"Make America Great Again," like Reagan and Clinton

The past and future of the slogan.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

The slogan “Make America Great Again” is one that ignites emotion in many people for many different reasons. For supporters of President Trump, it signifies hope and optimism. For opponents of President Trump, it signifies social regression and hatred. But the slogan itself has a more nuanced past that transcends its more recent usage. Before it came to represent so many different things to so many different people in the 2016 election, it was used by both President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton.

Ronald Reagan used the slogan in his 1980 Presidential campaign. Here’s Reagan saying it in 1980.

Bill Clinton spoke the words on several occasions, including his announcement of his presidential candidacy. Here’s Bill Clinton saying it in 1991. Clinton apparently forgot about this in 2016 when he proclaimed the phrase is a racist dog whistle to white Southerners. But then again, we have no idea what President Clinton’s interpretation of “is” could be for his accusation, given Clinton’s record of saying things like “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been that is not—that is one thing.”

Despite the cheap shot that I just took at President Clinton, in the current period of identity politics, “Make America Great Again” indicates to some minority groups that America is unwelcoming. This should be directly addressed by President Trump in a message crafted to appeal to the moral foundations of both liberals and conservatives, which differ according to research by Jonathan Haidt. Graham, Haidt, and Nosek (2009) showed evidence that liberals emphasize the moral foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, while conservatives emphasize those as well as ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The message should be articulated to speak to each of these. For the slogan to remain viable it can’t be divisive and it must be understood by everyone. I realize that it was built to win elections, and did so successfully. However, a re-election campaign is different from a primary and an initial national election. The message is the same, but clarifying to people outside of his voter base what it is and what it is not will maximize the President’s chances of re-election. The message must engage everyone in a positive way.

Where did President Trump develop his idea for the slogan? According to Tumulty’s (2017) interview with Trump for The Washington Post, President Trump came up with the slogan after Mitt Romney lost the Presidential Election to Barack Obama in 2012. His initial idea was “We Will Make America Great,” which he quickly modified to “Make America Great.” However, he thought that this implied America had not been great previously. So he came up with “Make America Great Again” and trademarked it. At the time, President Trump said he did not know that it was used by Ronald Reagan. To President Trump, the slogan meant jobs, borders, security, law and order, and trade. Wilson’s (2018) article in Time provides a review of the many variations on the slogan that have been trademarked by companies and citizens since President Trump’s campaign, all copying the slogan for their own wide-ranging marketing needs. See Pressman’s (2015) article in The Atlantic for an interesting comparison of President Reagan and President Trump from the perspective of 2015—before the monumental 2016 election. The comparison is interesting as an artifact of history, given the predictions of President Trump’s chances of success in the election at that time.

America has been great before, but not for all groups of people. Making America Great Again in the future requires addressing different groups of the population in ways that promote equality. The modern message of Making America Great Again should incorporate inclusion and equality. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents differ in their vision for how to achieve this. As I have mentioned previously (State of the Union 2018 in my Psychology Today blog), if the slogan were a racist dog whistle, Trump would be doing a poor job of supporting white supremacist groups with many of his positions and rhetoric.

President Trump’s policies are far more inclusive than his opponents believe him to be. Securing our borders is a step towards inclusion and equality. Evidence shows that group competition for limited resources increases discrimination and that mutual cooperation with equal status is necessary to decrease prejudice and discrimination, as demonstrated by classic social psychology studies such as the Robber's Cave Experiment (Sherif et al., 1961; Sherif, 1966) and the Jigsaw Classroom (Aronson, 1978). These conditions are impossible to meet when the borders are insecure and we have underclasses without equal opportunities to thrive. Read “Pervasive Myths About Immigrants” by Laura Collins, Deputy Director of the Economic Growth Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, for a discussion of the value that immigrants have in our economy. President Trump’s willingness to negotiate DACA amnesty against the wishes of many in his own party demonstrates that he understands this.

Presidents Reagan and Clinton at times both oversaw strong economies and their terms included periods of optimism from the nation. President Trump will be well served to capture that optimism, and to begin by clarifying his message to a wider range of voters. Considering that he is politically inexperienced, it is not surprising that he does not always articulate his message to all as clearly as he could. Hopefully he will learn to do so and bring people together. He can begin by developing the meaning of his slogan to appeal to all of the moral foundations (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009).

It is time for Republicans and Democrats to work together to solve problems and stop grandstanding and watching poll numbers. It is time for us, the citizens of the United States, to come together to solve problems. It is time for us to Make America Great Again together, and to define that together as citizens in an inclusive way.

References

Aronson, E. (1978). The jigsaw classroom. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Campbell, C. (2015, May 12). Donald Trump trademarked a Ronald Reagan slogan and would like to stop other Republicans from using it. Business Insider (online).

Collins, L. (2018, Winter). Pervasive myths about immigrants. The Catalyst, 9. (online).

Engel, P. (2017, January 18). How Trump came up with his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Business Insider (online).

From the Starr Referral: Clinton Grand Jury Testimony, Part 4. (1998). The Washington Post (online).

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029-1046.

Levine, S. (2016, September 7). Bill Clinton says ‘Make America Great Again’ is just a racist dog whistle. HuffPost (online).

Margolin, E. (2016, September 9). ‘Make America Great Again’—Who said it first? NBC News (online).

Pressman, M. (2015, September 16). Donald Trump is Reagan’s heir. The Atlantic (online).

Reagan, R. (1979, November 28). Political ad: “Let’s Make America Great Again” Reagan, 1980 [Television series episode]. Political Advertisement. NBC Learn K-12 (online).

Sherif, M. (1966). In common predicament: Social psychology of intergroup conflict and cooperation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, J., Hood, W., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robber’s Cave experiment. Norman: Institute of Intergroup Relations, University of Oklahoma.

Tumulty, K. (2017, January 18). How Donald Trump came up with ‘Make America Great Again’. The Washington Post (online).

Wilson, C. (2018, January 8). ‘Make America High Again’ and 279 other ways people are ripping off Trump’s campaign slogan. Time (online).