Daryl Davis, a black musician who has made a practice of befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan, says he knows exactly what racists hear in the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Donald Trump “won the election on one word, one word only. And that word was ‘again,’ ” Davis says.
“When was ‘again?’ ” Davis asked during an interview at his home in May, discussing race relations in the age of President Trump. “Was it back when I was drinking from a separate water fountain? Was it when I couldn’t eat in that restaurant over there? … Make America Great Again — before I had equality?”
Trump told The Washington Post he thought of the slogan in 2012 and trademarked it immediately, although similar words have been used by politicians as far back as President Ronald Reagan.
President Bill Clinton is on record as having used it during his presidential campaign in 1991, although not as an official slogan. Yet, in 2008, while campaigning for his wife, he noted: “If you’re a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don’t you?”
Is it possible that Trump was elected to the presidency with a racially charged slogan? Or are supporters and critics just hearing what they want to hear?
Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now works to help other white supremacists leave the movement, says the slogan fits into the alt-right’s efforts to make its message more attractive by toning down the rhetoric.
“That was a concerted effort,” Picciolini says in an informational video for Vox news. “We knew we were turning more people away that we could eventually have on our side if we just softened the message. These days with our political climate we see a lot of coded language, or dog whistles.” (Picciolini’s use of “dog whistle” refers to a subtle message meant to be understood only by a particular group of people, like a whistle pitched high enough that a dog might hear it, but a human would not.)
“Make America Great Again?” Picciolini asks rhetorically. “Well, to them, that means make America white again.”
In June 2016, a Tennessee politician even put that on a billboard. Rick Tyler, running for a congressional seat in mostly white Polk County, Tennessee, explained that his “Make America White Again” billboard was meant to evoke the mood of 1950s America, when television shows idealized the image of the happy white family.
In a Facebook post, Tyler said, “It was an America where doors were left unlocked, violent crime was a mere fraction of today’s rate of occurrence, there were no car jackings, home invasions, Islamic Mosques or radical Jihadist sleeper cells.”
Tyler’s billboard quickly drew negative national attention and was taken down within a few days.
In June 2016, Tennessee congressional candidate Rick Tyler’s campaign posted this billboard in Polk County, Tennessee.
Better economic times
President Trump says he merely meant the slogan to refer to better economic times.
“I felt that jobs were hurting,” Trump told the Post in January. “I looked at the many types of illness our country had, and whether it’s at the border, whether it’s security, whether it’s law and order or lack of law and order.”
Trump said the slogan “inspired me, because to me, it meant jobs. It meant industry. And it meant military strength. It meant taking care of our veterans. It meant so much.”
David Axelrod, chief political strategist for former president Barack Obama, credits Trump with understanding his audience and crafting a message whose flexibility was part of its appeal.
Trump, Axelrod told the Post, “understood the market that he was trying to reach. You can’t deny him that.” He added, “In terms of galvanizing the market that he was talking to, he did it single-mindedly and ingeniously.”
So who is Trump’s market? According to surveys, at its core are white men in the blue-collar sector — the demographic with the most to lose when women and minorities started gaining more rights and earning power over the past few decades. But people who find promise in “Make America Great Again” come from more than just that narrow category.
Jason Rankin, a real estate agent in Knoxville, Tennessee, described his thoughts about the slogan this way: “Making America Great Again to me means at least the following things: less national debt, more secure borders, more freedom of speech, more gun rights, more job opportunities across the country (but especially in rural areas), higher GDP, stronger national security & a stronger military, more money in every American’s bank account.”
Tony Goicochea, an audio engineer in Washington, D.C., said Make America Great Again “has a vision to it,” as well as a reference that, to him, speaks of greater economic prosperity in the past, and financial lives unburdened by crippling debt.
Growing up in the 1980s, Goicochea said, “I saw people go to college, they graduated, and they got a job. That was it. They were able to move out on their own and start a life for themselves. So I think about our economics, how much better our economics were.”
Now, Goicochea noted, American families are experiencing a boomerang syndrome — recent graduates who have moved back in with their parents because they cannot make enough money to support themselves and pay off college debt.
Shannon Crannick, a retail consultant in Festus, Missouri, says she believes making America great again means “putting an end to all the hate that has come around in the last few years. Making it safe to walk down the street again. Less debt, secure borders, more support for the military, freedom of speech coming back, better help for the poor and people loving each other again.”
Better for whom?
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in September 2016, three-quarters of self-identified Trump supporters said America’s greatest days are in the past.
When the same question was asked of other demographic groups, however, five out of six African-Americans disagreed.
The polltakers concluded that one’s estimation of the country’s greatness depends on factors such as gender, race and education level — the kinds of factors that have a direct impact on income and political representation.
Hence, “Make America Great Again,” doesn’t just appeal to people who hear it as racist coded language, but also those who have felt a loss of status as other groups have become more empowered.
Marketing consultant Eva Van Brunt, a critic of the president, says the malleability of the words “great” and “again” are a common marketing trick: using words that sound positive, but lack specific meaning.
“By leaving a definitional vacuum around the word ‘great,’ it became very easy for groups to co-opt it, ascribing to it the meaning they wanted it to have,” Van Brunt says. “The same way a mother rests easy because her baby’s food has ‘all-natural’ written on the jar, Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacists were able to feel good about Trump because ‘great’ became interchangeable with white, heterosexual, male, hate, oppress, deport.
As for the word “again,” VanBrunt notes that it limits the audience to those who think America was once great and no longer is.
“That excludes those who never thought America was great for them and those who think America is great for them now,” she says. “Looked at from that vantage point, it’s hard to imagine that the co-opting by certain groups was accidental.”
For better or worse, the phrase is a loaded one, with potential to cause trouble between people who do not share the same interpretation.
On August 19 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., two white teenage girls on a summer enrichment trip entered a campus cafeteria while wearing “Make America Great Again” trucker hats that they had recently bought at a suburban mall.
Allie Vandee, left, tweeted this picture of herself and Sarah Applequist at Howard University Aug. 19, 2017. The Pennsylvania high school students said they were harasses for wearing the Make America Great hats on the campus of the historically black col
The girls, part of a group of students from Union City High School in Pennsylvania, say they were unaware Howard was an historically black university.
“I don’t even think our advisers really knew,” 16-year-old Allie Vandee, one of the hat-wearers, told Buzzfeed. “We just thought of Howard University, we know it’s historic, so we kinda went,” she said.
Howard University students who witnessed the event say students chastised the teenage visitors for wearing the slogan. One walked up and snatched at their hats. Another one cursed at them. The teenage girls left the cafeteria and shared their experience on Twitter. They say they were unfairly harassed.
The incident prompted discussions online and on campus at Howard. It has resulted in no major protests, turf wars or Twitter feuds. But it was an indicator of deeply different interpretations of that particular four-word phrase.
Student Merdie Nzanga, a junior at Howard, was in the cafeteria when the teenagers walked in. She said several of her friends confronted the teenagers for being insensitive.
“I didn’t say anything,” she told Buzzfeed. But, “to myself, I thought, ‘This is going to be trouble.'”