On America and its greatness

The Republican candidate for president has emblazoned his slogan on every car sticker, yard sign and raucous red hat: “Make America Great Again”. If Mr. Trump’s theme for his presidency is restoring America to its former greatness, it seems important to decide when exactly America was great. In examining the past, however, this supposed “greatness” can be a difficult thing to find. Trump, in an interview with CNN back in March, explained: “If you look back, it really was, there was a period of time when we were developing at the turn of the century which was a pretty wild time for this country and pretty wild in terms of building that machine, that machine was really based on entrepreneurship.”

OK. Let’s begin here: 1900, the turn of the century. The United States experienced rapid urbanization in the years preceding 1900, fueling what is known—a little dully—as the Second Industrial Revolution. The Civil War was over, and corporations flooded into newly-acquired Western territories, awash with natural resources. Railroads were the ribcage of the nation—connecting canals in New York with roads in Virginia with forests in Oregon with seaports in California, and, by 1920, for the first time in American history, more people lived in cities than on farms.

At the turn of the century, the mosaic of American economics and demography was changing. But if this is the America Mr. Trump hopes to revive, I’m not sure I’m all that pumped. The Second Industrial Revolution was plagued by a number of economic depressions, most notably those in 1873 and 1897, the former of which lasted roughly seven years and totally hurt the economy’s feelings. And, of course, this era was characterized by the creation of Jim Crow laws in the former Confederacy, whereby the rights freed slaves were limited, if not entirely ignored. Corruption was rampant in politics and working conditions in new factories were often very poor. American imperialism stifled democracy abroad in places like the Philippines and Puerto Rico, while Native American tribes continued to be pushed off their land. Also (and this is a big one) women couldn’t vote.

Many conservatives offer another era: The Reagan years, marked by an expansion in the US economy. Ronald Reagan was president for much of the 1980s, and his economic theory of “trickle-down economics” has been worshipped by Republicans ever since. But the 80s weren’t great either—same-sex marriage was illegal, crime reached record levels in America’s largest cities, and drugs flooded American communities.

It doesn’t matter what year or era we pluck from our collective history—America has never been “great”.

Trump paints this picture of an apocalyptic America. Jobs are running away, villainous immigrants are running in—essentially, we don’t “win” anymore. His concerns are real, and have certainly struck a chord with the American people. But to chase some heroic past in the face of contemporary problems seems flat out funky.

The past is a tricky thing. But I truly believe that what lies on the horizon is far better—far greater—than we can ever imagine.


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