This slogan has been a bit of a puzzle for me, “Make America Great Again.” The word “again” suggests a reference to some period in time, some time in our past.
I was born in 1951 so that gives me about 70 years of reference. And, it would not be an exaggeration to say I am part of the population that is in the winter of our lives, we are on our way out, some sooner than others. This tells me that I have probably experienced this “great time” referred to in the slogan. It would not be very useful to refer to some time that none of us can relate to. So, I am going to share what I remember about the last 70 years and see if I can tease out the “great time.” I am going to be a bit of the old “Sherman and Peabody” from the Rocky Squirrel show here as I do some time traveling. Please bear with me.
I am going to start with what for me is the obvious, that time right after the end of WWII. Our place in the world was very secure. We were the dominant partner in the allied victory over Hitler and fascism. Our economy produced so much of the materials and weapons used to overcome the Axis powers. And we were ready to convert this economy back to peace time purposes.
I don’t think the “Make America Great Again” period refers to any time prior to WWII. That would be the Great Depression lasting from the Crash in October of 1928 right up to the war and our entrance in December of 1941. Prior to the Great Depression, you have the 1920’s, and the the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and WWI of 1914-1918. I don’t think any of these are the “Make America Great Again” reference period. No, they just don’t work and there are not many left that any of this resonates with.
So, my search for the “Make America Great Again” period goes back to my first thoughts of the time right after the end of WWII. Millions of our soliders were coming home to a welcoming country and there were programs in place to help our returning GIs get their lives going. Many went to school and colleges through the GI Bill and many veterans were able to buy homes with government help on mortgages. American industries were firing up making cars, appliances, and all kinds of consumer goods to satisfy the exploding demand of a new generation. The New Deal programs that started in the 1930s under Roosevelt were the anchor to a government that recognized its role to help provide a stable economy and social safety net for Americans. Labor and capital were partnered in making the economy hum. Wages were good and working Americans could provide for a family and a home.
President Eisenhower, a Republican, was elected in 1952 and he continued the role of government much as it had been under Roosevelt during the Great Depression and the war years. Eisenhower called his program the “Middle Way” and it helped to continue the prosperity we enjoyed through the 1950s and into the 1960s.
There is a cloud on all of this though. African Americans also contributed to our victory in WWII. They fought and helped the war effort like all Americans. Our African American soldiers came back from the war and they wanted to share in the prosperity and growth of America. Laws of segregation and voter suppression, especially in the South denied African Americans any share in our new found prosperity. In 1948, President Truman ordered the end of segregation in our military. President Truman also started pushing Congress for action on civil rights for all Americans.
Go forward a few years and under President Eishenhower in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issues its landmark decision in the case, “Brown vs. the Board of Topeka declaring that the separation of educational facilities on the basis of race is unconstitutional. The South ignored this Supreme Court decision until September of 1957 when Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce the court decision and provide protection to black students trying to go to school.
Ok, so there are some clouds on the 1950s for sure. Add to the clouds the threat of nuclear war and also the start of the Cold War between the West and the Communist East. The Soviet Union and its block became our adversaries in a world wide chess match and we were beginning to worry about the fall out of radiation as countries including us were testing nuclear weapons. I can remember drills in school that we practiced of what to do in case of an attack. Some Americans were building “fall out shelters” tunneled into their backyards. I went to a father and son supper at our church, the Universalist Church in Barre and listened to a man explain how to build a fall out shelter in your back yard. The details are fuzzy, but the event is not.
Let’s time travel into the 1960s. We have prosperity here for the most part, a new president, John F. Kennedy, and a growing challenge from the Soviet Union. Americans are also in the middle of a period of strife that had to do with gaining civil rights for our African American population as well as other minorities. I can remember seeing “Life Magazine” come into our home and sometimes, the pictures were stunning as I looked at black Americans lynched and hanging from trees in the South.
Add to the 1960s the Vietnam War and the reaction to this war here in America. The demonstrations and protests were not quiet by any stretch. So many of us could not see the need for this war at all. It looked more like American aggression than anything else. The Vietnam War was also a war fought mostly by poorer Americans. If you could afford to go to college, you got a student deferment that exempted you from military service while you were in college. It does not take a lot of figuring to see who was serving in the military and who was home going to school. I turned 18 the year of the first lottery for the draft, 1969. My birthday was the 11th birthday drawn. In the first lottery, the Selective Service took over the first two hundred birthdays drawn. I think it was something like the first 220+ birthdays drawn. Technically, I was drafted, but I enrolled in college so I had a deferment. I graduated in 1973 and by that time we had signed a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese and the war was winding down (for us). We started to pull out, Americans had no more stomach for an Asian War of doubtful purpose. I was notified by the Selective Service that my draft would be put on hold. I won’t lie to you, yes, this made me happy, and I had a new wife as well by this time.
