The Problem With "Make America Great Again"3
I’ve blogged about this concept before, but the fact that Donald Trump, currently leading for the Republican nomination for President, is campaigning on the promise to “Make America Great Again” is a good enough reason, to me, to talk about it again. The idea that anyone is going to “Make America Great Again” – aside from its narcissistic, Messiah-complex overtones – indisputably implies two things: 1) America used to be great, and 2) it’s not anymore. That natural extension of those two premises is to ask “why is America no longer great?” or “what happened that made America stop being great?” In other words, it’s necessarily requires an analysis of American history. At some point in our past, we were great; now, we no longer are great.
MAKE ABORTION GREAT AGAIN?
The first possible answer is the issue of abortion. Some pro-life voters, I think, might cling to this answer. Prior to 40 years ago, abortions were illegal – that’s when America was great. Now, abortion is legal, and whatever other strengths America has, a country cannot be both great and allow babies to be killed. The problem is that this is almost certainly not the correct answer. Perhaps the defining pro-life issue of our time (other than a hyper-specific legal community working to get Roe v. Wade overturned by the Supreme Court) is the issue of government-funded Planned Parenthood. Should the government be funding an organization whose CEO testified under oath before Congress that 97% of what they do is related to abortion. Almost every single conservative politician would say “No!” Politicians who are not conservative generally say “Yes.” Given that he’s not a conservative, it is probably unsurprising that Donald Trump would also “Yes” and thinks, as he said, that Planned Parenthood does some great things. What is surprising, however, is that a plurality of Republican voters supports him despite his views on abortion. In any case, Trump supporters have lost the ability to claim that the reason they think America used to be great but is no longer great is because abortion used to be illegal and is now legal. If they did, they would be supporting the same politicians they so often gleefully ridicule and criticize; those politicians have implemented, at a state level, some of the most restrictive abortion laws since Roe v. Wade passed.
In fact, given that for his entire life (until after he decided he was running for President) Trump has supported partial-birth abortion and claimed he was “very pro-choice,” it is more likely that if his “Make America Great Again” motto is related to the issue of abortion, then Trump and his supporters think that America used to be great when abortions were more prevalent and it was legal to induce the partial-birth of a baby so that you can crush its skull, but now is no longer great because there are less abortions and you can no longer crush the skulls of partially-born babies.
Perhaps Trump and his supporters use the motto “Make America Great Again” because gay marriage used to be illegal, and is now legal. But, although this was the impetus for the last time I blogged about this issue, this is the least likely answer – Trump is pro-gay marriage and I have never heard a single supporter of his claim that gay marriage is the reason they are supporting Trump. If the legality of gay marriage was the reason America used to be great and is great no longer, than Trump’s supporters would actually be supporting someone who thinks gay marriage shouldn’t be legal, or at least that states should be the ones to make that call (Rubio, Cruz or Carson).
America used to have a better economy, and when it did, America was great. Now the bad economy has made America not great. Trump’s support among the (mostly Democrat-leaning) working class makes this answer tempting, and it probably is the correct answer for some of Trump's supporters. Of course, it’s probably not what Trump himself means, given that this supposedly terrible economy has made and kept him a billionaire, and since he has made a career out of using the poor to prop himself up, it’s also exceedingly unlikely that he’s suddenly an altruist. But it might be the reason his supporters would give. If so…well, I feel sorry that the working-class have been duped so badly and so nakedly.
Trump’s two economic policies that he’s actually stuck to have been his plans to cut taxes on the top earners and impose protectionist tariffs on Chinese imports; both clearly designed to help people like him at the expense of the poor and middle class (in fact, a Trump surrogate either admitted what is economically unarguable -- Trump's proposed tariff would raise prices for poor and middle class consumers by 10-15%). Thus, Trump’s supporters either don’t have a rudimentary understanding of economics (and the economy is the basis of the “Make America Great Again” slogan) or they simply don’t care (and the economy isn’t the basis of the “Make America Great Again” slogan). More likely, they don’t care.
