Sometimes I try this thought experiment in which I try to curtail my knee-jerk revulsion to things that seem intensely racist and try to figure out how someone might say (or share) such things while maybe not realizing they’re intensely racist. That’s what I found myself doing this morning in the wake of all the awful news about less-than-subtle racism and blatant white supremacy at the Republican National Convention yesterday.
Every time I see someone who wants to “Make America Great Again,” I have the same feeling: just when was America “great”? During slavery? During the time when black people couldn’t use the same restrooms as white people? Was it when when they were locking up peaceful and law-abiding Japanese-Americans in internment camps? Maybe when America was toppling democratically-elected (but unfriendly) foreign governments around the world? Or when McCarthy was running Stalinesque falsely-accuse-your-friends-and-colleagues competitions like they were going out of style? Or maybe when we were lying to ourselves about WMDs in Iraq as an excuse for regime change in that country? Or maybe it was when we were abducting people without due process and torturing them in “black sites” outside the country so it wouldn’t be technically illegal? When exactly was America “great” again?
But I’m trying to apply Hanlon’s Law, the basics of which is that you shouldn’t attribute to malice that which can be equally attributable to ignorance, so I’m going to assume that the racism and rose-coloured glasses about America’s greatness isn’t to do with nostalgia for treating the other as lesser, but in general ignorance of history.
So here’s what I think the most well-meaning supporters of the phrase “Make America Great Again” might mean.
I think they remember — or have falsely remembered — a time in which things were easier. Ignore for a moment the fact that “easy” in this case pretty much only means “easy for white people and especially men,” and just focus on how things were for that privileged group: in the “golden age” of America, the idea was that you could go straight out of high school and into a manufacturing or middle-management job (collars of blue and white, respectively) and be paid enough to raise a family on just that one income in a nice little picket-fenced suburb. Your wife (because that’s how it went) could stay home with the kids so you didn’t need to make more money to pay for daycare. You had job security because the age of firing workers to “increase shareholder value” hadn’t yet begun. Your company was in a growth industry in a growth economy and there was always more money this year than there was last. Sure, you didn’t have the internet or 1200 channels of mostly garbage television, but you had the space race — which you were winning! — and pride in the accomplishments of your “tribe,” which you saw as your whole country.
Things were easier.
And this is what I think they want. I think they see their lives today, compare them to a rose-coloured vision of the past, and their anxities multiply: about paying the next bill, about whether they’ll have a job in six months, about the changing demographics of their once (imagined to be) unified “tribe,” about their inability to have pride in their country because of the awful things it does on a regular basis. This America isn’t great. This America is hard. It’s not just difficult to survive in — that’s bad enough — but it’s difficult to feel good about.
When you look at it that way, these people feel as though they’ve experienced a national tragedy. The once “great” America is now fallen, and they have to fix it. The fact that it was only ever really great for some Americans, and for an America that occupied a very specific place in a very specific global economy at that, is something those rose-coloured glasses blind them to.
But here’s where I think we might inject a little optimism. Because I’m willing to believe that for a large number of people who want to make America great (again or not), despite the racist things that come out of the mouths of the people at the actual podium, that many of them probably want it to be great for everyone. They want everyone to be able to have it easier — still living in a white picket fence kind of way, which itself is pretty culturally loaded — but they aren’t thinking “make America great again for everyone except people of colour,” which I think is what I get from the folks giving speeches.
And I even think it’s doable.
Now as a lefty (in America, or, as I like to call it elsewhere a “middle-of-the-road Canadian”), I attribute most of the former ease described above to a strong social safety net, a higher relative minimum wage, strong unions, and an economy geared toward jobs that don’t require tens or hudreds of thousands of dollars of education debt to apply for. Well, that, and exploiting the labour of a large and systemically under-valued class of people.
But some of these things are still attainable, and attainable for all — a higher minimum wage, stronger collective bargaining, greater job security, a strong social safety net — though they do cost money in the form of taxes. And as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, the roboticization of the workforce is going to present a major problem in the years to come, and that may require making job-specific education free because many of the jobs that don’t require education (from serving burgers to driving taxis to cleaning hotel rooms) may well be gone. But things can be better, things can indeed be easier, and it is within reach.
It just requires us to realize that what we want isn’t the past at all, not even the imaginary one. It isn’t even the return of a “once-great” America.
What everyone wants — I think, anyway — is a prosperous, safe, comfortable, and easy now. And we’re going to need to drop the rhetoric to see it.
And that’s not going to be easy at all.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.