insurance. Imagine that: a jingle about chicken parmesan sandwiches that make me think about car insurance.
Some slogans simply stand as a sort of mission statement; something that is intended in the message. That brings me to campaign slogans. President Obama used the “Change We Can Believe In” slogan, and presented to voters, stood as a powerful message of intent. But I can’t remember people walking around saying that, or using that phrase in conversation. What I find interesting about Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is that his supporters actually say those words in conversation with others. It has happened to me many times. It happened just the other day, actually. I was having a conversation with a Trump supporter who told me that he believed Trump was going to “bring back jobs and make America great again.” It didn’t even sound like he used it as some kind of rallying cry; like it was rehearsed. It may as well have been an original line in his dialogue based in his true beliefs about what comes next.
I’m passing no judgement for this at all. The purpose of this article isn’t debate the qualities of President Trump or to try to predict what kind of policies are to come. I won’t begrudge the person who cast their vote, confident that Trump will do well as president. Rather, what set me to thinking was the slogan itself. Make America Great Again. Again is the word that strikes me first. It implies that greatness had been achieved, but it was lost somewhere along the way. When did we lose it? Would Trump or his supporters mark that time with the previous eight years under Obama? Did his presidency evaporate American greatness that had been established in the aftermath of World War II? Or had our greatness been declining for some time? No one has quite pointed that out. I’m not sure that Donald Trump has even fully outlined that fall from grace and the timeline by which it coursed. Perhaps the idea is that, from a conservative’s perspective, America can’t possibly be great under the leadership of the left. “Make America Great Again”, therefore, begins to sound strangely akin to a previous slogan used by others—“Take Our Country Back”. That one always had me questioning what non-American outsiders had taken hold of our country and government. I guess if you’re different, you’re dangerous.
What really evokes deeper thought is the concept of greatness. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of Americans feel that America is or was great. I guess it depends on who you ask, though. Is it possible that someone whose family and ancestors have always been marginalized, enslaved, discriminated against, or even slaughtered might differ? Perhaps a Native American might not agree with the idea that America has ever been great. Perspective is a funny thing. I always grew up believing in America’s exceptional status in the world. Maybe that’s what I was taught, and I never experienced anything to personally challenge that idea. But the older I have gotten, I can see that not everyone has had that experience.
Doesn’t that mean greatness is kind of a subjective thing? Can it be great for some people and terrible for others? How do we even define such greatness? What are the parameters? I’ve decided that most people might point to wealth and military dominance. The biggest, baddest, richest kid on the block. We established a post-depression economy that was the strongest in the world, mainly because there was no competition. Europe, Russia, Japan, and China had been ravaged by war. They spent the following twenty years rebuilding, and not one shot was fired in America. On top of that, we had increased the size of our military during the war, and with the Truman Doctrine, escalated it from there. It was in those following decades after WWII that we built a strong sense of capitalistic nationalism that could see you locked up as a communist for questioning or defying. A rich country and huge military was the end result of the fighting our grandfathers had endured on the beaches of France and the jungles of the Philippines.
But are wealth and brute strength truly the measure of greatness. Let us personify those qualities. What about a person who is very wealthy? Does that immediately make that person great? They might be, but is it wealth that makes them great? That person might be a real shit stain. Thus, wealth doesn’t make you great. Neither does a person’s ability to kick another’s ass. It might make him a bully. In fact, it might very well land that person in jail for assault.
Some people point to our founding fathers and the constitution. There, I might say you’re on to something. From my perspective, I’ve never had to deal with racism or any other consequence of the darker aspects of our history. The Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement didn’t do much to affect my life today. I’ve never had to fight for the right to marry who I choose. I’ve never had someone discriminate against me for my religious beliefs. Slavery, Native American removal, Jim Crow—all of these things point to a society that has been far from perfect as our founding fathers attempted. But the spirit of what they did in the latter half of the 18th century is the very thing that makes America great. It’s the spirit of progress. It’s the spirit of innovation. We take risks and try new things. We try to correct our misgivings and move forward.
Progress, until recently, was not a politicized word. It wasn’t merely a left wing ideal bemoaned by the right. People on both ends of the political spectrum embraced innovation. Eisenhower was a Republican, and under his administration, we got interstate highways. The revolution, the 13th amendment, the extension of marriage rights to same sex couples. The invention of flight. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine and gave it away for free. If you look throughout American history, the bright points—the moments that define our country and make it great—are always moments of progress and innovation. We decided to do it better. We decided to make our society better. We pioneered modern democracy for many other countries to use as a model. We invented things that would change human life the world over. We revolutionized art and literature. That is what makes America great. So if you want to make America great again, go out and do something new. You make it great again. Not Donald Trump.