“Greater Than We Currently Are,” not “Great Again”: Trump is perversely nostalgic when we should be looking forward

When Trump's America was “great,” white men alone deserved to be in positions of power

Published July 21, 2016 5:11PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Russell Cheyne)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Russell Cheyne)

It is hard to accept as mere coincidence the stark fact that the first time the Democrats have nominated a woman for president, the Republicans are countering with two misogynists.  At the head of the ticket is the thrice-married Donald Trump, an ill-informed, compulsively mean-spirited braggart who imagines himself a “good catch” and transparently values females on the basis of their looks.  He actually proposed a Reality TV show that would have been called “Lady or Tramp” — and he would, of course, have been the supreme judge.   

His running mate, Indiana’s Mike Pence, is a proud born-again Christian, an anti-abortion hardliner who would aggressively limit women’s access to the procedure and who agrees with other religious conservatives that America needs to retreat.  Yes, let’s call the trumped up slogan “Make America Great Again” what it is: a perverse form of nostalgia that glorifies a time when male heads of households were the breadwinners who were understood to possess ultimate authority both in and outside the home; women were ornaments, making themselves as attractive and engaging as possible to a male-promoting world, eager to advance a vision of calm.  They did what they were meant by nature to do: breed.

It was a masterfully gendered stability, that world.  But as we now know, or should, the vision of a “greater” America based on this kind of “stability” was nothing more than the belief in an inspired myth, one that justified men’s confidence in their being able to hold sway and settle accounts.  They repressed their self-questioning feelings and rationalized violent behavior in the active preservation of their manly authority.  They did not need to think about competing with women, because women did not take martial arts classes or enlist in the armed forces.  Blacks and gays who challenged the norm when America was great were labeled communist or in some other way subversive.  Open-mindedness was not invited when America was “great.”

In the last century, the anti-feminist, Clinton-bashing columnist William Safire called Hillary a person of “undoubted talents” who was nonetheless “a congenital liar,” a female who was too grasping, who was undeserving of power.  Safire was baldly dismissive of the women’s rights movement, asserting that it subverted the cause of equal rights and subtly encouraged lesbianism — though he did stop short of Ben Carson’s insane connection of Hillary and Lucifer.  In 1992, he insisted that Gov. Bill Clinton had lost his job in 1980 because his “ardently feminist” wife refused to take his name; once she did, he became a winner again.  They learned their lesson.  Today she remains a Clinton, having wisely jettisoned the Rodham.  Safire wanted everything to go back to “normal,” and back to nature, which he recast in a simple exhortation: “natural womanism achieves lasting partnerships and personal fulfillment.”   

Hillary Clinton provokes the kinds of people who a couple generations back despised Eleanor Roosevelt for using her First Ladyship as a platform from which to call for bold, progressive social change.  Eleanor supported labor, she supported African American demands for complete social and political equality, and she barnstormed the country promoting her message.  Her wheelchair-bound husband was less able, though he continued to perform the half-expected powerful male role of taking a mistress.

When America was “great,” white men alone deserved to be in positions of power.  There was no question who warranted the higher salary.  The double standard persists even today in ways we don’t always notice.  Imagine how the media would react if Hillary Clinton started making the ugly twisted faces Trump makes on an almost daily basis.  Lyndon Johnson could boast and browbeat and curse and cajole, and it was deemed colorful.  Hillary, because she is a woman, must guard herself against accusations of transgressing the gender code.  Women are expected to behave in a more modest way or they are branded “hysterical” and the like.  Men can “lose it” and they’re just following nature.  

Then, what explains Elizabeth Warren?  She says a lot of in-your-face things about Trump, which somehow aren’t depicted in the press as “unwomanly.”  Nevertheless, consider her self-presentation in public: Her hair is neat.  She is always tastefully attired.  Professorial, yes, but not unwomanly.  Were she to exhibit greater political ambition, she would no doubt be recast as suspect.  As things stand, Senator Warren is managing her public image just fine, peering critically from her intelligent glasses without giving the GOP hate machine the red meat they are looking for. It matters that Warren stood for office on her own merit; she did not have to piggyback on her husband’s career.

Hillary is different.  She has baggage that Republicans, even those who recognize her abilities and find her affable in person, know they can draw upon simply by deploying loaded language that causes the masses to think twice about her.  “Benghazi” is meant to imply that she was not up to the job of secretary of state.  “Email server” indicates a level of incompetence as well as the moral problem of feeling entitled to make up her own rules.  (No need to compare Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell, whose email records were no more, and possibly less, secure.)  “Enabler” suggests that she somehow invited Bill’s sexual adventuring.  So, she’s the moral danger to America, and the impulsive, self-gratifying Trump is somehow less deceitful and more trustworthy?   

The bogus Whitewater and Travelgate investigations aren’t even worth detailing again — the point is that Republicans will look under any and every rock to ferret out some speck of evidence against both Bill and Hillary.  As a representative of her gender, though, something is different in the tone of the criticism.  She was regularly targeted in the 1990s for exceeding the limits of female propriety and aspiring to a masculine career — it began when she didn’t take enough pride in cookie baking, and it enlarged not long after when she undertook healthcare reform.  

