Make America Something Again

Trump’s riveting closing campaign ad:

‘Make America Great’, a slogan that rolls off the tip of the tongue and has become a refrain in popular culture, almost as memorable as Nike’s ‘just do it’. But what does it mean? And how does one Make America Great? A common theme of political ads and campaigns such as the clip above, but also for the ‘left’, too, is rolling America back to a ‘simpler’ time, to restore something that is lost – innocence, happiness, manufacturing jobs, ‘national pride’, job security, and so on.

But the problem with political ads and campaigns, in general, is the reductionism, in reducing the complexity and totality of society and the economy to simple stock characters that are a synecdoche for America as a whole. A clip of the factory worker represents all men. The clip of the teacher represents all women. The imagery of Wall St. and money printing presses represents corruption by some sort of elite apparatus or occult hand that is somehow conspiring against the aforementioned workers, the telos being the destruction of the ