When Was America Great?
In the third and final presidential debate between Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Clinton posits the question: When was America great? In the final segment of the last presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates why they were ignoring the problem of the national debt. After Trump’s response, in which he guaranteed to listeners that the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is wrong about his plan, Clinton replied, “When I hear Donald talk like that I know that his slogan is ‘Make America Great Again.’ I wonder when he thought America was great.” Clinton went on to detail the ways Trump has been complaining about the same things during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
This may seem like a strange series of pivots on the part of Clinton; however, the point she makes is a poignant one. Throughout his campaign, Trump has used the slogan as a rallying cry for his supporters. As various news outlets have pointed out, his is not the first campaign to use the phrase, which was also used by the campaigns of President Reagan and President Bill Clinton. The latter again used the phrase as recently as 2008 when campaigning for Secretary Clinton against President Obama. More recently, former President Clinton acknowledged the racialized and problematic undertones of the phrase in a speech last month, and said, “If you’re a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don’t you? What it means is ‘I’ll give you an economy you had 50 years ago, and I’ll move you back up on the social totem pole and other people down.’” In the Orlando speech, he then continued to argue that “the ‘good old days’ weren’t that great.”
The issue former President Clinton addresses here is one of nostalgia, which, like Trump’s slogan, is nothing new. Throughout American history, groups have been looking romantically at the past, glorifying an idyllic (and fantastical) time in the recent past that we would do well to reestablish in the present. This nostalgia is what caused American satirist Mark Twain to famously blame Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War. Scott, who was popular in the Antebellum South, romanticized English feudalism in a way that Southern planters and slave owners wanted to emulate in America. Obviously, the American attempt at feudalism was not a good time for anyone except white plantation owners.
I do not mean to imply that Trump wants the nation to return to this specific era, but his rhetoric does reflect this same nostalgia that has come in waves throughout our history. Actually, according to Trump, the time when he sees America was at its greatest, according to a CNN article, was the beginning of the 20th Century and again during the late 1940s and 1950s. During this time, Trump says, “We were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody…” Notably, these times are before the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964, which worked to ensure voter’s rights and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When he says “we” Trump means America as a whole, but in the America Trump is talking about, the “we” America represented is severely limited to American-born, white Christian men of a particular social status. Clearly, during this time of civil unrest which Trump gestures towards, only a select class of Americans were “respected by everybody.”
Trump’s closing statement in the aforementioned debate catalogues the problems that he feels need to be fixed so that America can achieve his vision of greatness, which range from strengthening the military to immigration and law and order. These are not new problems. The “great” time Trump references had these same problems and more. During this “great” time, basic civil rights were regularly denied in the Jim Crow South, and in the north, institutionalized racism was even more rampant.
While it may be difficult for some to see the progress the country has made recently in this circus of a presidential election cycle, America has been much worse, especially for members of minority groups. Recent years have provided more freedoms to more groups of people than Americans have witnessed at any time in the past. Implicit bias, institutionalized racism and general prejudice are certainly all problems which still must be dealt with. To people who have become accustomed to being more privileged members of society, these changes may be frightening; it may even seem as though their rights are being taken away. In reality, however, America is simply becoming a more equal place. Longing for and pretending that there once existed a time in which all of America’s problems would be solved is not the way to progress. Progress can only be made by moving forward, not by looking back.