I don’t think anyone really disagrees with Make America Great. I was raised in the Cold War 80s and we were fed patriotism like fluoride-laced water. To a one, my GenX friends are all fiercely patriotic.
We’ve dutifully served in the military, thanked soldiers for their service, and gotten teary-eyed at post-deployment reunions. We’ve given to the Wounded Warriors and demanded reform at the VA. We think military service is patriotic.
Every two years we anxiously anticipate the Olympics. We learn the athletes’ names, discuss their achievements and uniforms, debate the rules and procedures. We produced the most decorated Olympian of all time. We think the Olympics are patriotic.
We vote. Our Facebook feeds are full of political debate and passive activism. We Rocked the Vote for Clinton and W and we elected the first black President. We carried our babies in chest pouches like kangaroo citizens, waited in line at over-crowded precincts, and thanked poll workers for their patriotic efforts. We think participating in government is patriotic.
I don’t think we disagree with Make America Great.
We’ve been building businesses, volunteering in schools, having birthday parties at fire stations, and teaching our kids to stand still during the National Anthem since they started televising it again after 9/11. We think jobs, volunteering, civil service, and respect are patriotic.
It’s the Again that gets stuck when we say the phrase President Trump trademarked in 2012, the one he used to climb the disorganized Republican ranks.
It’s the Again that made Bill Clinton say the phrase had a racist bend to it.
Let’s unpack “Again.”
Again means to repeat a condition. It means to return to previous circumstances. That condition, in this phrase, is “great”ness. And the real question, when we add “Again” to Make America Great is exactly when was America “great”?
There is not a time in our history during which Great meant prosperity, safety, and opportunity for all Americans. There have been times when some Americans had those things but not all Americans.
So “Again” indicates an intention to return to an era during which African American citizens were in the back of the bus and not welcome at lunch counters. When women were relegated to secretarial work and sexual harassment in the corporate world. When homosexuals and transgender persons were shamed into hiding. Think Mad Men only for real.
When asked if we want to return to that era, the compassionate, literate, and moderate among us would say, “Fuck no.” And so we reject the phrase, the candidate who uses it, and the supporters who rally behind it.
It’s the Again that alienates so many of us.
It’s a nostalgic Babyboomer fantasy. Greatness is so subjective it could be referring to any version of patriotic orgy cooked up for us by the politicians.
Is the intention to return to military greatness? Because we don’t have a Cold War foe to encourage proliferation of arms. Also it’s expensive. Also our military is saturated with incompetent bureaucracy and staggering inefficiencies no amount of funding can fix.
Is the intention to return to economic greatness? Because global enterprise has made us so interdependent that we cannot compete without other nations. The global economic crisis of 2008 made that abundantly clear.
Is the intention to return to a peaceful, pastoral greatness? Because the John Trumball painting depiction of the Founding Fathers is the same idealization as Jefferson’s yeoman farmer economic fantasy and Whitman’s pastoral daydreams. And they’re all bull shit.
Life is messy and the American experiment is, too. It’s full of contradictions and challenges, injustices and disruptions. There can be no “Again” because there was never a Great. There have only ever been the attempts at greatness that each generation constructs.
We get some things right and we get other things so totally fucking wrong.
And then we try again. Not just every four years, but every two years, every season, every day. We try to get better. We try to do better. We renew our commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When we remain committed of securing these inalienable rights for all Americans, our effort is what makes us Great.