Ok, so, I don’t think the 1960s are the “Make America Great Again” reference period – no, not at all between the Civil Rights struggle, the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and the Vietnam War, this was not a happy decade at all.
Then, we get into the 1970s and the Watergate Scandal with President Nixon. This was not a proud time either. Nixon got caught in multiple lies, and Congress and Nixon’s own party remembered their role in our constitutional government as well as what it is like to have a conscience. A group of Republican Senators and Congressmen went to Nixon and told him that he would most likely be impeached in Congress for his conduct. Nixon announced his resignation the next day on August 9, 1974. The countries long nightmare with a dishonest president was over.
Something else to keep in mind, with the end of our role in the Vietnam War, America had little will to use our muscle and presence in other parts of the world that had problems. One of these growing hotspots was the Mideast. We were still engaged in a global Cold War with the Soviet Union and the chess match around the globe continued. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, helped to form a policy in the Middle East that would transfer America arms to the Arab countries so they could be a formidable opponent to Soviet aggression. The problem was the price of oil was cheap, and the Arab countries could not afford to buy U.S. arms. Well, Kissinger came up with an idea, raise the price of oil so the Arab countries could afford to buy U.S. arms. Do I need to say anymore about the why and the where with the price of oil during the last 50 years? The Arabs discovered the world, and especially the U.S. would pay any price for oil just as long as we could get it. At that time, about 25 % of the American economy was driven by the automobile industry. A lot of American jobs were dependent on cars being on the road and Americans getting oil.
Vice President Gerry Ford succeeded Nixon in the presidency. President Ford tried to help the country heal from the Watergate ordeal. He later pardoned Nixon for any crimes committed. This pardon hurt President Ford as many felt he let Nixon off and made it so Nixon would never be held accountable for his crimes.
President Ford lost the election of 1976 to President Carter. Carter served one term and the country continued to simmer with troubles just under the surface. Carter’s presidency was pretty much ended when Iran took Americans as hostage in the American embassy in Tehran in November of 1979. The Iran Hostage Crisis continued through the end of Carter’s first term and was ended just after Reagan took office in January of 1981.
No, I don’t think the 1970s are the reference period for “Make America Great Again.”
Then, we get into the 1980’s with President Reagan. There are some major shifts in American politics going on during the Reagan presidency. One big shift was within the Republican Party as the West and South came to dominate Republican politics. Time travel back to 1965 for a moment. In August of 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 This ended literacy tests and other voting restrictions in the South that were designed to keep African Americans from voting. Up until this time, the South had historically been a solid voting block for the Democratic Party. After signing the Voting Rights Act on 6th, 1965, President Johnson was heard saying, “This is the right thing to do, but I am afraid the South will now become Republican for generations. ” Johnson was right.
To get back to my story, with the rise of the Reagan Republican Party in the 1980s, the Republican Party became a party determined to dismantle the Roosevelt programs of the New Deal and any other programs that provided governmental assistance to Americans. Keep in mind, this GOP hates Social Security, Medicare, and any other programs that provide for Americans. Reagan is often remembered for saying, “The last thing any American wants to hear is, ‘I’m from the federal government and I am here to help.'”
This period also saw the entry of faith into American politics like it has never been before. The growing Evangelical movement started exercising its muscles and pushing for government action of religious issues, especially birth control and abortion.
Reagan’s presidency also brought about a major change in the U.S. tax laws. The first of several cuts to the highest income tax brackets were enacted as well as major changes to itemized deductions. The deduction for medical expenses became a worthless deduction for most Americans at this time. Also, for the first time, Social Security benefits became taxable. All of this was wrapped in a program called “trickle down economics,” the brainchild of Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman. The argument made was that if the wealthy could keep more of their income, they would spend it and it would eventually “trickle down” to all of us. Well, most economists have given this a failing grade. It did not happen. What did happen was we started driving up our deficit to some alarming numbers.
Also, in the 1980s, we begin to see the transfer of production from the American heartland to places in Asia, mostly in China. If you remember H. Ross Perrot’s campaign, this was his biggest issue, and he said, “You can almost hear the jobs being sucked out of America.” Well, whether you could hear the vacuuming of jobs or not, it did happen. Large American corporations lost their sense of being American at this time, and whatever made the most profits, America be damned if so, was ok with the top CEO’s of what were now “multinational corporations.” Their old American identity seemed to get lost in the chase for profits and shareholder dividends.