WHITE SUPREMACY AND PRIVILEGE
The other option is that Trump and his supporters think that America was great when it operated under certain social normative values – when society worked for the benefit of white men. This seems to be a pretty reasonable hypothesis for the slogan, for a couple of reasons. Trump appeals to people who are self-consciously white supremacists. The Washington Post published a report of how Trump has motivated and rejuvenated what previously had been some dying White Supremacist groups. One report was published that showed that white supremacist were making robocalls encouraging voters to vote for Trump, rather than one of the Cubans. Donald Trump was given three opportunities to disavow the KKK, a former grand wizard of the KKK, and other white supremacists, and he declined to do so. Clearly, then, to at least a certain segment of Trump’s supporters, the “Make America Great Again” slogan is nothing more than a racist dog-whistle harkening back to a day when non-whites knew and kept their place, and whites banded together to keep them there.
Additionally, Trump’s campaign gained momentum for two key reasons. First, he promised to build a “yuge” wall and kick out illegal immigrants, because most illegal immigrants and those who want to come from Mexico are “rapists.” Even setting aside the ugly history of explicitly racial language about sexual crime, the fact that Trump’s support predominantly comes from a victim mentality is meaningful. First, there is a delicious level of irony in the fact that Trump supporters have adopted a victim mentality that they supposedly used to hate. Second, it shows how easy it is to blame the “other” – everything wrong with this country can be blamed on people who are not like us. If the Mexicans weren’t stealing our jobs, assaulting our women and taking our tax dollars, we would be better off. It would just be us, and that would be fine.
Second, he proposed that we keep out all potential Muslim immigrants for an indefinite time. There’s not much to say about this – as Dr. Moore has pointed out, if you agree with his stance, then you don’t believe in religious liberty and thus don’t think the American experiment was a good idea. If you believe in religious liberty and think the American experiment was a good idea, then you don’t agree with Trump. It is impossible to have it both ways. Put it this way – if you thought that there was a 0.01% chance that a Christian immigrant would commit an act of terror in the United States this year, would you propose we not allow any Christian immigrants to come to the U.S.? The fact of the matter is, if you can ban all Muslims from coming to this country because of the actions of the few, you can the same for all Christians, or all North Koreans, or all Africans, or all people named Jake (tempting, I know).
Regardless of why Trump and his supporters think America used to be great, no longer is, and want to make it great again, the term and concept itself is terrible. There’s a reason why you very seldom hear black Americans harkening for the old days, or pining for that time when America was great. When Tim Scott, conservative Senator from the deep south, runs for President some day, I will give you a million dollars if his campaign slogan is anything close to “Make America Great Again.” Why? To answer that, I hope you’ll indulge an edited version of something I've written before:
"Assuming that we need to "Make America Great Again" requires a belief that America used to be great, but is no longer great. It requires us to believe that when the government allowed people to be enslaved, beaten, humiliated and dehumanized based on the color of their skin, America was great. When the government found “manifest destiny” to be more important than the livelihoods or lives of Native Americans, America was great. When women were treated as second-class citizens and denied the right to vote, America was great. When Jim Crow and "separate-but-equal" and redlining and denying African-Americans housing, jobs or loans was legal, American was great. But when the Civil Rights Act was passed, or when the economy got a little bit worse, or when technology advanced and some blue-collar jobs were rendered obsolete, or when English was no longer the first language of some citizens, or now that we have too many Hispanics, or Muslims, or other people with brown skin, we became no longer great."
Church, it is my contention that we must stand against this language, which is undeniably hurtful to many of our black and brown brothers and sisters. This is not really a political issue, it is a moral issue. The "Make America Great Again" stems both from theological and historical confusion, and we should stand against it.
More in Redeemer Blog
January 28, 2020You Can't Know What You Don't Know
October 30, 2019When are the Glory Days: Lessons Learned from Heartland Part Two
October 29, 2019When are the Glory Days? Lessons Learned from Heartland, Part One