Construing “Great” in “Make America Great Again”

November 16, 2016
By Hanging Out with Carl Gunn

Forgive me if I digress from the law a little bit today.  Donald Trump has been telling us he’ll “make America great again.”  That requires us to construe “great” – if you’ll let me be a little lawyerly about it.

When was the “great” Donald Trump has in mind?  Is it the first part of our history when we pushed aside the real Native Americans and took their land as ours, because we were God’s chosen and they were lesser beings (though we didn’t phrase it so politely)?  Is it the late part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century when we excluded Asian immigrants just because they were Asian?  Is it the late 20’s and early 30’s, when our last “successful businessman” president, Herbert Hoover, led us into the Great Depression?  Is it the first half of the 40’s – when, yes, we won a war, but in our initial panic, we put a whole population of Japanese Americans in camps in our own country and chose Japan rather than Germany as the place to use our horrible new weapon?

Is it the 50’s, when African-Americans in some parts of the country had to drink from separate drinking fountains, use separate bathrooms, and go to separate (“but equal”) schools, and we had Joseph McCarthy and others in Congress give us their Red Scare witch hunt?  Is it the early 70’s, when a paranoid president tape recorded everything that happened in his office and had a “Plumbers” team playing dirty tricks for him in the election?  Is it the 80’s, when Ronald Reagan tried to gut Legal Aid and other programs that were part of the social safety net so he could cut taxes and give more money to people who already had it?  And he and Congress gave us mandatory minimum sentences that locked people up – mostly minorities – for 10 years or more for a couple of thousand dollars of crack cocaine?  Is it the early 2000’s (do they call those the “oughts”?) when we panicked after 9/11, forgot the principles that are great when we stick to them, and started torturing people and created our own offshore indefinite detention prison at Guantanamo Bay?

I fear it’s one of those times – and maybe even some of those examples – that Donald Trump has in mind.  But for the rest of us (or at least half of the rest of us), I have some different nominations of when the “great” was (or maybe what the “great” was, with the acknowledgment that we’re imperfect and there’s always more we can do to improve).  What about the 30’s after Herbert Hoover, when we produced a host of new programs that we called the New Deal to reach out to those of us who were having it tough and we had a president who reminded us we had “nothing to fear but fear itself”?  What about the 60’s when people rose up to fight for their rights and/or the rights of others – civil rights for African Americans, union and other rights for Latino farmworkers, an on-campus free speech movement even for radicals, and at the end of the decade a halting start toward at least the idea of some sort of equality for women?  When we took at least a small step toward providing health care even for those who couldn’t afford it – with the Medicare program for the elderly?  When we had a Supreme Court called the “Warren Court” that protected not only the rights of honest minority citizens but even the rights of “criminals,” because those rights belong to all of us?

What about the last two years of the “oughts,” when we finally elected an African-American president, and created a right to basic healthcare for not just the elderly but for everyone?  What about the first half of the present decade when that president, despite an obstructionist Congress, granted relief to at least some undocumented immigrants who’d grown up and built a life here and become as American as the rest of us, through his Dreamer program; that president led a little bit of a movement toward relaxing and/or not using the most outrageous mandatory minimum statutes; and that president used his clemency power to reduce the most egregious of those mandatory minimum sentences?  When multiple state courts and then finally a United States Supreme Court recognized our gay fellow citizens not only didn’t need to hide in the closet but could express their love through marriage just like everyone else?  And we had three women on that Supreme Court?

It’s these things in the third and fourth paragraphs that are “great.”  It’s continuing to do those things and doing more of them that will make America “great.”  And getting rid of – or avoiding – things like the ones in the first two paragraphs.

Donald Trump won’t “make America great again.”  But someday we can make it “great” – or at least closer to that ideal.  Despite Donald Trump.