First, it would make little sense for Trump and the Republicans to be referring to restoring economic greatness. While America’s economy is lagging in many realms (wages, trade, growth, eco-infrastructure, etc.), much of its modern economic floundering dates back to the 1980s — the start of the neoliberal and neoconservative era — and is due to Republicans themselves. Neoliberalism refers to the rise of unfettered capitalism during the late 1970s and early 1980s, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on a global scale.
Take wages, for example, which have been a major casualty of the neoliberal era. The Pew Research Center reports that since 1978, American wages have barely grown at all in terms of purchasing power, with a “long slide in the 1980s” — exactly corresponding with the Reagan era. That’s because, according to neoliberalism, workers are disposable commodities whose remuneration does not really matter. (That, of course, does not apply to the top 10% of earners, whose incomes have grown since the 1980s.)
Or, think about job outsourcing. Consider this critique from Business Insider on Trump’s position on outsourcing: “(Trump) overlooks the impact of spending cuts, deregulation, and a shift to shareholder primacy at the expense of investment in innovation and workers … In short: Government cuts and changes in how corporations operate mean American workers are getting screwed by their own government and their own employers.”
The process of outsourcing was abetted by neoliberal free-trade agreements that essentially encouraged companies to move their operations abroad where production is cheaper (while Republicans have been the primary champions of neoliberalism, NAFTA — a quintessential neoliberal trade agreement — was signed by a Democrat, showing how entrenched neoliberalism has become since the 1980s.)
All of this has led to an explosion of inequality. In 2018, Pew Research Center found the top 20% of income earners made over half of all income earned in the U.S. Equally, the U.S. has the highest level of inequality of all the nation members of the G7. Perhaps most significantly for this discussion, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families has more than doubled since 1989. In other words, economic inequality has mushroomed since the Reagan era.
It makes little sense for a problem caused by Republicans to be fixed by more Republicans. While most of America’s modern economic ailments have their roots in the Reagan era, Republicans continue to worship Reagan as an economic god. Of course, to wealthy people like Trump, Reaganomics was indeed a godsend, but this is not so for the vast majority of Americans, whose wages have stagnated and whose economic securities are precarious.
America’s “Golden Age” (1950-1970) was characterized both by higher economic equality than today as well as by greater government intervention and reach (think Eisenhower’s national interstate initiative or Johnson’s War on Poverty). Being that equality and interventionism are generally left-leaning ideals, making America’s economy “great” again is then probably a task better left to the left.
So, now let’s look at the social “greatness” that Trump may be aiming to re-capture. To do this, let’s ask: Over the past century or so, how has America evolved socially and morally? Until 1920, women couldn’t vote nationally. Through the 1950s and 1960s, segregation was legal and practiced, Black voters could be outwardly silenced through such ridiculous measures as literacy tests. Until 2015, gay marriages weren’t nationally recognized.
Over the past several decades, social progress has been significant but incomplete. Acceptance of interracial marriage rose from 20% in 1968 to 87% in 2013. As opposed to 40% at the time of Roe v. Wade (1973), over 60% of Americans now think abortions should be legal during the first trimester. While only 33% of Americans said they would vote for a woman president in 1937, 94% say they would today. Similar prejudices about premarital sex, the role of women and LGBTQ+ rights have equally been eroded in recent history. And, of course, America elected its first Black president in 2007, and now, in 2020, a woman of color is on the ticket to be vice president.
Defining moral “greatness” as the American social landscape before all these milestones actually seems to be compatible with Republican views, and if Trump and other Republicans define social greatness as a land where no one but straight white men have rights, then Trump’s is the fight of a lifetime. But the majority of Americans value social freedom, and this is not their fight.
When we consider the complexities of America’s history, the notion of making America “great” again loses even more meaning: Was America greater when white people could own Black people? Was America greater when it systematically displaced and killed indigenous peoples? Was America greater when it placed Japanese Americans in internment camps? In this regard, the slogan “Make America Great” would make more sense than “Make America Great Again” because, frankly, America’s history is too complex — and often too dark — to suggest a return to it.
In the end, we are left with a strange predicament: whether making America great again means doing so economically or socially, Republicans are not the ones to do it. Economically, many of the problems we see today are the result of Republican tenets of neoliberalism. On the other hand, the only possible way to say that America was once socially greater than it is now can only be done through the lens of xenophobia, racism, sexism and countless other forms of bigotry.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.