Our American ‘exceptionalism’ allows us to shimmer, too fully in our greatness. We are the biggest and the baddest. We are the best armed and the most influential. We win the most Olympic medals, and we have the most nuclear weapons. America! The greatest! We are so great that we wave our flags and shout out, “USA!!” In some ways it is an imperialist chant, a chant of dominance, a chant that ignores the fact that we chant because have the luxury, as a nation, of an uneven playing field, especially in terms of resources. I’m not jumping down and flag waving.
It took the Simones (Biles and Manuel) to win gold medals for me to celebrate the Olympics. It took just a flip of the switch, a flick of the kaleidoscope, for me to see it differently. While there is a great difference between the athlete who comes from a highly subsidized Russian or Chinese context, to one who comes from an urban area combining grit and corporate sponsorship, as in the United States, to those who either make it on their own or cobble together possibilities, all of these athletes are chasing greatness and perfection. Indeed, their props may be a metaphor for the props that we all face in life. Some will be subsidized, some will scrap, and sometimes the cream rises to the top, regardless of barriers.
Even as Olympians strutted their excellence, enforcing the notion that America is “great” at least in our medal dominance, Republican candidate Donald Trump has a campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ The use of the word ‘again’ suggests that we were great, once upon a time, and that we have to regain something that we lost. When were we ‘great’? What have we lost? What does it take to make us great again?
Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump said he views the 1980s as the time when things were good for the nation, though he also hearkened back to the late 1700s and early 1800s.
“The industrial revolution was certainly, in terms of economically, that was when we started to grow,” Trump said. “I liked the Ronald Reagan years. I thought the country had a wonderful, strong image.”
The basis of the Industrial Revolution was a credit system that relied on using enslaved people as collateral to lend and spend for economic expansion. The north and south were always connected, even in war, with economics often trumping ideology. The Cornell University historian Edward Baptiste, in his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of U.S. Capitalism, connects the dots between southern oppression and northern complicity. The era that Mr. Trump touts includes legislation to penalize those who dare educate enslaved people in the early nineteenth century, and the oppression of Black Codes in the post-Reconstruction era. Mr. Trump wants to make America great, but for whom?
Whenever anyone does that throwback stuff, we used to be great, I have to wonder what he or she are nostalgic for. Do they wish they were in the land of cotton? Are they hankering for segregationist signs? Or are they simply pining for the days when, though it was unstated, White was right and everybody else had to step. This manifested by the assumption of deference, the assumption that African Americans would step aside, allow a White person behind them in line step ahead, shrug off micro-aggressions because they “aren’t that deep.”
Many have touted our ‘Greatest Generation,’ the World War II contributors, as people who made America great. Yeah? These folks had to elbow their way into our nation’s service, fighting for the right to fight, struggling for the right to contribute. Is this what you call greatness, Donald Trump? Are we all supposed to put blinders on to the cracks in our collective national armor?
Thus it is exciting that President Obama signed an executive order to stop the rampant use of a distorted statement called the Pledge of Allegiance. He wrote that federal office and contractors should not force employees to swear to “One Nation under God,” and that’s a good thing. One nation? With a Black unemployment rate twice that of White? One nation? With such significant economic differences that they glare? One nation? Not really. How do I pledge allegiance to a flag “and to the republic for which it stands.”
President Obama tickled me, for the first time during his presidency, by reminding us of the flaws in the Pledge of Allegiance. How do we transcend the flaws? When Trump’s ‘great again’ suggest ‘slave again’ to me?