Speaking of America

What does 'make America great again' mean?

WASHINGTON • Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the insurgent presidential election campaign of one Mr Donald Trump would by now be well versed with its central vision: Make America Great Again.

The presumptive Republican nominee ends every rally speech with those words; he has it emblazoned on paraphernalia from caps to bags to T-shirts for dogs; he even bought the trademark rights to it.

Yet, the slogan is often the least scrutinised aspect of the presumptive nominee's platform. What exactly does it mean to make America great again?

Well, it is so vague and all encompassing that it could mean just about anything. And that's part of its appeal. Say it to someone and they understand it at gut level. The saying taps on the human propensity for nostalgia - to harken back to the good old days before everything started to go downhill.

And when did that slide begin? Well, a survey by polling company Morning Consult last month found little consensus among Trump supporters as to when America's greatest year was. The year 2000 was the most popular single year but the noughties as a decade were regarded by only 5 per cent as the greatest decade.

The 1980s and 1950s won about one fifth of the vote each for greatest decade, although which decade someone chose seemed to correlate highly with their age. The decade people picked appeared to have a lot to do with when they turned 20 years old.

Mr Trump himself has not answered the question as to which era of greatness he would like to restore America to, although he has spoken of the early 20th century as the peak of American power.


An anti-Trump protester in California after a Trump rally. The presumptive Republican nominee's slogan 'Make America Great Again' suggests the US is in decline, but a survey indicates that many Americans disagree with this. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Interestingly, he did not choose any time during the presidency of Mr Ronald Reagan, the man whose campaign slogan he ostensibly borrowed. When Mr Reagan successfully ran for the White House in 1980, his motto was only one word longer: "Let's make America great again."

AMERICA IN DECLINE?

If the idea of making America great again seems to gain such traction, perhaps it is because, at some level, people feel America is no longer great, or even in decline.

The pessimist's view of America's current place in the world is that of a major superpower declining and being usurped or taken advantage of on all avenues.

But some analysts suggest that Mr Trump's portrayal of a United States in peril is off the mark now. By nearly every measure that matters, the US remains the primary global superpower. On the economic front,the total size of the Chinese economy may be larger than the US, as a 2014 report by the International Monetary Fund noted. But adjusted for purchasing power parity, the US still has a significant lead when GDP per capita is considered.

World Bank figures last year show China's GDP per capita at US$7,590 (S$10,300), nearly eight times less than America's. The average American is much better off economically than the average Chinese, and the gap is expected to persist for the foreseeable future.

The US retains a significant military advantage over China. China may overtake it eventually, but, for now, talk of the US in decline is viewed as exaggerated by many analysts.

In a recent commentary in Foreign Affairs magazine, two international relations scholars from Dartmouth University, Dr Stephen Brooks and Dr William Wohlforth, argued that the US lead in technological expertise meant it would be more capable of converting its resources into military might. "China's relative technological backwardness today... means that even if its economy continues to gain ground, it will not be easy for it to catch up militarily and become a true global strategic peer, as opposed to merely a major player in its own neighbourhood," they wrote.

American voters, too, recognise that the US is a leading power. A Pew survey in May this year found that 54 per cent of Americans considered the US the world's leading economic power, compared to just 34 per cent that put China on top. And 72 per cent said America was the leading military power.

All this suggests that despite the success of the "Make America Great Again" slogan, most Americans don't think the country is in decline.

FOREIGN POLICY IMPLICATIONS

The notion of making America great again may have some domestic political appeal, by harking vaguely to a golden era of American domestics.

In foreign policy, however, the idea of making America great again poses problems.

To hear Mr Trump tell it, the path towards greatness for America centres on the idea of winning and coming out on top in interactions with other countries.

His standard stump speech devotes its last chunk to this specific idea. You know a Trump rally speech is hitting its crescendo when he starts talking about how the US never wins anymore and then pledges to win so much as president, Americans will become bored of winning.

As a business principle, always making sure you are the "winner" in every deal makes sense, but one wonders how to apply this persistent one-upmanship to the world of diplomacy.

Countries of course conduct bilateral relationships with a focus on national interest. But there is a fine line between preserving national interest and turning every relationship into a contest.

How does a world superpower build a trusting relationship with allies if it is persistently talking about making sure it wins? How much harder would negotiations be on every deal if the driving refrain of your negotiating partner was to outdo you?

That sort of calculus is also difficult to carry out on the fuzzier aspects of diplomacy. Does a President Trump visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial only if he can get something in return?

That said, it is important to note that campaign slogans don't always translate into governance once a candidate enters the Oval Office, and it may well be that a President Trump takes a different approach to governing once he is in the White House.

For now, though, the promise of "Make America Great Again" is unsettling once you try and figure out what it means.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'What does 'make America great again' mean?'. Print Edition | Subscribe