The brilliant word in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “again.” “Make America great again” is a different statement than “make America great.” The shorter suggests that we have never been as great as the candidate could make us. The longer suggests that we have fallen from a prior greatness.
I am not going to litigate the campaign. Like you, I imagine, I am pretty sick of it. Like you, I imagine, I have my theories of how we came to this moment. Like you, I imagine, I am hopeful but not convinced that we have seen the worst of the behavior by the candidates.
But I keep circling back to the word “again.” In my determination to understand how so many people could overlook the documented falsehoods and history of bad behavior that have sunk so many political careers before now, I have been looking for the mitigating factors.
Secretary Clinton has her long-time admirers and a record of public service that enthuses some and satisfies others. For some, I am sure, the potential to live during the administration of the first woman president is animating. And for many, and that includes me, the transgressions of which she is accused seem without compelling evidence of malice aforethought or afterthought. I get it.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has admitted to being a serial philanderer, a tax manipulator and a predator in both business and interpersonal relations. His lies have been documented, which is not disqualifying for a politician, but his insistence that the documentation is what is false rather than his statements is astonishing. And he has no record of competence in public service on any issue that has not provided a direct benefit to himself (see: tax code for real estate holdings). I don’t get it.
I think it all comes back to that word “again.” Mr. Trump landed on a word that affirmed what many Americans – maybe as many as 45%, according to the latest polls – are feeling. Our best days are behind us, and we want them back.
And depending on how you measure “best days,” he has a point. I will avoid the trigger terms “privilege” and “politically correct,” but I have to mention them if I am going to be honest. For a long time, which includes almost the entire life of anyone who remembers the 20th century, things were a certain way. Yes, there was unrest over wars and civil rights. But America had it both ways – the old structures sustained us while new and overdue ideas that were more consistent with our values took root.
Take a silly example: the situation comedy on television. The generation that was raised on “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” gave way to “All in the Family” and “Maude.” So-called traditional values may have been challenged by Ricky and Bud, but they ended with a hug each week. When Archie and Maude confronted race and reproductive choice and human sexuality and faith, they did so in the same 26 minutes and most weeks ended with the same hug.
Sitcoms were never real, and still are not. But they have been supplanted by reality television that makes entertainment out of body issues, sexual predation, “real wives” who struggle with each other and, let us not forget, attempts to get a foot in the door of Trump Tower.
Argue escapism versus realism another time. Ignore the fact that the actor who “knew best” succumbed to his own hand out of depression, or that America’s favorite TV bigot lost a child to drugs, or that too many of the children who lived that fantasy life on our screens spent later years in personal nightmares. And never mind Dr. Huxtable.
In the mind’s eye of so many, those were the good old days when the whole family could guess together if Rob would trip over the ottoman. And they want them back. Again.
For a segment of America, there was some modicum of truth to the fantasy. But for the rest of America, now pretty close to the majority, (to quote Carly Simon) these are the good old days. You can’t have an “again” for a “never was.”
And what is true about trifles like sitcoms is also true about larger matters like the environment and hunger and global conflict. Challenges yet face us, but nobody wants a time “again” when the Cuban missile crisis and Biafra and DDT dominate the headlines.
My cousin Adam is as smart as he is conservative, and that says a lot. I asked him about Mr. Trump’s appeal and he said replied, “Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like.” It would take another page of typing to unpack that critique, but it helps me to understand the appeal of “again.”
Living in this world is hard. Old typologies don’t work. Maybe they never did, but some folks seem to remember that they did, and that’s enough to go on. How much better would life be if some sugar daddy to the nation could return us to those days of “Honey, I’m home!” and “Holy mackerel dere, Sapphire!” and “Hillary, get me a cup of coffee.”
There is no “again.” So if we try to go there, it is a sure thing that we will be lost.
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