Despicable human being though he is, Trump is inarguably good at verbal gymnastics, and his slogan “Make America Great Again” is resonating with a large section of the GOP base.
And the GOP base is mostly old and white. Look at the audience pictures from a Trump—or any other GOP candidate, for that matter—rally: A sea of old, white people who look like they’ve had hard lives and want to make somebody pay.
These are people who grew up during the Cold War, when things were simpler. Russia was an Evil Empire and America was good. We had a common enemy to define ourselves against and above all, we were winning. Living standards were constantly going up and the average white family did better and better year over year.
New cars in driveways, larger and larger houses: America was truly the Land of Opportunity.
This view of course ignores the realities of minorities, but for the average white American, things were indeed good and getting better.
And then we won. The Evil Empire fell. And then progress for the average white person stalled, especially in the rural communities where most of the GOP base live. It’s grim, watching your community dwindle and gray as the young people move away to the cities and your infrastructure crumbles.
Things got a whole lot better for minorities, though. And if you’re not particularly reflective, it would be easy to put those things together in a zero-sum game. Their gain must come from our loss. Fuelling a simmering undercurrent of racism.
So then, it becomes potent to say, as most politicians targeting the GOP base do, “We’re taking America back!”
Which is a great slogan, utterly void of detail: Taking America back from whom, exactly?
Which is never spelled out, but nudge-nudge wink-wink, we know, don’t we?
Is it the Eastern liberal elite? The gays? The United Nations? The Mexicans? Is it—looks over shoulder and lowers voice—the Jews?
It’s a bigot fill-in-the-blank.
But back to “Make America Great Again.”
If you were growing up white in the ’50s and ’60s, America was indeed great—the city on the hill where every year things got better and opportunity was boundless. The looming presence of the Russian Evil Empire was a large part of the solidarity of the time—it was the common enemy, the enemy that defined you by what you were not. Which is extra important in an adolescent country made up of more-or-less recent immigrants, struggling to agree on a definition of exactly what it means to be American.
The common enemy binds a people together and enforces a national character. Combine this with a rapidly growing economy, and you have an extremely powerful kind of safety and belonging.
A large part of the strategy of far-right candidates these days involves evoking that new enemy, that new galvanizing force. Sadly there’s no accompanying plan for how to make the economy better enough to help most people, but let’s shelve that for right now as we talk about the Enemy.
Enter radical Islam.
We need a new Evil Empire to galvanize us and with the Russians still licking their wounds—and we beat them once, so it’s kind of ho-hum, isn’t it?—we need a new enemy. If you watch FOX News, there’s a lot of worry about ISIL and Sharia law.
ISIL is a bunch of bronze-age anger addicts, and unless you are living in the Middle East it is really not a concern. (If you live in the Middle East this bunch of assholes is a massive problem, of course.)
Would these idiots love to commit terror acts in the US mainland? Of course they would. They would dance jigs if they could blow up a post office in Cleveland. But will they be able to? Probably not. They’re kind of busy terrorizing the people in their area. Plus that ever since 9/11 America has been hyper-paranoid about terrorism, so it’s way harder to attack us now.
But ISIL, idiot thugs though they are, and as neutered as they are compared to the real Evil Empire, are the best fit as boogey men for the people who long for the days of the Cold War.
America will be made great again when we, as Americans, make it great. No matter how comforting it is, manufacturing an enemy isn’t going to do anything except make a lot of old white people in rural areas more agitated than they really should be.
The problem isn’t the minorities. The problem isn’t ISIL. The problem isn’t Sharia law.
The problem is a system that doesn’t care about old white people, apart from keeping them angry and voting.
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