Part of the exceptional Donald Trump campaign is his not-so-exceptional slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Demanding and promising a return to Glory Days is centuries-old American theme, shared by both the political right and political left, based on the conviction that today’s America is less than yesterday’s America. Trump channels a grand mythic feature of American cultural life, of our “collective memory,” the belief that we are threatened by decline. But the slogan’s appeal is not just mythic; it also taps reality for a specific segment of the population.
(My previous post looked at another dimension of the Trump appeal: authoritarianism. Both are at play.)
Declension and progress
Even before the founding of the nation, popular sermons and speeches declared that we were once “great” but have now fallen. Ministers in pre-revolutionary America chided their flocks for having abandoned their forefathers’ moral purity. Revolutionaries more often charged that the British monarchy had overridden long-held “traditional” rights of English subjects than they presented dreams for a new society.
Populist rhetoric in the early 19th century warned that industrialists were destroying the independent artisan. Post-Reconstruction white supremacists painted a picture of a happy, pre-Civil War South (later memorialized in films from the 1915 Birth of a Nation to the 1940 Gone with the Wind) that needed restoration. Late 19th-century populist rhetoric described a stalwart rural yeomanry that was being destroyed by commercial capitalism. And 1960s segregationists claimed that the civil rights movement was ruining what had been idyllic race relations. American social movements commonly rely on a rhetoric of a lost Eden.
Certainly, forward-looking themes also populate American collective memory – the enthusiasm of the post-Revolutionary era, later the sense of “Manifest Destiny,” and the techno-optimism of the early 20th century, for examples. And some political campaigns have played on such themes, for instance, the Clinton-Gore 1992 theme song, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and Reagan’s 1984 “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign (which cleverly caught both stances with “Again”).
Cultural conflicts over how to view the past, over whether we are declining or progressing, and which views should be inscribed in our monuments and history books recur generation after generation (as discussed in earlier posts here and here).
Still, it is the declension theme that is most noteworthy. Over, say, the last century, Americans in general have come to live much longer, healthier, richer, and more secure lives. Yet, the default is usually to say that things are “going to hell in a handbasket” (to quote a friend of mine). In the last generation or so, the air and water got cleaner, crime went down, education scores went up, and problematic teenage behavior receded. Yet, most Americans don’t see progress (for example, on crime, see here).
Obviously, there are other contemporary trends that are problematic – notably, rising economic inequality, wage stagnation, and crises among the poorest. For most Americans, however, taking the declension view is more of a cultural tic than the result of looking at reality. For some Americans, however, it goes deeper.
A 1990s survey of Americans (conducted by historians) found some interesting differences in how people think about the past. White respondents tended to think about the past in terms of their family histories and felt pretty good about progress for themselves. When discussing the nation’s past, however, they were overwhelmingly more likely to see decline than improvement. In contrast, minorities were likelier to discuss the past in group terms. Importantly, they were likelier than whites to see a nation that was actually getting better. Perhaps, minorities have a less romantic view of the “good old days.”
Especially pessimistic in this 1990s survey were white Baby Boomers who looked back at the 1960s as a time of disappointment and disintegration. The core of Trump supporters fits this profile: white and older – and, in addition, male and less-educated.
When people assess how they (or the nation) are doing, aside from drawing on conventional formulae (hell’s hand basket), they compare. For older whites with less than a college degree, economic circumstances have, on average, gotten comparatively rougher than they had been for their parents. In the 1950s, industrial – especially unionized – jobs allowed a man to support a family and a stay-at-home wife. To be sure, the house was small by today’s standards, there was only one car, the work was draining, and life was shorter. But these were a good deal better than their fathers’ situation’ – and situations of others, notably blacks.
Today, even if the car is actually a truck with a stereo sound system, the white, less-educated, men are doing relatively worse economically. On top of that, they view a culture that seems to devalue their people in favor of other types of people, such as blacks, Latinos, gays, and feminists.
Hillary Clinton has answered the Trump slogan by saying that America never stopped being great. From a distance, there is no reason to think that this era is less great than earlier eras. But for a particular and large number of people, the Trump slogan does two things: It plucks a familiar chord of collective memory – the American theme of declension – and it speaks to their particular experiences.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.