Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 5
This is Part 5 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1.
In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan employed the campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” In 1980, as in later years, it was perceived by a significant portion of the population that America had been at its height of greatness in the 1950s and early (pre-Beatles!) 1960s. So a call for making America great “again” would strongly imply returning American culture to “the way it used to be” in those idyllic years. Back when the average blue collar worker who worked hard at a job, such as at an auto factory in Flint, Michigan, could actually expect to buy a new little modern style house in a brand spanking new suburb, with a backyard barbecue.
Levittown, Pennsylvania 1952
New Homeowners, Levittown PA
Full Built-in Modern Kitchen, Levittown
New Home Styles, Levittown PA 1957
And that diligent worker could expect that when he’d put in his 30 years or so on the job, he’d get an automatic early retirement long before age 65, buy his travel trailer, and become a snowbird to Florida.
Reagan’s rallying cry that pointed back to those halcyon days resonated with so many voters that Reagan was swept into the Oval Office that year.
In December of 2011, [Donald] Trump made a statement in which he said he was unwilling to rule out running as a presidential candidate in the future, explaining “I must leave all of my options open because, above all else, we must make America great again“. At the time it was not used as a slogan.
Trump began using the slogan formally in November 7, 2012, the day after Barack Obama won his reelection against Mitt Romney. He first considered “We Will Make America Great”, but did not feel like it had the right “ring” to it. “Make America Great” was his next inflection, but upon further reflection, felt that it was a slight to America because it implied that America was never great. After selecting “Make America Great Again”, Trump immediately had an attorney register it. (Trump later said that he was unaware of Reagan’s use in 1980 until 2015, but noted that “he didn’t trademark it”.)
On November 12  he signed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office requesting exclusive rights to use the slogan for political purposes. It was registered as a service mark on July 14, 2015, after Trump formally began his 2016 presidential campaign and demonstrated that he was using the slogan for the purpose stated on the application.
During the campaign, Trump often used the slogan, especially by wearing hats emblazoned with the phrase in white letters. The slogan was so important to the campaign that it spent more on making the hats – sold for $25 each on its website – than on polling, consultants, or television commercials; the candidate claimed that “millions” were sold.
…The president-elect stated in January 2017 that the slogan of his 2020 reelection campaign would be “Keep America Great!”, immediately ordering a lawyer to trademark it. [Source]
By late 2015 it was obvious that once again, the slogan evoked in most listeners a nostalgia for the America of those Happy Days of the 1950s and early 1960s. A Tennessee candidate for the US congress, Rick Tyler, particularly made this clear in his own version of the Trump slogan.
Tyler commented to reporters that “the Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Mayberry America of old was vastly superior to what we are experiencing today.” But Tyler pulled no punches—it wasn’t just a matter of returning to a society that seemed to respect “family values” more…he directly connected the Greatness of America to one of the most outstanding realities of pre-Beatles America—it was an America where the white race was firmly in control. And where non-whites “knew their place.” Such as in this 1956 photo from Tyler’s home state of Tennessee.
And an America where, being excruciatingly honest, no matter HOW hard an African American might work in one of those factories, he wasn’t going to be able to buy one of those little modern homes…because realtors in the Levittown developments in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and most other towns and suburbs across much of America—South and North—did not sell to “Negroes.”
Sign directly opposite the “Sojourner Truth,” a federal housing project,
in Detroit, Michigan. A riot was caused by white neighbors’ attempt
to prevent African American tenants from moving in. (1942)
Salt Lake City, Utah
Did a proportion of those who voted for Trump in November 2016 share Rick Tyler’s point of view on just what it was about the old Great America they wanted to see restored in a renewed Great America by a Trump presidency? It would be naïve to think otherwise. Racism is alive and well in many nooks and crannies in America. But it would be equally naïve to think that his surprising upset over Hillary Clinton could be attributable to just Grumpy Old White Men who wanted the freedom to be openly hostile to minorities.
The reality is that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” wasn’t a rallying cry to accomplish something tangibly and clearly defined by Trump. It was a Slippery Slogan that literally became all things to all people. Subgroups across the land could read into it their own meaning, and attribute to him the power to recreate those things most important to them.
For some, this meant returning to a time before Roe v Wade made abortion legal in the land. This was particularly significant to many Roman Catholic and evangelical voters, many of whom admitted that they had to “hold their nose” to vote for Trump because of his obvious character flaws, but did so “for the babies.”
For others, it meant returning to a time of cultural norms that included societal—and even legal—sanctions against homosexuality. Most probably realized that a Trump administration wouldn’t force all gays “back into the closet,” but I don’t doubt most expected that it would eventually eliminate any requirement for “equal rights” to be guaranteed based on sexual or gender orientation.
