Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again!” has been mocked by Republicans and Democrats alike: Ted Cruz sold hats that said “Make Trump Debate Again,” after Trump boycotted the Iowa debates, activists have suggested it may as well be, “Make America White Again,” and comedian David Cross, famous for his role on Arrested Development, ironically gave his tour the same name.
Despite this negative attention, Trump has remained steadfast in his use of the slogan, and, in keeping with his campaign so far, he has unexpectedly come out on top. Whether political slogans actual matter in the election is a different issue — “Hillary for America” is decidedly less catchy — but in the world of slogans, Trump’s has proven to be the most successful. The phrase “Making America Great Again!” was Googled 58 times more than Ted Cruz’s slogan, “Reigniting the Promise of America,” according to February’s statistics, and has successfully branded the Trump campaign in a way that other slogans have not.
Even though it is entirely possible to have a successful campaign without this kind of branding power — once again, see the Clinton campaign — the slogan is nonetheless important because it demonstrates exactly how Trump has appealed to a sizable portion of the Republican electorate. In a column for the Washington Post, reporter Chris Cillizza described Trump’s slogan as “absolutely brilliant.” He writes, “those four words [Make American Great Again] perfectly encapsulated the nostalgia mixed with disappointment and anger pulsing through a large-ish chunk of the American electorate.” Trump’s slogan harkens back to a utopian past, without elaborating on what exactly made that past great — in doing so, Trump is free to ignore the negative components of America’s legacy.
Before America was even around to be made great (again) in July 8, 1741, Preacher Jonathan Edwards said, “If God should only withdraw his hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury.” He was giving a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which condemned his congregation’s sins and described in graphic detail what would await them in Hell if they did not repent. Some literary scholars consider the sermon to be a foundational text in American literature and an emblem of the country’s culture as a whole. The sermon is part of a larger genre known as Jeremiads — works that condemn the existing state of affairs in a community, and promise that, if the listener repents, the community can return to its former glory. A critical component of the Jeremiad is the celebration of a once great past, a utopia that has since been lost to corruption and sin. Correspondingly, “Make America Great Again,” is just the latest in this long line of American rhetoric. Since the country was a colony, politicians have been looking to the past as a model for the future, condemning the present community for losing its way.
Though Trump adamantly argues that he coined the phrase, critics have pointed out that his slogan bears striking similarity to “Let’s Make American Great Again,” which was used by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Ted Cruz’s own slogan echoes the idea — like Trump, Cruz is “Reigniting the Promise of America,” needing only to “reignite” what was once great. In 2012, Ron Paul used the slogan “Restore America Now.” And, as far back as 1920, Warren G. Harding used “Return to Normalcy,” suggesting that America needed to return to what had since been lost.
Since the country was a colony, politicians have been looking to the past as a model for the future, condemning the present community for losing its way.
It may seem like this is an inherently conservative argument, that liberals should be celebrating a new future, while conservatives embrace the past. Yet this binary does not always hold, as not all Republican candidates have embraced Trump’s narrative in their branding: Carly Fiorina’s slogan “New Possibilities. Real Leadership,” celebrates the “new,” rather than the old. Conversely, in 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry wanted to “Let America Be America Again.”
The problem with this kind of nostalgia is that it abstractly celebrates a past without grounding this celebration in fact. A poll from the Pew Research Center that reports that 75 percent of Trump supporters say that life “for people like them” is worse today than it was 50 years ago, suggesting that his slogan appeals to them for this reason.
But fifty years ago, the year was 1966; Lyndon B. Johnson was president. There was not a single black Senator, and had not been since Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just barely celebrated its one-year anniversary, and the federal government had only just begun to investigate counties where less than half of people of color were registered to vote.
Given that the majority of Trump supporters are white, the state of civil rights in 1966 probably did not affect their answers. But the slogan fits in with Trump’s larger narrative: that the country is in free-fall and needs to get back to its roots. It’s perhaps not a surprise given that Trump ‘s campaign has been criticized for racist overtones, and he has recently received support from white supremacists groups. Yet, despite this disturbing pattern, he has still managed to maintain and grow his support base. Part of this is resonance of his slogan as it fits into his larger narrative: he implicitly harkens back to a perfect view of the United States without explicitly racializing it, echoing a long American tradition.
Simultaneously, it may not be time to fully condemn that tradition. Viewing the country as following a constantly upward trajectory makes invisible the negative changes of the last fifty years. Democratic candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has made this a major issue in his campaign, addressing income inequality, the fall of unions, and the rise of Wall Street. And this is reflected in his support base: according to the Pew poll, while 22 percent of Clinton supporters think life today is worse for people like them, 34 percent of Sanders supporters do. But, unlike Trump, Sanders sees the negative changes taking place in America, and nonetheless looks towards the future, not the past, for new solutions.
This is certainly not a one-party trick; Democratic candidates appeal to the past just as Republicans do. But what parts of the past one appeals to do matter — while this kind of rhetoric may be an American tradition as old as the colonies, Trump’s campaign suggests that it at times warrants a second look.