04 July 2016

'Great Again'

Every utterance of the Donald Trump presidential campaign -- down to its tweets and retweets -- is scrutinized eagerly for fresh proof of the presumptive candidate's essential bigotry. The latest scandal involves the campaign's careless borrowing of an anti-Clinton graphic in which the text "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever" appears inside a six-pointed star. This is now widely described as an anti-semitic image, and it may have been intended that way by its original creators, who apparently meant to emphasize the amount of donations Clinton has received from Jewish people. I doubt greatly that this was the point the Trump campaign meant to make, but critics are drawing the damning conclusion that Trump's people are looking at some unsavory stuff. But even Trump's most innocuous sounding statements and slogans are thought fraught with similar "dog whistles," starting with his main motto, "Make America Great Again." I've personally seen the spread of a smear claiming that Trump borrowed the "Make -- Great Again" slogan from Adolf Hitler, which is refuted at the debunking snopes website.Many who don't see it as crypto-Nazi still regard the slogan with suspicion. The reason is plain enough; any invocation of a "great" American past is seen by many Americans as an appeal to white-male revanchism.

For a Republican or right-winger to want to make America great again is to want to put the white males back in charge, or the straight white Christian males, depending on how specific your suspicions are. Is this what Trump really wants? Taking the slogan at face value, I assume that he wants to restore American prosperity, if not also American world dominance, and possibly some set of cultural/moral values upon which he presumes American greatness to depend. "Make America Great Again" is not implicitly bigoted, but bigotry is inferred by people who take the slogan as both a threat and an insult. The threat is that the white men will take over again in some exclusionary fashion. The insult is the idea that America was great at a time that millions today identify with discrimination and worse forms of bigoted oppression. At the most, critics might concede, as Louis Farrakhan had to clarify about Hitler once upon a time, that the U.S. was wickedly great, but the nation could not be worthy of the unmodified adjective until the curse of white male (etc.) oppression was lifted. It should be possible to say the U.S. was great despite blatant and inexcusable bigotries, and it should be possible for Trump to say he wants to restore economic greatness without restoring the white male to unjust hegemony. In effect, those who hear bigotry in "Make America Great Again" are saying that American history before, say, 1965 is an inseparable package defined essentially by racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. It could also be inferred that they don't believe that prosperity can be restored to the levels of whatever golden age Trump refers to without reverting to a discriminatory distribution of wealth that denied large groups of Americans their proper share of prosperity, unless they make the unsustainable assumption that Trump isn't talking about economic prosperity at all when he utters his slogan. What we need, I suppose, is a debate in which one side explains once and for all what it means and what it doesn't by "Make America Great Again," while the other explains what it distrusts about those words. Whether Trump really would make America great again is a question for a separate debate, of course.