On Monday, the Atlantic Media publication Government Executive pulled an eye-catching headline from the Republican presidential front-runner’s big foreign policy interview with the New York Times: “Trump Says America Hasn’t Been Great in 116 Years.”
It certainly sounded plausible, given the business mogul’s fondness for nostalgia and his campaign pledge to “make America great again.” But a quick look at the original interview shows it’s not quite true.
Government Executive reported that Times journalists Maggie Haberman and David Sanger “posed the logical question: When, in Trump’s estimation, was America last great?”
In fact, Haberman asked Trump something much more specific: “[W]hat is the era when you think the United States last had the right balance, either in terms of defense footprint or in terms of trade?”
Trump did make reference in his answer to “the turn of the century,” which was 116 years ago — “that’s when we were a great, when we were really starting to go robust” — but he was clearly addressing American defense and trade posture in particular. The Times ran his comments under the heading “When America Was ‘Great,'” but the context was still there.
The mogul also praised “the 1940s … and ‘50s,” saying “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do.”
Even if Trump doesn’t want a return to America before the Progressive Era, he’s certainly deploying nostalgia as a potent political weapon. American University communication professor Leonard Steinhorn told InsideSources it’s harkening back to a time when the mogul’s supporters, including members of the white working class, were more dominant in society.
Steinhorn, who authored “The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy,” said Trump is “suggesting that it’s a zero-sum game between the people who have benefited from the social movements of the last five decades and the white working class, which has to some extent lost its stature in society since the manufacturing economy that gave them strength has really been declining.”
But the professor warned against any impulse “to vacuum the complexity out of history and send us back to the sepia-toned images of early days.”
“Let’s be clear,” he said. “The early parts of the 20th century that Trump venerates were good for a lot of Americans, but they also were not good at all for many Americans.”
In other words, nostalgia cuts both ways. Trump has found many voters who yearn for an earlier time, to restore what they see as lost national glory. But there will be many others, including women and minorities, for whom that same notion of American revival won’t sound so great.