Marc Fisher at the Washington Post has some interviews with supporters of Donald Trump from around the nation this weekend which may provide a bit of needed insight into what drives the business mogul’s continued popularity. Many of these fed up voters don’t see The Donald as the problem. The problems started long before Donald’s name was known outside his own family, if not before he was even born.
The way Joe McCoy sees it, the last time America was great was when Ronald Reagan was president, when people played by the rules. No, it was in the ’70s, Holly Martin says, when you could depend on Americans to work hard. No, to find true American greatness, Steve Trivett contends, you need to go back to before the Vietnam War, “when you could still own a home and have a good job even if you didn’t have a college education.”
Even if they don’t have “Make America Great Again” campaign caps, Donald Trump’s supporters easily recite the signature slogan of the real estate developer’s insurgent presidential bid. And even if they don’t agree on exactly why the country lost its way, they do accept — give or take a few degrees of hyperbole — Trump’s contention that the United States has become, as he has put it, “an economic wasteland” that is “committing cultural suicide.”
As we listen to these complaints it’s worth remembering that America has spent its entire existence as a work in progress. The nation’s history is full of generational changes from beginning to end and the previous crowd of wizened elders was frequently aghast at what their offspring were up to. The folks who rebuilt the nation in the last decades of the nineteenth century were dismayed at the excesses and moral depravity of the flappers in the roaring twenties. The nascent Greatest Generation who built our way out of the wars and founded the Happy Days of the fifties under Ike were completely gobsmacked by the rise of the hippies and the Summer of Love. The cycle repeats no matter where you look along the American timeline, and not all the cultural changes we embraced turned out for the better. Some of this sentiment is clearly on display among the Trump supporters being interviewed.
For some supporters, especially those in the second half of life, Trump’s slogan is a tribute to a simpler time. “He could have said, ‘Make America what it was before’ and I would have voted for him,” said Jane Cimbal, 69, who lives in Winchester and signed up to collect signatures to get Trump on the Virginia ballot. “The last time we had good jobs and respect for the military and law enforcement was, oh, probably during Eisenhower.”
Cimbal doesn’t view Trump as an optimist of the Reagan stripe, but she’s okay with voting for a harsh critic. “He speaks his mind,” she said. “So many of the others are wishy-washy. Mr. Trump isn’t a provocateur to annoy people but to get them thinking.”
Cimbal, a loyal Republican, wants people to think about how to curb illegal immigration and protect Second Amendment gun ownership rights, but she’s mainly drawn to Trump because she thinks his plain talk can get things done.
One of the great minefields in American politics is the risk of saying something as crazy as Make America Great Again. The reason for this is that the conventional rules of election warfare dictate that everyone must always be not only an eternal optimist about the United States, but also act as head Cheerleader in Chief. Proclaiming a need to make America great again carries with it the implication that the nation is no longer great and is in need of repair. That’s poison to a campaign… or at least it used to be. But as with so many other things this season, Donald Trump is rewriting the rule book on how the game is played. If you think the nation is in trouble, it’s as if Trump suddenly handed out permission slips to say so without being branded a communist.
Liberals (who prefer the much edgier term, “progressives”) are quick to decry conservative pining for “the good old days” as backwards thinking. Republicans, they argue, are looking to the past while Democrats are the party of the future. But as it turns out, we’ve gotten a good glimpse of that future in recent decades and it’s nothing to write home about. Economically we may not be entirely in “wasteland” territory yet, but Trump’s comments about committing cultural suicide certainly ring true for many of us. There isn’t much to admire in a nation where cultural tensions are inflamed to the point where we seem to be on the verge of a race war every time someone’s feelings are hurt. It’s a future where law enforcement is widely disrespected and police are occasionally murdered just for the uniform they wear. It’s a land where the government chooses to disarm the lawful while releasing increasing numbers of the lawless back into the wild. Progressives still seem to cling to the idea that there are very few actual criminals; it’s a plot by The Man to keep people down and everyone will get along fine with just one more chance to share a Coke and a smile. The idea of personal responsibility is hateful and the many must be ever constrained by the demands of the few, providing the few have powerful enough lobbyists.
But the one redeeming feature which makes America great is that nothing is static. As I noted at the start, America is a constant work in progress. Individually, it remains the one place where a person can get ahead and carve out a path if they really work at it and catch a few breaks. Communally, we remain a nation capable of change, retaining the ability to shift gears and correct our course when things go too far off the beam. And if that means looking back toward ideas and cultural norms which previously worked then that does not make such notions “regressive” or somehow undesirable. It represents the sanity of learning from history and recreating what worked as well as abandoning theories which failed. In short, yes… America retains the potential for greatness even if it’s slipped a few notches and you could, in fact, make America great again.
That’s about as far from being an anti-American sentiment as it gets if you ask me.