The Fatally Selective Memory of "Make America Great Again"Roundup
tags: racism, Donald Trump, MAGA
Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University and a political analyst for CBS News.
When Donald Trump poached Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign catchphrase “Let’s Make America Great Again,” it was not just the slogan but the meaning behind it that bonded the two Republican campaigns. What it embodies is less an ideology or even a conservative worldview than a deep yearning and determination to restore an idealized version of 1950s America that many Republicans believe has been lost. For the last half-century, that idea has informed much of what the GOP has come to represent.
According to a 2021 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 70 percent of Republicans believe that American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. To them, it was in the 1960s — when liberation movements demanded social and institutional change, sexual mores began to shift, and intellectuals labeled us a sick society — that the American century began to unravel. They believe we haven’t recovered since. Reestablish the belief system of the 1950s, these Republicans say, and we can make America great again.
In reality, however, the 1950s were great only for some Americans. Restoring that America — as many Republicans are attempting to do in places where they wield political power — would hurt almost everyone else.
In the popular imagination embraced by many Republicans, America achieved unparalleled greatness in the 1950s — a time of prosperity, social cohesion and global preeminence. It was a decade of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” when suburban bliss and national pride revitalized an American Dream that had been tested during the Depression and World War II. In these happy days, Americans saluted the flag, revered the police, believed in God, trusted authority and honored both the businesses that brought abundance and the lunch pail heroes who built the nation’s prosperity without griping or government assistance.
To some extent, there’s a grain of truth to this roseate view of the 1950s. It was a time of extraordinary economic growth, with household income rising nearly 30 percent in the four years after World War II and nearly doubling during the decade. Families that suffered hardship and sacrifice during the previous two decades could now afford a home with appliances and a backyard — in safe neighborhoods where children could ride their Schwinn bicycles without worry. Instead of shelter, food and clothing eating up their paychecks, this newly empowered middle class could spend, and spend it did — on televisions, hi-fis, cameras, furniture, just about everything for their baby boom children, and especially cars.
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