Donald Trump’s campaign mantra is exactly one word too long. While four words is a seemingly short declaration, this one makes a bold statement and raises serious questions. The Trump campaign’s mantra tell us that America was once great, however it isn’t currently, and that a Trump Administration would restore this greatness. The serious questions posed are: exactly when was America great, and by what definition, and/or for whom was it great? When you combine the kind of vaguery contained in these four words with Trump’s infamous avoidance of specifics by the use of such catchphrases as “believe me,” and “you’ll see,” one is left to speculate, and speculate I shall.
The American history is a rather short one in terms of a global context. While the US is a powerful nation, both economically and militarily, it is a youngster compared with many nations so a trip down memory lane isn’t all that time consuming. I’ll make some safe assumptions in my analysis and conclude that a Trump Presidency would not return America to the greatness of its birth in the late 1700’s. I will state that the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were inspiring moments of bravery, brilliance and foresight, however the modern conveniences were decidedly absent and we’d be hard pressed to force a return to the pre-industrial revolution. Not to mention our forefathers owned other human beings, a horrific stain on our national legacy, so birth of a nation aside, the late 18th century was arguably not a time of American greatness.
I can’t imagine Trump envisions the 1800’s as a time of greatness as the nation entered into war with Great Britain which saw the British Army setting the Capital building ablaze. Worse, the nation began to divide as some states outlawed slavery, while others resolutely refused to emancipate their brothers. America splintered and almost disintegrated as Americans killed Americans at a pace so alarming and horrible, that it took until the end of the Vietnam War for the total number of Americans killed in all foreign wars combined to equal the number killed in the Civil War.
Let us move swiftly into the 1900’s before we sink into an abysmal depression. The US moved forward into the new century with a natural disaster of epic proportions as an unnamed hurricane descended upon the shores of Texas without warning, for today’s remarkable technology did not yet exist. The unsuspecting populace of Galveston, TX were devastated by the monster storm and many thousands lost their lives. Surely no one would wish to return to an era before the scientific-technological revolution that improved the lives of all. The roaring 20’s was a time of economic good fortune in the US, and far-reaching changes in culture. However, not everyone in America thought this change was good, and certainly not great. Things improved for women who were finally allowed to participate in the political process. But not everyone thought women voting was an improvement. Hell, some Americans even hated the fact that more people could afford automobiles. Between cars, dancing and jazz music, America was going to hell in a bucket. We even banned alcohol, leading to the disastrous policies of Prohibition. Presumably Trump, whose business ventures include Trump Vodka, doesn’t mean to return us to the 1920’s. Knowing that 1929 brought the stock market crash and led to the Great Depression pretty much rules out the 30’s as a time of American greatness. Although the New Deal and the Second New Deal were sparks of excellence, they were widely condemned by conservatives as enemies of business and growth. It took almost the entire decade to bring an end to the economic disaster, just in time to see the world at war.
The United States began the new decade in flames, as Japanese warplanes brought death from the skies to the US at Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941, a day that shall live in infamy, forced the country into a war that would consume most of the first half of the decade, and culminated in the most horrific act man has ever committed against their fellow man, as the United States became the first country to ever use a nuclear weapon in anger. We hold that honor still. After the radioactive dust settled, the long Cold War settled into the American bones. No reasonable citizen of these United States would long for a return to any part of that decade. Perhaps the 50’s are the epitome of American greatness Trump envisions.
The 1950’s saw the US riding a wave of economic prosperity. However, the dark underbelly of a housing boom and increased manufacturing was paranoia and fear. From what? Communism. Americans saw the Red Menace everywhere and turned on each other, with the government investigating private citizens and destroying innocent people’s lives in the process. The US, not wanting to go a decade without a good war, got entangled in Korea and remains there to this day. It should go without saying that segregation was not a great time in American history and while the Civil Rights movement began in earnest midway through the decade, it was not met with open arms. The President had to intervene to allow black students to enter the racially segregated high school in Little Rock Arkansas.
The 1960’s saw the folly of foreign intervention with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, and the nightmare of the Vietnam War. The Cuban Missile Crisis scared the bejesus out of us. The assassination of John Kennedy, the rise of the counterculture and civil disobedience were hallmarks of this decade. Sure, we had some great moments, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the National Voting Act, but could Donald Trump possibly envision returning the United States to a decade like the 60’s? Surely not.
The 1970’s saw The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who at their respective peaks, but we also had Disco. It seems like you just can’t win. There was also a small scandal known as Watergate, the economy languished and the US ended its trade surplus as US manufacturing began to decline. Interest rates rose to unprecedented levels and faith in government reached an all time low. The decade ended with Iran taking American hostages and holding them for 444 days. With Donald Trump’s regular rants about other nations kicking the US in the pants economically, I imagine he can’t want to return us to the decline we experienced in this decade.
The 1980’s? Seriously… not a chance. Multinational corporations moved overseas at a startling rate, the AIDS epidemic decimated humanity, the US supported Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen in their war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Islamism became a major force and Al Qaeda was born. US Marines were killed in Beirut when their barracks were bombed by Islamic jihadists. The United States government was caught in embarrassing covert overseas operations supporting Salvadoran paramilitary groups that massacred civilians, and most notably the Nicaraguan rebels in their attempted overthrow of their government. Senior Reagan administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran of all nations, which at the time was the subject of an arms embargo, in an effort to trade guns for hostages. Numerous officials were indicted with criminal activity and ultimately 11 were convicted. The deposition of then President Ronald Reagan, a minor god in the eyes of today’s Republicans, resulted in a record-setting 88 responses of `I don’t recall` or `I can’t remember` in response to questions about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair. Add in the rise of Hair Metal Bands and the number of Americans hankering for a return to the glory days of the 80’s likely includes only the demented and misinformed.
Now the 1990’s had some moments I will argue were pretty great. The grunge rock explosion out of Seattle that brought us Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana were an epic moment in time. The spread of cable television and the rise of the mighty World Wide Web were life changing events, mostly for the better. But we also saw the rise of the tech bubble where many made millions, but clueless saps following the herd like lemmings lost everything when the bubble popped. The US went to war once again, sending a plethora of forces to that hot spot of foreign entanglements: The Middle East. The World Trade Center was bombed, but that terrorist action paled in comparison to what our homegrown terrorist would bring in Oklahoma City: Timothy McVeigh claims to have detonated the blast that killed 168 Americans and injured almost 700 others. Overseas, US Embassies were attacked in Kenya and Tanzania, driving the US to attack suspected Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. This was a harbinger of the horror to come. President Clinton created the national shame called the Lewinsky Scandal, which concluded with the House of Representatives impeaching him in spite of public opinion wishing everyone would just stop talking about it and bring an end to the embarrassing nightmare. Certainly this is not the timeframe of American greatness Donald Trump wishes to reignite.
So that brings us into the 21st century, which opened with the horror of 9/11, and led to the launch of the ill fated War on Terror. The Patriot Act saw a return to the investigation of innocent private citizens the US hadn’t seen since the 1950’s, but in the technological age the scope of the violation of privacy rights was awe inspiring. The government was caught spying on Americans in violation of the law, with telecom companies in collusion giving the NSA access to all Americans’ phone records and internet activity. The invasion of Afghanistan led to the longest war in US history, with untold billions of dollars spent trying to create a centralized government in a mountainous tribal region that has not had a centralized government in its 5,000 year existence. Thousands of American lives have been lost and Afghanistan remains at war in a struggle for its future. The epic foreign policy disaster that is the War in Iraq took up most of the decade costing trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and led to the rise of ISIS. With Trump often railing against the Iraq War, he certainly can’t think of the 2000’s as a time of American greatness.
That brings us right to the election of President Barack Obama. A historic moment in US history as a black man ascends to the highest political office in the land. There is much to discuss about Obama’s America, but we’re talking about Donald Trump here and he’s made it quite clear that he’s no fan of Obama’s policies. After all, that’s what he’s running to change: the current course of American politics. Herein lies the difficulty with a campaign strategy that fits neatly on a cheap hat: There is no one period in time that one can point to and claim greatness. For every rise there is a fall. For every triumph, a defeat. For every moment Americans could rally and cheer for a common success, there are cringe-worthy moments of embarrassment and humiliation we’d all like to forget. Donald Trump can’t return America to greatness, because that idealized utopian nation doesn’t exist. All we can hope for is a continued and steady rise in the moral arc, to steal Michael Shermer’s book title. We need a president with that vision. A leader who stands for equality, justice and the promotion of the general welfare. Someone who can take the reigns of this juggernaut and steer it toward the clear. If Donald thinks he’s that leader, he’s going to have to come up with something more substantive than a hat.