Reagan’s presidency kind of came to a wind down with the Iran-Contra Scandal. Remember the Iran Hostage Crisis that ushered in the Reagan presidency. Well this is an interesting twist. Congress had passed a law that made it illegal to sell arms to Iran. Some in the Reagan administration wanted funding for insurrections in places like Honduras and Nicaragua. The insurrections needed arms which Congress had made it illegal for the U.S. to supply. So, some creative Reagan folks like Bill Casey, CIA director, Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, and an Army Colonel, Oliver North, came up with the idea of selling arms to Iran (illegally) to get money to funnel to the insurrections in Central America (again illegal). This all came crashing down on the Reagan administration, another big American scandal, and there were lots of claims from the President and Vice President that they were not “in the loop” with any of this. Reagan was also beginning to show the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. I think the Reagan presidency effectively came to an end with this scandal. I have always suspect that somewhere in some backroom in Washington, a group of men decided that the country could never go through another Watergate type scandal so the search for responsibility at the top with Reagan and Bush was never done.
No, I don’t see the 80’s as any great reference period either. I’ll have to keep on with my time travel.
Well, the 90s and we have President Clinton. If you are a Republican, this is not your reference time with fond memories either. What we do get in the 90s is the real beginnings of “napalm politics” curtesy of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. This is the politics that plague the country today. Compromise is not possible as politics are anchored in extreme ideology and faith as well. Compromise is considered a defeat. Welcome to a dysfunctional government that has been our bane ever since. No, I don’t see the 90’s as this throwback time of pleasant memories for Republicans, or Democrats either for that matter.
Now, we get to the new millennium and the presidency of the 2nd Bush, George Walker Bush. Of no connection, but both this Bush and I share the same middle name, Walker.
Well, this Bush presidency starts off on shaky grounds with the close vote in Florida, and the old “hanging chads” business. Remember folks with magnifying glasses looking at punch card ballots and trying to determine just who the voter was voting for. Florida became the ground zero of party lawyers down there trying to force the election one way or the other. In the end, Bush’s lawyers were the heavier force and Bush declared victory and Al Gore conceded rather than drag out the controversy.
Well we all know what happened early in this Bush presidency. On September 11, 2001 Saudis hijacked American airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in NY, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a last plane was crashed in Pennsylvania.
It was about two years later that we started the Iraq War. I say “we started” as we attacked Iraq blaming them for the 9/11 attacks. This connection was never proved. The arguments made were false and fabricated, and shameful at best. And if you want to draw some lines, go back to the time of Kissinger during the Nixon presidency and the decision to start selling arms to the Arab countries.
So, I am getting quickly up to the present. I don’t think the period of the 2nd Bush is anything the Republicans want to point their fingers at and say, “those were the best of times,” and I am sure they do not want to look at the Obama presidency following Bush and preceding Trump as their “great time either.”
So, if I walk back in my time travel, it must be the Eisenhower years in the 1950s that call Republicans back to a good time. The contradictions with this period and the present GOP are too numerous to list. Eisenhower and the Republican Party during the 1950s saw government much the same as the Roosevelt New Deal. In fact, Eisenhower named his program the “Middle Way.” And again, so much of the prosperity of the 1950s owed itself to a strong partnership between labor, capital, and government. And by the way, compromise was not a dirty word then either. The tax rates for the wealthiest Americans were high, in some cases, as much as 90%. We built roads, schools, hospitals, homes and the infrastructure that a modern economy needed. Billions of defense money found its way to the west coast, especially California with the growing aircraft and other defense industries. Other western states also benefited from this deluge of federal money during the 1950s.
So, I think the 1950s must be the anchor period for “Make America Great Again.” The irony is this time had nothing to do with current Republican or right wing politics. There was one connection to today during the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy. This was a scandal of its own. I can draw one connection for you. Senator McCarthy’s right hand was a lawyer from New York named Roy Cohn. Well, guess who Trump’s father hired later to mentor and guide Donald Trump? If you are following me now, it was none other, that Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s old dirty trickster. By the way, Roy Cohn was disbarred in 1986. Cohn was a close adviser to Nixon and Reagan, as well as a retired Harvard Law professor, Alan Dershowitz, who referenced Cohn as the “quintessential fixer.” Alan Dershowitz’s name has showed up again in the Trump administration along with some connections to the sex trafficking scandal with Jeffery Epstein. Interestingly, there are many pictures with Trump also with Jeffrey Epstein. And if I am not mistaken, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and assistant also prided himself as being “Trump’s fixer. I digress here and need to stop as this is another story in itself.
To get back to my thesis, the only time that might be the reference period for “Make America Great Again” is the 1950s and this was hardly a time of Republican politics as we have today. The 1950s were a period of growth and expansion resulting from our role in the WWII victory and the continuation of politics and policy that grew out of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Try again MAGA folks, you are missing the mark. Your narrative does not stand up under close inspection.