For still others, Make America Great Again has seemed to mean a return to those Happy Days when businesses didn’t have to worry about irritating regulations interfering with corporate freedom to set their own standards for such things as employee compensation, worker safety, environmental concerns, sexual harassment, and hundreds of other aspects of what they considered should be free, unfettered capitalism.
And for a large number, it meant to bring back those well-paying 1950s-style auto jobs and other factory jobs…that would allow them to get back to being able to expect the same kind of relative prosperity and security that let their dads and grandfathers own nice homes in their mid-20s and become leisurely snow birds by the time they were 55.
But there is another aspect of the Happy Days era that is seldom addressed by pundits trying to explain why so many voted for Trump. For there is a powerful subculture in America that has its own idea on what was MOST important about that Great America they believe needs to be restored. It can be summed up with THIS hat…
The members of the movement that this blog series has dubbed “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows” don’t just want to overturn Roe v Wade, although that is as important to them as it is to those envangelicals outside their movement. They don’t just want to eliminate the concept of “Gay Marriage” and force gays back into The Closet, although that also is as important to them as it is to those conservative evangelicals outside their movement. But those are just the tip of the iceberg.
This subset of evangelicals is absolutely convinced that the 1950s and early 1960s were the Glory Days of the United States, and that the reason for the Greatness of America (in all areas, from military power to Gross National Product to “moral authority” as the Leader of the Free World) was because the majority of Americans of that time period were devout Christians, and that the nation was thus a truly righteous “Christian Nation,” and deserving of God’s Bounteous Blessings as a Shining Light to the world.
Peering dimly into this past of 50-60 years ago, they believe that they can see the evidence of this reality, even though a large proportion of the nation today weren’t adults…or even children… during that time period. Thus most don’t have an “independent memory” of “what it was like.” They have instead gathered up pieces of evidence from books, movies, old TV programs, old news clippings, and memoirs of those who were alive back then, and constructed a facsimile on which to base their theories.
The question is…is that facsimile accurate?
Consider this… Walt Disney, when creating Disneyland in the 1950s, centered it around a “Main Street USA” facsimile intended to represent the America of the turn of the year 1900. A time when he was a young boy. It has often been mentioned that he based it in large part on his own nostalgia for the main street (“Kansas Avenue”) of his childhood hometown in Marceline, Missouri.
And it was really authentic—the Imagineers who planned such things for Disneyland (and in later years other Main Streets in all the Disney parks) left nothing to chance. Well, authentic in one sense of the word. For the buildings themselves weren’t really modeled on the buildings in Marceline. They weren’t recreating Walt’s specific memories—they were recreating “the feel” of his idealized memories. Walt, who was born in 1901, lived in Marceline from 1906 to 1910. So this 1909 postcard of Marceline shows exactly what its main street looked like when he lived there.
Somehow it doesn’t quite look like the Disneyfied version! There don’t appear to be any “sidewalks,” either concrete or wood plank, in front of the buildings. And it’s quite likely that the street you see here was just plain ol’ dirt. With dust whirling up to choke you in the miserably hot Missouri summertime, and turning to a nasty mud and slush in rainy and snowy seasons that would make a mess of the hems of those long dresses you see in the photo. Noting the dog in the pic, I’ll bet there were dog droppings on the ground everywhere (pooper-scooper laws hadn’t been invented yet) and plenty of accompanying flies. There would be no air conditioning inside those buildings when temps got up into the 100s. Nor are those buildings anything like the adorable, colorful “gingerbread architecture” of the Main Street USA buildings.
No, the Disney Imagineers had no desire to actually clone a dusty old Missouri town and make it the centerpiece of their splendiferous theme park. They took the emotional feelings and vague memories Walt had about this part of his youth, and created a setting worthy of them.
I would suggest that likewise, when trying to “recreate” a view of the 1950s for modern Americans, using artificial sets and artificial plots created for old TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet that you can watch on Youtube; using magazine layouts for ads from that period that you can see on Internet nostalgia sites; using isolated news stories from old newspapers that may well be based on public relations accounts created by professionals back then; and even using a smattering of anecdotal nostalgic memories of people who lived back in those days…may not provide an accurate view at all of what day to day life was like for the average man on the street and his family of the time.
So let’s consider in the next blog entry…why do so many today, who want to Make America Christian Again, look at the US of the 1950s as being the epitome of a righteous “Christian Nation”? What evidence has convicted them of that notion? And what made them think Donald Trump’s administration might be the vehicle by which they can get “Back to that Greatness”—made them think it so strongly that they turned out in huge numbers to vote for him, in spite of his obvious “personal history” of very, very UNChristian attitudes and activities? Prompted by religious leaders such as Franklin Graham…
The answer to those questions will take us back to the heyday of Franklin Graham’s Daddy…the iconic Billy Graham.