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Seeking the source of ‘great again’ slogan’s pull

Donald Trump’s slogan obviously connected with millions who felt that the USA had slipped out of some definition of “greatness.”

Supporters holding signs as President Donald Trump's motorcade heads to his Mar-a-Lago club, in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday.

Russian nostalgia for Stalin is on the rise. Hold that fact in mind as I go on a small detour/ramble.

The United States is, right now as it has been for more than a century, the most powerful nation on earth (as measured by the ability of our conventional military power and/or our nuclear arsenal).

It is also the richest, as measured by collective GDP, and by a wide margin. (If you go by GDP per capita, which is also a relevant statistic as such things go, we fall to about 10th, but the nations that beat us by that measure are mostly small and have a lot of oil, and in many of them that wealth isn’t shared very widely. (There are exception to that generalization, like Switzerland, see this wiki-ranking of nations by GDP per capita.)

So, for a fact nerd like me, it has seemed strange that the current occupant of the Oval Office was able to rally a large number of voters in 2016 (although neither a majority nor a plurality) to support his presidential campaign under the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

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I understand that the power of the slogan was not rooted in an actual ranking of nations by military power or GDP. And I don’t claim to know what other measures of greatness Donald Trump might have in mind that connects with the limbic systems of his admirers. “We never win anymore,” he once said.)

No one other than fools like me wants to reply with the question: If America is no longer great, what country is? Trump’s slogan obviously connected with millions who felt that the USA had slipped out of some definition of “greatness.”

But the inchoate if enduring belief among Americans that our nation must be the “greatest” is powerful. I don’t assume smaller countries aspire quite as much to greatest-ness. But there are quite a few nations that have a historical memory of a time when they were greatest, or among the richest most advanced, and/or most powerful nations on earth.

In those places, mournfulness (if not quite as much anger) over their lost greatness might border on rational, or at least slightly less daft. And in those places, promises to restore some or all of the lost greatness might make at least emotional logic, if “emotional” and “logic” can be tortured into sharing a phrase. (In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s slogan went: “In your heart, you know he’s right.”)

The United States is certainly a superpower. In fact, it might be the only one to combine the wealth and power to qualify in both categories. In my lifetime, only one country has fallen from the ranks of military superpowers, and that would be Russia — or the Soviet Union, as it was called back when it was more of a superpower.

During my first five decades on earth, we had a two-superpower world. It felt like an almost permanent situation. And then, rather suddenly, poof, the Soviet Union fell apart. Other than possessing enough nuclear weaponry to blow up the world, Russia dropped rather quickly from the ranks of what the world informally calls “superpower” status.

Perhaps the historical personification of that era of Russian/Soviet superpowerdom would be the hideous dictator Joseph Stalin. In the category “20th century megalomaniacal villains,” Stalin rivals Adolf Hitler for the crown.

Stalin rose to power by pretending to be a humble servant of the Communist revolution, but once in power he liquidated all rivals. His own wife committed suicide, leaving behind a suicide note blaming her decision on Stalin’s cruelty.

Stalin’s forced collectivization/industrialization led to the death and imprisonment of millions. Rather than providing a better way to feed the country, Stalin’s great programs caused famines that killed millions of his subjects. Then, in the early stages of World War II, Stalin decided to trust a nonaggression pact with Hitler, hoping to benefit while Hitler conquered and killed in other places. Unfortunately for Stalin, Hitler violated the deal by launching a sneak attack on Russia and killing millions more of the Russians who had survived Stalin’s agriculture policy.

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But Stalin remained in power as his megalo- and ego-mania reached new heights. Citizens were imprisoned for crimes like folding a newspaper in a way that creased a picture of Stalin. There was a joke about the gulag inmate who meets his new cellmate, who asks, “How long are you in for?” Answer: “Twenty years.”

“What are you in for?” he asks the newcomer. “Nothing,” says the cellmate. “I did nothing.” To which the more experienced inmate replies: “That’s impossible. For nothing you get only 10 years.”

Aside from that pretty good, if very dark old Stalinism joke, why am I bothering you with this? Because I just read a Bloomberg News piece about how Stalin’s favorable rating among Russians in a recent poll had risen to 51 percent, the highest it has been in the history of that particular poll, which has been asking the question for 18 years. It’s been rising for a while. I have no idea how high it will go.

I suspect there are various explanations for Stalin’s rising ratings. But to me, it likely reflects a nostalgia for a time when, even if the life of the people was terrible, Russia was one of the world’s two superpowers. Notwithstanding Stalin’s bloody crimes and disastrous errors, the Soviet Union ended up on the winning side of World War II and for decades afterward dominated a vast European empire, including many smaller non-Russian nations and even the eastern half of Germany.

That’s over. Russia lost its Eastern European satellite, then lost the non-Russian portions of the former Soviet Union.

My theory from the above is that when Russians think of Stalin, more and more of them are nostalgic for the days when Russia was “great,” in the sense of big and strong and able to dominate others. Part of Putin’s popularity (to the degree that it can be honestly measured in the current Russia) is similar.

Our own dear nation is currently presided over by a politician who was able to capture a feeling, hard perhaps to justify logically, that something great about a former version of America had been lost and that he, without being coherent about how, knew how to get it back.

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I’m not likening Trump to Stalin. (Stalin, by the way, never bragged and was famous for his public displays of modesty.)

I guess I’m trying to use the resurgence of Stalin’s popularity with Trump’s. (Although, as you know, Trump’s approval rating is in the low 40s, lower than Stalin’s in the poll cited above, and has been under water for two years. But it basically never goes up or down by any significant amount.)

Now we have the Mueller report, which I haven’t yet found any way to discuss that I thought would be of any help. I predict that Trump’s poll numbers will continue to stay the same. What think ye?