History

Trump Wants to Make America Great Again: But Great Like When?

Three historians weigh in on where in America's past President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans might take us. #MAGA is a time machine with several stops. Take our guided tour.

Trump Wants to Make America Great Again: But Great Like When?

A supporter wearing a hat with the Trump campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," waits for the start of a campaign rally for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Holderness, New Hampshire, on Feb. 7, 2016. (Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Emblazoned on his red baseball caps and bumper stickers, Donald Trump’s campaign slogan — Make America Great Again — captured something in the American zeitgeist. The phrase is still a popular hashtag, #MAGA, on Twitter, and appears in the graphic of every email the Trump campaign continues to send out to supporters.

1980 campaign poster.

Trump claims he came up with the phrase himself in 2012 and even trademarked it, but Ronald Reagan used a similar slogan in his 1980 presidential campaign: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” At the time, the United States was suffering an economic slowdown and Reagan invoked the slogan to stir up patriotic feelings among voters who remembered the post-World War II era as one of dynamic economic growth and peace and stability at home.

Even though he was an early Reagan supporter, Trump says he didn’t realize that Reagan had used the catchphrase first. During the campaign, when asked when he thought America was great, Trump told The New York Times that America was great at the turn of the 20th century and again in the post-World War II years.

We wondered how much his legislation, regulatory rollbacks and policies matched up with these periods in history, and what it was about those periods that Trump found so great, so we reached out to three historians to get their take.

 
Dismantling LBJ’s Great Society

Christina Greer is an associate professor at Fordham University and the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. She takes a look at Trump’s plans to take apart Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society focusing on three key pieces of legislation that Trump is targeting today.

 
The End of a Political Era: Movement Conservatism Gets Real

Heather Cox Richardson teaches 19th-century history at Boston College. Her history of the Republican Party, To Make Men Free, examines the fundamental tensions in American politics from the time of the Northwest Ordinance to the present. She writes about how Donald Trump in the White House means the end of a political era. Movement conservatives have been talking about reversing the reforms of the New Deal since the late 1930s, but they’re finding out that while voters liked the talk, they’re not actually willing to walk the walk, and lose the public safety net that President Roosevelt put in place.

 
Get Ready for the New Gilded Age

Lastly, Bernie Weisberger is a historian and author of Many People, One Nation, a history of immigration to the United States. Weisberger writes about some of the reforms of the Progressive Era, and suggests that you’d have to go back to the Gilded Age to realize Trump’s American dream.