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How MAGA Worked Magic

A deep dive into one of the most powerful political slogans in U.S. history

Steven Gambardella
Nov 3, 2018 · 6 min read
The now-iconic MAGA hat. Photo: Gage Skidmore via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

— Aldous Huxley

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

— Rudyard Kipling

I am not in any way endorsing the Donald J. Trump presidency, nor am I valorizing the content of his message. Rather, I am valorizing the form of the message. I’m interested in the power of words.

I cannot remember Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign slogan. It might have been “I’m with her.” I saw that a lot, but I’m not sure if it was official.

Donald J. Trump’s slogan, in contrast, is seared into my mind. There were times when I blinked and I could see it in the darkness of my eyelids. Okay, that’s a lie, but you get what I mean. It is perhaps the most powerful and memorable political slogan ever.

Why? Because it is a syntactical and semantic masterpiece. Just four words convey a powerful and, of course, frightening message—one that starts inclusively and ends with a divisive challenge.

I’m not claiming four words caused one of the greatest electoral upsets in history, but the slogan has been used and adapted to the point of ubiquity. It underpinned the entire campaign. It was all over the news, like a barbed leitmotif.

It is perhaps the most powerful and memorable political slogan ever.

The words are often referred to with the acronym MAGA. The distinctive red baseball cap so pervasive during Trump’s campaign has become a contested symbol of contemporary America. Even rap royalty has been caught up in the polarizing storm.

Kanye West, who has seemingly embraced Trump, describes his Trump-autographed MAGA hat as his “Superman cape.” The four words embroidered on it represent “good and making America whole again.”

Four Words

Whatever you think of Trump and his election campaign, these four words underpinned an extraordinary campaign that defeated everything Washington could throw at it. Word by word, here is why it is so powerful:

This is a directive verb addressed directly to the beholder. It also empowers, implying that you can verb something together, verb something to happen. (You can/will) make America great again.

This places you in the bigger picture of the nation, which is greater than the sum of its people. You are an American, you are part of it, and you can do something.

This is a superlative, and the least interesting of the four words. But it’s equally important. You can be part of something that is great. Great also means powerful—but without the negative connotations that can come with that term.

This is the crux of the whole sentence and of Trump’s campaign, delivered right at the end. Again is a shrill dog whistle that everybody hears, but especially white social conservatives of any party.

The implications are, of course, that America was great back in the day, but is no longer. Perhaps it stopped being great under Bill Clinton or maybe George W. Bush; it was certainly no longer great under Obama’s administration.

The word ‘again’ is the contentious part. It is implicitly combative, and it invites a with-us-or-against-us reaction.

But remember the three preceding words—especially that directive verb. America can be fixed, and you can fix it. You can do this by supporting Donald Trump.

The word again is the contentious part. It is implicitly combative, and it invites a with-us-or-against-us reaction. If you question whether America was ever great or assert that it is great now, you are getting locked into a long argument.

My friend, a behavioral economist, observed that the power of Trump’s slogan lies in how it communicates a sense of loss:

“One thing that struck me, from a behavioural economics perspective, is Trump relies on people feeling they’ve lost something […] The ‘again’ is powerful. It communicates a sense of loss. People are more risk averse when they’re winning. But when they’re losing, they do some pretty crazy s*** trying to get it back.”

Trump was simultaneously the reckless risk and the guy who made people believe they had nothing to lose.

I just Googled Hillary’s slogan. It was “Stronger Together.” That’s not bad, but it’s not compelling—it doesn’t cut into the psyche like “Make America Great Again” does.

“Stronger Together” is not a directive. There’s no verb, no superlative—merely a comparative adjective. There’s nothing above and beyond the readers of the words, like America is above and beyond together. The slogan is not a challenge like Trump’s is, and as a result, it’s not as powerful. Trump’s slogan hit his adversaries like four landed punches.

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Trump registered “Make America Great Again” only six days after the defeat of Mitt Romney in November 2012. Photo: Gage Skidmore via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The $325 Slogan

Trump had conceived of “Make America Great Again” as early as Nov. 7, 2012, when Mitt Romney lost his race against President Obama. Phrases like “We will make America great” and “Make America great” popped up but felt like a slight on the country’s past.

With the addition of again, Trump had what he was looking for. He immediately trademarked the four words for a $325 registration fee.

The long-sighted application paid off. When GOP rivals started to use the phrase in their own speeches, Trump’s team sent them cease-and-desist letters. The phrase has become plastered across a vast plethora of merchandise—official and unofficial—from bumper stickers to swimsuits.

Federal Commission filings show that Trump’s team spent more money on making MAGA hats than on polling, campaign consultants, staff, or even television advertisements.

With the addition of again, Trump had what he was looking for. He immediately trademarked the four words for a $325 registration fee.

The bite-sized slogan was copied. “It was knocked off 10 to one,” Trump told the Washington Post, but he reasoned that every time somebody buys counterfeit MAGA merchandise, “that’s an advertisement. It meant jobs. It meant industry, and meant military strength. It meant taking care of our veterans. It meant so much.”

The phrase also has a distinctly American ring. Where “Keep Calm and Carry On” embodies an English quaintness and bashful stoicism, “Make America Great Again” has a go-forth boldness.

Like “Keep Calm and Carry On,” MAGA has been appropriated—often subverted—to form thousands of phrases adorning T-shirts and coffee mugs, from “Make America Green Again” to “Make Metallica Great Again.”

Again and Again

Here’s the twist: “Make America Great Again” doesn’t come from Trump.

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Ronald Reagan was first. In 1980, Reagan exploited the perception that America had slid into decline throughout the 1970s. Reagan’s leadership revolutionized the Republican party by embracing economic liberalism and social conservatism. Photo: Fotosearch/Getty Images

It’s not a new slogan. In fact, it’s pretty old. Ronald Reagan used a variation of it in 1980: “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter’s America struggled with the stagflation crisis while the Soviet Union consolidated its power by invading Afghanistan. The embarrassment of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 made people feel like the U.S. was losing its foreign clout.

Bill Clinton also used the slogan in 1992 as a response to the recession of the late 1980s that lasted into the ’90s: “Together, Let’s Make America Great Again.” Clinton’s version is softer with together added to the start. It’s an invitation, not an imperative. This version also fits with Clinton’s triangulation strategy of appeasing moderate Republicans.

Trump’s slogan is more visceral. Truncating it to the four words without the universal adverb together or the inclusive transitive verb let’s makes it more of a directive, more a direct address to the voter alone, more of a challenge.

Of course, context is important: America was out of the latest recession by 2016, so why was it “failing to be great”? Part of the genius of the four words is that again has different meanings for different people.

To converted rust-belt Democrats, again might hark back to industrial America; to Southern state conservatives, again could refer to the era before the Civil Rights Act of 1964; to Wall Street traders, again may recall the financial boom days of Reagan’s presidency.

Trump has never been crystal clear about the meaning, only suggesting that America was great under Reagan’s presidency. It’s interesting that the subjectivity of the phrase galvanizes so many people.

The flip side is that it’s a covenant, a deal. If Trump can’t deliver great—whatever that means—chances are voters will punish him in future elections.

I don’t want to cheapen the gravity of the situation, of everything at stake in politics. But considering the power of language is important. Words shape feeling, words can melt hearts, words can ultimately kill. Use them wisely.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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