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

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.”

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.

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.

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?

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 04/22/2019 - 10:12 am.

    Make ________ (fill in the blank) great again.

    As a younger generation in Russia doesn’t “appreciate” Stalin’s programs, a younger generation in China seems to be responding to a Mao-wannabe as President.

    A significant part of a younger generation in the US seems to want to return to a 1950’s greatness: submissive women, segregated and subservient people of color, unspoken dissent from Christian dominance of religion in America, middle class “affluence,” and an absence of disruptive demands for change.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/22/2019 - 11:01 am.

      In other words, make rich white men (or wannabees) great again.
      Things aren’t what they used to be; and they never were.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/22/2019 - 10:53 am.

    There has long been a powerful nostalgia in America for the way things “used to be,” or for the way they are recalled to have been. It’s always been hard to say when that time was, but it was “before now.” After World War I, the longing was a return to “Good Old American Normalcy,” which ignored the fact that the U.S. participation in the war was the inevitable outcome of the imperial dreams the country had been pursuing for the previous two decades. The era of “Normalcy” was marked both by our involvement in a brutal colonial war in the Philippines and by a growing enthusiasm to project military might overseas.

    The same uncertainty apples to making America “Great Again.” When, exactly, was America last great? Was it when racial segregation was not just legal, but mandatory? When women, despite having the right to vote, were routinely discriminated against? Was it the era when our projections of military might led to an involvement in a long war that was founded on hopeless misconceptions, and continued because it would have just looked bad to stop?

    The nostalgia is always premised on something happening that erased the good times. That thing may have been a single event, like a war. It may have been something that happened over time, like that danged “political correctness” getting out of hand. The past must have been better, before that thing happened. If only we could go back before then!

    Americans used to be known as forward-looking, and optimistic. In the last hundred years, we seem to have lost that optimism, and lost interest in our future. We’re letting out impression of the past hold us back.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/22/2019 - 11:26 am.

    “We never win anymore” has more to do with decision-making – strategic, political, and geopolitical – than it does with available weaponry or the quality of individual men and women in the military. Spending more – a lot more – money on the military won’t guarantee a thing if all that counts is “winning,” since bad decisions will only become more expensive bad decisions than they might have been otherwise. If the framework for the assertion is domestic instead of foreign policy, it’s hard for me to see how it could NOT involve white supremacy. That (white supremacy) seems an equally-reasonable conclusion regarding the nostalgia for “when we were great,” meaning when we (white folks, and especially white males) could make policy without having to take into consideration the needs and desires of other citizens of the nation or the world who were female, of color, or were in some other way out of the “mainstream,” which was assumed to be Caucasian and male.

    What Trump seems to admire is a combination of dominance, in most of the ways that term is commonly used, and fear. Think of the schoolyard bully. It fits the small-time criminal / mob boss personality he so often displays, denigrating policies and ideas that he doesn’t agree with, certainly, but just as often attacking the person delivering those policies and ideas. I’d be surprised if Donald Trump had anything resembling a thorough knowledge of socialism, for example, though he’s been a beneficiary of it if any of his alleged billions of dollars came from federal or state subsidies, but he rails against it with some frequency, and accuses people he doesn’t like (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for one, Elizabeth Warren for another, who both have the added stigma of being female, and, if not demonstrably smarter than the President, at least being far more articulate) of being “socialists” without having much more than a child’s idea of what being a “socialist” involves.

    As numerous pundits have already pointed out in numerous media outlets, I don’t think many minds will be changed by the Mueller report. I certainly don’t have more positive thoughts and feelings about Donald Trump than I did before the report became public, nor do I think Trump supporters will change their minds and work for the selection of someone else as the Republican nominee in 2020. One interesting anomaly that bears closer scrutiny, at least in my own amateur’s opinion, is how little attention has been paid at the level of local news outlets and the general public to the incontrovertible evidence that Russia was actively involved in trying to influence the election of 2016. I only use the word “trying” because I don’t know of a way to prove what level of success they achieved.

    In that context, it’s more than “interesting” that the Republican Party, which has largely confined itself to voter suppression in Minnesota and elsewhere so far, now – at least in Minnesota – opposes spending available federal dollars to further secure Minnesota’s voting apparatus and election procedures against the sort of influence and interference that Russia practiced in 2016. I can only hope that at least most of Republican refusal to use that money for its intended purpose is accidental, and not purpose-driven.

    As for “Make America Great Again,” it would be worthwhile, I think, to ask someone wearing one of those red baseball caps or a sweatshirt with that slogan, just when it was that America **stopped** being “great.” My hunch is that it will be difficult to define that moment without resorting to racism, sexism, or chauvinism.

    • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 04/22/2019 - 12:16 pm.

      I always admire Ray’s views on the political scene, but I think he outdid himself on this one hitting on so many major points.

      The MAGA crowd, pining for the good old days, seem to want to go back to a post-World War Two America. We were the undisputed leader of the free world challenged only by the Soviet Union. The Republicans were resolute in their opposition to dangers it posed, real or imaginary, to the United States. The irony now is that the same party is so willing to say, “No big deal,” to evidence that Russia is still a danger to our country. Russia’s cyber attacks and election meddling are fine to so many people.

      Pretty sure it’s not the result of some deep analysis about the Soviet Union no longer existing or the fact Russia has turned away from communism. Suspect a lot of it is based on the juvenile bully in charge promising to keep them safe from Muslims and dark-skinned people. Throw in the fact he’s mean to liberals and who cares about the evidence that Russia is meddling in our elections?

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/23/2019 - 10:48 am.

