Donald Trump’s signature campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is under siege. A handful of Catholic college students from Covington, KY were wearing MAGA hats on the mall in the nation’s capital when they came under attack by Native American activists, egged on by African-American religious bigots.
The news media originally blamed the students for the incident but backpedaled when they realized the boys were on the receiving end of some rather crude and offensive heckling. Still, many commentators now say that by proudly wearing their MAGA hats in public the boys provoked the attacks and should share in the blame.
How did the idea of “making America great again” become so offensive? Liberals insist that Trump and his minions are evoking an American past that features racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination. Trump wants White men to be back on top of the social hierarchy, operating with impunity.
Consciously or not, anyone wearing a MAGA hat is advocating for this position, they insist.
Amazingly, many Trump supporters seem to have left this view unchallenged. Some may well believe that women and minorities have achieved too much power; they long for the Old Order. But most conservatives simply don’t care what liberals think – and they figure why bother arguing.
It’s worth noting that Trump didn’t invent the MAGA slogan. Ronald Reagan used it in 1980. So did Bill Clinton in 1992. It wasn’t used as often, or as prominently, as it is currently. But it was part of the two candidates’ campaign pitch – appearing on posters and handbills.
At the time, no one accused Reagan or Clinton of engaging in a thinly-veiled reactionary appeal to the voters’ base instincts – the kind of charge frequently leveled at Trump. MAGA was simply seen as an expression of patriotic ardor.
Not surprisingly, the slogan emerged during times of national malaise. Reagan’s opponent, Jimmy Carter, was widely viewed as a weak president who had allowed the Soviet Union to regain strength, while presiding over a deteriorating domestic economic situation. Reagan was calling for a resurgence of American global power and domestic well-being. This was the meaning of MAGA in 1980.
Clinton’s campaign used the MAGA slogan against the man who inherited Reagan’s mantle – George H.W. Bush. While Bush had earned a whopping 90% approval rating after Desert Storm, his inability to reverse the country’s economic slide – and his seeming indifference to the misfortune of ordinary Americans – — proved devastating to his popularity. Bush’s favorability rating fell below 30% in the months leading up to the election and he never recovered.
Clinton promised to buoy the American middle class that was seeing its standard of living decline to unprecedented lows. MAGA meant “restoring hope in the American Dream,” as Clinton’s famous TV ad, “A Man from Hope,” suggested so poignantly.
The MAGA slogan is back for good reason. The Cold War is over, thanks in large part to Reagan, but America faces perhaps greater and intractable threats in China, ISIS and a host of lesser states seeking nuclear weapons.
And the American economy has been slow to recover from the Great Recession in 2007. Until Trump’s election, businesses and consumers alike were virtually on strike: Consumers wouldn’t spend and companies wouldn’t invest.
Obama, in his own Jimmy Carter-like way, had suggested that American simply get used to a long period of economic stagnation. Trump’s already put an end to such defeatist thinking.
But there’s a deeper reason that the MAGA slogan resonates. It’s dismay among Americans with the depth of our political and social divisions. Obama, who promised to be a racial mediator, was anything but. He constantly fomented divisions within American society, seizing upon every new killing of an African-American as reason to stigmatize Whites, while down playing brutal attacks on law enforcement.
Polarization is also apparent in the political system. The two parties can’t seem to work together anymore. Congress itself is held in disrepute. There is no political center to balance out competing interests. Instead of compromise there is endless gridlock.
And society-wide there is a sense of persistent disunity. Marriage rates have plummeted. The country is inundated with immigrants — many of them illegal – who no longer try to assimilate. Different ethnic groups seem to live in Balkanized worlds, speaking different languages. Women increasingly blame men for their misfortune, and the two genders talk past each other – or don’t talk at all.
Many Americans see our nation’s founding credo – e pluribus unum (out of many, one) – slipping away. On the left “identity politics” – defining everyone by the demographic group they belong to – has replaced the quest for national unity.
MAGA isn’t a call for a return to “white nationalism,” let alone social inequality. It’s a plea to restore the deeply held values that has kept our country together and allowed it to flourish. It points our nation forward, not backward. No one – least of all young students on a class trip to the nation’s capital — should be shamed or made to apologize for embracing it.