Party platforms are made to appear of secondary importance when gender-specific attacks predominate.  That’s as crazy as it is self-destructive.  There is progressive reform, which is aimed at greater inclusiveness and social justice; and there is conservative reform, which relies on the dictate that local government and ethereal, improvement-directed market forces are somehow friendlier to the broad citizenry than “big government.”  Yet it was federal initiative (collecting information from the private sector, where such knowledge was most useful) that enacted the equalizing measures of Social Security, the GI Bill, government-backed loans for new homebuyers, and the national highway system.  Would that the more conservative states had seen fit to pass the Equal Rights Amendment as well — a no-brainer that “big government” could not effect on its own.

Like the inspiring Michelle Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton has annoyed millions of conservatives.  Her history is one of transgression.  By consistently touting her professional credentials and refusing to wear the traditional garb of first lady — a merely honorary position, she needed to be reminded — she did not behave with the middle-class discretion of a Laura Bush.  She transgressed further by entering politics on her own.  Hillary haters have repeatedly said that she and Bill only stay together because of their partnership in seeking inordinate power.  This is not to say that as a candidate for president or vice president, Elizabeth Warren would be immune to criticism on gendered grounds; for if there is one thing Republicans have proven adept at it is redrawing an opposing politician according to false claims, producing an alternate reality.  We remember how John Kerry was “swift-boated,” transformed from a Vietnam vet who actually saw combat into a supposed liar; and it didn’t matter that George W. Bush used political pull to avoid being sent overseas, and the hard-charging Dick Cheney and Donald Trump repeatedly found ways to obtain deferments.     

While we’re at it, let’s ask why is the media so obsessed with a candidate’s likeability, when the critical measure of anyone seeking office should always be competence.  Leslie Stahl of CBS has written a book celebrating grandmotherliness and says that Hillary should play up that persona to overcome her negatives.  Is this how sappy we’ve become?  For months, subconsciously craving a likeable Trump so as to normalize the presidential contest, media critics have obsessed over the question of when and how the nominee will shed his clownish persona.  No one in the media expected Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin to make sense; but somehow there’s a belief out there that Trump has a less unpalatable, more civil side.  After all, didn’t he claim that no one could be “more presidential” than he?

Trump’s competence is constantly being called into question, given his many business failures, his indiscreet, alienating language and constant resort to name calling, and his inability to grasp basic concepts of governance.  By acts of redirection, all he can say in criticizing his opponent consists of vague and bombastic and childish jibes.  Indeed, Hillary’s competence was never called into question until she began to appear the Democrats’ likely choice to succeed President Obama.  Recently, the biographer David McCullough quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower on the ways by which Americans ought to measure a leader: “Character, ability, responsibility, and experience.”  Something to chew on.

Personalities aside (if that’s even possible at this juncture), the national divide ought to be seen in terms of problem-solving methods.  Who will solve the nation’s real problems and who stands against proactive solutions?  It’s palpably clear that the GOP looks backward for solace.

The starkness of the political divide makes it exceedingly difficult to approach the past with an honest enthusiasm, which is what professional historians aim to do.  So, what is to be said about “Make America Great Again”?  Here is the historians’ answer: We acknowledge the natural tendency to locate supportive signs in formative moments and founding myths.  The rich American imagination has always contested American reality, whether it is in making desperate squatters into happy, industrious pioneers or land-hungry Indian killers into republican heroes.  The need to invent an illusory national narrative, a satisfying, morally upright past, is not done with evil intent, and it is no reason to abandon the quest for historical clarity or to replace it with a permanent pessimism.  

The founders of this country knew such things.  They knew what they were doing when they codified the rhetoric of democracy that makes us sound better than we are and truer to the founding ideals.  They were not “great,” despite being described that way in the expansive civil religion that posits a bright and shining “city on a hill” that once was America.  But in denying America’s inherent “greatness” as a birthright we do not mean that the founders failed entirely to transcend politics.  They were well-informed about the world, pragmatic in their purposes, and they sought to avoid the hysteria that has become synonymous with political campaigns in the age of Citizens United.  

Here is why we invoke the founders now, in the context of the prejudices that dominate the national conversation in 2016.  They had a word for moral progress as it pertained to the development of forward-looking republican institutions — it explains why Benjamin Franklin was so proud of being the country’s first postmaster general.  It is a word we can grasp with no difficulty.  Information.  The American founders were convinced that the strength of a nation was a function of its people’s information.  An informed citizenry.  They defined community as a public that shared one value above all the rest, and it wasn’t religion.  Religious faith only mattered to these political thinkers when it directed people toward good works with larger social benefits.  

To the American founders, it was the dissemination of information and the force of affiliation that created sociability.  It was civic culture, or civility.  It is what Thomas Jefferson meant by the Lockean phrase “pursuit of happiness.”  And it is what Americans have forgotten in conducting their politics in sound bites and negative ads.  The eighteenth-century understanding of the word information and the concept of civility is what stands directly between us and our ideals.

Progress is not automatic, of course. Old prejudices are easy to revive — especially with a female presidential nominee — when the requisite “buttons” are pushed.  This is what seems to be happening with the information-deprived Trump campaign and the anti-feminist Trump-Pence ticket.  Whether you see the tireless Hillary Clinton as a justice-seeker or a nominee with more baggage than can fit in the overhead compartment, do understand that information and civility are not gendered terms; they are the American values that, if realized, would make us greater than we are — not “great again.”

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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Ben Carson Bill Clinton Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Make America Great Again Mike Pence