Make America ‘great’ again?

8/26/2016, 10:17 a.m.
Our American exceptionalism allows us to shimmer too fully in our greatness. We are the biggest and the baddest. We ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

Our American exceptionalism allows us to shimmer too fully in our greatness. We are the biggest and the baddest. We are the best armed and the most influential. We win the most Olympic medals, and we have the most nuclear weapons.

America, the greatest! We are so great that we wave our flags and shout, “USA! USA!”

In some ways, it is an imperialist chant, a chant of dominance, a chant that ignores the fact that we chant because we have the luxury, as a nation, of an uneven playing field, especially in terms of resources.

I’m not jumping up and down and flag waving.

It took the Simones — Biles and Manuel — to win gold medals for me to celebrate the Olympics. It took just a flip of the switch, a flick of the kaleidoscope, for me to see it differently. While there is a great difference between the athlete who comes from a highly subsidized Russian or Chinese context, to one who comes from an urban area combining grit and corporate sponsorship as in the United States, to those who either make it on their own or cobble together possibilities, all of these athletes are chasing greatness and perfection. Indeed, their props may be a metaphor for the props that we all face in life. Some will be subsidized, some will scrap and sometimes the cream rises to the top, regardless of barriers.

Even as Olympians strutted their excellence, enforcing the notion that America is “great” at least in our medal dominance, Republican candidate Donald Trump has a campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” The use of the word “again” suggests that we were great once upon a time, and that we have to regain something we lost.

When were we “great”? What have we lost? What does it take to make us great again?

Mr. Trump said he views the 1980s as the time when things were good for the nation, although he also hearkened back to the late 1700s and early 1800s.

“The industrial revolution was certainly ― in terms of economically ― that was when we started to grow,” Mr. Trump said.

The basis of the Industrial Revolution was a credit system that relied on using enslaved people as collateral to lend and spend for economic expansion. The North and South were always connected, even in war, with economics often trumping ideology.

Whenever anyone does that throwback stuff, “we used to be great,” I have to wonder what he or she is nostalgic for. Do they wish they were in the land of cotton? Are they hankering for segregationist signs? Or are they simply pining for the days when, though it was unstated, white was right and everybody else had to step.

Many have touted our “Greatest Generation,” the World War II contributors, as people who made America great. Yeah? These folks had to elbow their way into our nation’s service, fighting for the right to fight, struggling for the right to contribute. Is this what you call greatness, Mr. Trump? Are we all supposed to put blinders on to the cracks in our collective national armor?

Thus it is exciting that President Obama signed an executive order to stop the rampant use of a distorted statement called the Pledge of Allegiance.” He wrote that federal offices and contractors should not force employees to swear to “One nation under God.” That’s a good thing.

One nation? Not really. How do I pledge allegiance to a flag “and to the republic for which it stands?”

President Obama tickled me, for the first time during his presidency, by reminding us of the flaws in the Pledge of Allegiance. How do we transcend the flaws when Mr. Trump’s “great again” suggests “slave again” to me?

The writer is an economist and author.