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'The answer to our troubles isn’t returning to an imagined, better past,' writes Richardson. 'It’s finding our way to a more perfect future.' (Photo: LM Otero)

Make America Great, Like It Was — When?

Donald Trump and his followers clearly don't see the ugly parts of our nation's past as problematic.

Jill Richardson

 by OtherWords

The holiday season is a time for nostalgia. We watch It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, engage in time-honored traditions, and even sing songs about sleighs and sleigh bells.

Honestly, when was the last time you rode in a sleigh?

I’ve eaten a roasted chestnut (purchased on the streets of Chicago, so I don’t know if there was an open fire involved in the roasting process), but I haven’t gone for a single sleigh ride in my whole life.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — plays on this idea of some imagined time in the past when things were better, simpler, than they are now. But The Donald isn’t the only one who evokes this mythical past.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats often wax poetic about the strong middle class of the era that followed World War II, or about the social safety net President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put in place before that.

And it’s true: America did accomplish great things in the past. But I fundamentally disagree that our better days are behind us.

This notion of a lost Norman Rockwell America is an illusion.

It’s easy to buy into this trope if you’re an older white man, because perhaps those really were your good old days. The post-war years in which America had a “strong middle class” were the days of a strong white middle class.

If you’re African American, looking back to the 1950s means looking back to the days of lynching, Jim Crow, and legalized discrimination. How can that inspire nostalgia?

In the South before the Civil Rights movement, it was open season on African Americans, with white terrorists lynching whomever they chose with impunity. And to secure the white racist vote for his New Deal programs, FDR excluded farm workers and domestic workers from basic wage and work protections. Back then, those segments of the labor force were largely black.

There were problems in the North too. Housing discrimination against blacks was federal policy — not just a simple, organic process of “white flight.” Policies like redlining systematically denied African Americans wealth, which still harms their families and communities today.

Nor was life peachy for women in this time.

This was the era that spurred the feminist Betty Friedan to write about “the problem that has no name.” She torpedoed the presumption that all American women ought to rejoice that their roles as cooks, house cleaners, and baby machines were now made easier with modern conveniences.

No doubt modern women are grateful they’re no longer expected to greet their husbands with a warm meal, a cocktail, and a come-hither look when they come home from a long day of work.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering — combined with his anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-Mexican rhetoric — makes it apparent that he and his followers don’t see the ugly parts of our nation’s past as problematic. But it’s wrong to whitewash history.

Surely, America isn’t perfect today. We haven’t solved our problems with racism (Donald Trump is Exhibit A) and women still earn less than men. We’ve also got the specters of mass shootings, terrorism, and the climate crisis to boot.

Yet the answer to our troubles isn’t returning to an imagined, better past. It’s finding our way to a more perfect future. As Bill Clinton said two decades ago, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at UW-Madison, where she studies natural resources and the environment.

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