        We were never challenged by the Soviet Union. This is false in every meaning of the word. And the Soviet Union was not socialist.

  4. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/22/2019 - 12:03 pm.

    The nostalgia of former greatness is a component of authoritarianism because it appeals to those who depend on dispensed mythology rather than critical thought.

    More interesting, perhaps, than the roots of MAGA is the astonishing extent to which the MAGA cult leader and his party in fact have diminished U.S. global strength, influence and moral standing in a mere two years.

  5. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 04/22/2019 - 12:09 pm.

    Change is hard. Huge, wrenching changes to our entire social and economic structure are really difficult to face. We are undergoing huge, wrenching changes (see: climate change that might destroy all life on the planet!), and people are reacting out of fear and anxiety, looking for any leader who will claim that he will bring change to a stop and restore the less worrisome past. Stasis restored.

    What worries me is that Trump’s autocratic tendencies, and his disrespect or disdain for the law as an American principle, are models for Americans who are beset by fear as they sense huge changes occurring in their lives (everything from digitized life patterns to the race-to-the-bottom nature of global capitalism and terrorism). As Bob Woodward’s book title correctly proclaims, Trump rules by “Fear.” Stoking it at all times, first with this target, then that target, always a new target, with himself at the center, fending off all change.

    Trump famously cried “I alone can fix it!” in 2016. That’s a dictator’s cry, the cry of someone who wants people to give up all their rights to him, to have no law but him, to offer loyalty to him alone rather than to principles, and then he alone will save them from any change. He promises that he will forestall the future, as represented by those strange “others” that beset them.

    I don’t live in the fear of change that Trump depends on for his support among American voters. I hope that my faith in America’s democratic system is warranted, and that we all together, respecting our system and each other, can forestall more Trump.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/22/2019 - 12:13 pm.

    Trump’s goal appears to use states like Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Kansas his model for greatness. If you know anything about those places, you have to resist.

  7. Submitted by Robert Lilly on 04/22/2019 - 12:16 pm.

    “just when it was that America **stopped** being “great.”
    I’m guessing most will say 2008, even though he wasn’t inaugurated until 2009.
    As to the level of success, I’m sure Vlad will argue it was money well spent.

  8. Submitted by Keith Dawson on 04/22/2019 - 01:09 pm.

    >> (In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s slogan went: “In your heart, you know he’s right.”)

    I may be one of the few who remembers the rejoinder at the time of some wag on the left: “But how far right you don’t know.”

  9. Submitted by ian wade on 04/22/2019 - 01:36 pm.

    To many of his supporters, “Make America Great Again” translated to “Remember when we never had a black guy as president? Remember when everyone you know went to a CHRISTIAN church? Remember when gays stayed in the closet? Remember when women were subservient to men? Remember when your low skill factory job could last a lifetime without having to update your education and skill set? Remember when the US dictated terms to the rest of the world”

    Look beneath the average red MAGA cap and chances are you’ll find someone who has no desire to change, learn or grow.

  10. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 04/22/2019 - 06:11 pm.

    As i was reading the article, I’m thinking Trump supporters want to make America white again and they also have difficulty dealing with change. Much like the earlier responses.

  11. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/22/2019 - 06:26 pm.

    I’ll not quibble with much of what was written above. But let’s not forget that economics and race are difficult to separate here in ‘Merica.

    I would suggest that America was a better land when the wages of men were growing as the overall economy grew. That stopped way back in the 70’s.

    I don’t think that belief has anything to do with race, sexism, unfounded nostalgia, or resentment of any stripe.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/23/2019 - 10:12 am.

      There is no strong correlation between a growing economy and wage growth. Since the early 70s, productivity has increased by 77%, but average hourly pay has increased by only 12%. Before 1973, wage growth tracked productivity growth pretty closely.

      It’s not the strength of the economy that holds wages down, it’s the policy decisions that let wealth remain concentrated at the top.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/23/2019 - 08:59 pm.

        There is no longer any relationship between economic growth and wage growth.

        There once was a time that was true.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 04/28/2019 - 03:14 pm.

      Well that would make some sense IF-his policies actually addressed that and if his supporters would routinely point to that, but that is not the case. It’s more like the reconstruction period and all the terrible things that went with it.

  12. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/23/2019 - 09:55 am.

    Hate to be so negative but it would seem that Ian & Ray place a reasonable perspective on it. What does the end game/perspective/America look like? Perhaps a few of the “MAGA” folks could enlighten us as to what it is to be great again. My thinking has never been again, you can’t go back in time, the seconds are all ticked off the clock, all we can do is go forward, trying to make it better all the time, progress is not however a straight line, and the last 2+ years has been a tremendous set back in that effort. To think one can recapture time past is a fools errand, and it would appear from this perspective there a quite few fools in America.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/24/2019 - 11:59 pm.

      Oh, it’s more debased than that. These folks don’t wish to return to the past as it was, they wish to return to the past as they imagine it. For some, that is through the rosy haze of nostalgia for their younger, less encumbered lives, for others it’s for the stories told by those suffering from said nostalgia. None of it reflects any sort of objective view of reality, only wistful pining for a life more “meaningful” than that which these same folks have created for themselves. They’ve wasted their one chance at life, and expect all others to afford them a second one, consequences be damned.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/25/2019 - 09:53 pm.

        Thanks for the perspective, even though as a child a great Twilight zoner, Outer limits etc, and as a young adolescent, military, college etc. a fair share of “experimentation” don’t think the cerebellum can get that twisted out of shape to comprehend a time altering reversal of that dimension!

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