“We’re going to make America great again!”
We’ve all heard the popular refrain and ubiquitous theme of the Trump 2016 campaign. It is spoken at every rally, debate, town hall meeting, and TV interview featuring “The Donald” and his pumpkin-hued comb over. Supporters scribble it on signs, screen print it on ball caps and t-shirts, and thousands shout it with fist pumping accompaniment. But I often wonder how many people, including Mr. Trump have paused to think about what the words actually mean.
Now let’s be clear—the United States has some serious systemic problems. There’s no sense in whitewashing the deep, persistent, and complex issues that face our nation. But to solve them we need creative solutions, not shallow platitudes or catchy slogans.
Buried in Trump’s favorite phrase is the broad assumption that America was at some undefined time in the past a “great” nation. Anyone with an 8th grade history education might be inclined to pause and ponder that assumption. The history of the United States is filled with truly astounding events, but when the tapestry of the American Experience is viewed from a safe distance, one would be hard-pressed to declare it a wholly beautiful and inspiring creation.
Many conservatives seem to pine after the “good ol’ days” when men were men, women were in the kitchen, and all the things that made us uncomfortable were safely hidden behind a cultural screen of politeness and propriety. But the America that they long for was also the country that hid dark secrets, vicious racism, and deep fears that nearly ended human civilization.
So let’s examine our past and try to put our collective finger on that moment of greatness that we must get back to.
Surely we were great right from the beginning as we marched across the continent slaughtering and imprisoning the indigenous tribes. The genocide of millions was pretty great.
Maybe we should go back to the early 19th century when it was legal to own another human being. You could breed them like animals, beat them at will, and separate children from their mothers and fathers. And when you needed a new one, you could just trot on down to the town square or docks, buy a new slave then grab a nice lunch at the pub.
Or perhaps we would like to return to the 1890’s when it was routine to have children as young as six years old working twelve-hour days in factories. And we didn’t have those pesky OSHA regulations interfering with our capitalistic endeavors. It sure must have been great to have little kids losing appendages in giant machines.
I’m sure my wife and daughter would love to return to the days when women couldn’t vote. Men did such a great job when they weren’t bothered with all that suffrage business.
It must be the 1930’s when the nation was neck-deep in the Great Depression. Factories, farms, and families were being destroyed by the thousands due to unrestrained stock speculation and corporate greed. More than a decade of destitution was the hallmark of those great days.
Oh, wait…I’ve got it! It was the 1950’s when black people couldn’t share a rest room, fountain, or classroom with whites in nearly half the country. Roving bands of clansmen rode through the countryside attired in bed linens lynching their fellow citizens. Man, I’ve got a hankering for a mint julep!
If none of those stellar chapters from our past get you all tingly, maybe we could roll the clock back to the days of the Cold War. It was so much fun living with a bomb shelter in every public building. Oh, how we miss wondering if the monthly tornado siren test was actually announcing a cloud of Soviet bombers coming to vaporize our cities. And imagine how awesome it would be to introduce our children to the thrill of huddling under the safety of their plywood desks during a duck drill.
For me, it would be the carefree days of the 1970’s when I could eat a Big Mac and toss the container right out the window of my mom’s gas guzzling Plymouth Fury while speeding down the highway. I loved the freedom of the slippery vinyl backseat unencumbered by those big government seat belts. We were free to litter, and smoke, and pollute, and even make a fake Indian cry on TV. Man, it was great!
Honestly, I have no idea what Mr. Trump is talking about. The greatness of America is our ability to continuously, steadily, and irrevocably move from the darkness into the light. We are at our best when we are striving against the gravity of the past and clawing our way into a more just future. Our trajectory must always be toward greater justice, increased participation, and maximum liberty. But to do this we must reject anyone or anything that seeks to drag us into the past.
Let’s resolve to keep American striving toward greatness with the full knowledge that it is not a destination, but rather, a beautiful journey we all are invited to participate in.