America Made Visible

What peddling “Make America Great Again” ultimately did

It started as a simple slogan. From the mouth of a washed-up, reality-show kook with a fondness for conspiracy theories. Sold to a country of consumers who watch a lot of TV and just “get” marketing and advertising on a fundamental level.

Make America Great Again. These four words fit alongside jingles for selling shoes to make your dreams come true or soda to bring you happiness. So much so the slogan seemed normal on cheap, red hats. If it ends up on a piece of swag, it must be a good idea, right?

Americans being sold on something catchy is nothing new. Baseball isn’t our national pastime. It’s buying stuff we’ve been told to buy.

At first this slogan, and its eventual hashtag, never seemed all that formidable. Simple-minded, an easy trope, the opposite of serious. Something to trademark quickly and then have fade into the background, much like the kook who brought it into our politics. Just another campaign tchotchke eventually relegated to the dustbin of history.

But instead of fade into the background, both the slogan and the kook now illuminate this moment. And everything that has come since the first utterance of the slogan by the kook has crystalized into a particular view of an America easily understood. A view of the country now very much out in the open for all eyes to see, all ears to hear, all hearts to feel.

We are going to Make America Great Again!

And it must be stopped.

A 92-year-old man is beaten with a brick and told to go back to his country. Mexican landscapers are called “rapists” and “animals.” The police are phoned by a woman because some people in the park are BBQing while black. Nearly half of black Americans report being discriminated against in the past month. A large swastika is burned into the great lawn of a public park. Self-proclaimed Nazis and white supremacists are running for office across the country, as Republicans.

When the example set at the highest levels of government is that of lying and thieving, the citizenry doesn’t strive for the better angels in its nature. The vulgar sexists and vile racists who campaigned, got elected, and have all the power in the nation’s capital bring out a side in their supporters that’s quite ugly, while the detractors look on in horror and try to react as best they can. Both in civil and uncivil ways.

What’s been unleashed will be very hard to put back into its rightful place, a place where sexism and racism are unacceptable. A place where they should be shunned, shamed, shouted down: unacceptable.

It’s not to say terrible actions like the ones above were never committed by Americans before this moment. Just ask any person of color about their life in America. White supremacy goes back a long way. To our founding. But in the last decade it seemed like we were really moving forward, pushing beyond this ugliness. Instead, we can see we weren’t. It’s obvious. Plainly set in all-caps, white type on a red background. What was thought to be a dwindling worldview is now loudly proclaiming itself. Oppressive and aggressive, frightened and angry, ready to fight for our past.

Why are we doing this? Why are we actively turning back the clock? Why are we gleefully undoing our progress? Why are we trying so hard to go backward? Because we are making America “great.” Again.

A slogan can tell you all you really need to know. It evokes a feeling. A vision for tomorrow. A future that may seem improbably but its one we want to see. Remember Change We Can Believe In? Or We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For? And Yes We Can? The word we is in all of them. The core of each phrase is about change from the past and progress toward a future we could finally make by working together.

Change from a militaristic government, from an incompetent government. Change from an economy that disproportionately benefited the wealthy and well-to-do. An economy that, at the time, was collapsing all around us. Change from torture and pollution and unequal rights.

We thought we were making progress toward a cleaner environment, fairer economy, and healthier health care system. Progress toward increased rights for marginalized groups, international cooperation, and establishing a peaceful outlook on the world. The supporters of Yes We Can knew what we were fighting for when we saw those words on bumper stickers and yard signs. We could feel their cause, and we pushed forward.

The progress that was the meat behind Yes We Can is now what’s getting chewed up by the fangs of Make America Great Again. As more progress is undone, from international agreements and increased fuel standards to a union’s organizing strength and a women’s reproductive freedom, the future we’re callously moving toward becomes increasingly obvious. Pro-corporate, anti-people. Uncompromising far rightwing ideology. A gutted government. Ineffective institutions. Unfettered greed, unchecked power, unending attacks on our shared reality.

The epic tug of war between the forces of progression or regression will always be with us. Before the kook was given the keys to the kingdom, it seemed as if progress was winning out. But instead, the forces of regression combined with a general sense of apathy to make the jerk backward as jarring as possible.

Presented at the top of a pile of discarded achievements from the past, achievements that made our society more fair and more just, working toward a more perfect union, #MAGA makes it very clear where America intends to go. We can see it clearly.

However, because we’re able to see it clearly, an America made visible, the people who have fought so hard to push for progress can firmly establish their footing.

We know who believes in democracy. We know who believes in the rule of law. We know our rights. We know who stands with the refugees. We know who defends immigrants. We know what to do about guns. We know what to do about climate change. We know what to do about health care. We know what to do with energy. We know what to do with racial justice. We know what to do with poverty. We know who stands for freedom. We know the future we want to create.

We know what Make America Great Again really means. And we’re ready to fight like hell to stop it. We know who lies. We know who cheats. We know who steals. We know who will forgo all past claims of principles to get what they want. We know where America is going if this is all allowed to continue. An unequal land of few haves, many have-nots, where reality is optional, division is default, and marginalization is our cause.

And we now know that when it comes to voting, we’re dealing with a binary choice. It’s either left or right, option A or B.

To fight something effectively, it helps tremendously to know what you’re up against.

As its rollout and consequences have continued to capture the nation’s attention, either with pride and admiration or with fear and revulsion, the #MAGA slogan has helped shine a light on the platform of our new reality. When it was just another campaign turn of phrase or the lead chant for a party’s nominee and even now as the tagline of a woefully dimwitted government with compromised intent, it has played a key role in fully illuminating the end game for a collection of terrible policies that has succeeded at drawing lines between choosing to go forward or backward.

The road to fully understanding the struggle that faces us started with Make America Great Again and has now presumptuously, ridiculously, evolved to Keep America Great. Maybe we owe a bit of thanks to the #MAGA crowd for succinctly capturing their white nationalist ideology as we commit to fully defeating that ideology, to finally leaving both the slogans and the kook in the dustbin history, and to continuing the hard work of bending that long arc toward a more perfect union. Toward a nation that’s indivisible, with liberty and justice, for all.

Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alien nation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay
Television dreams of tomorrow
We’re not the ones who’re meant to follow
For that’s enough to argue

American Idiot
Green Day, 2004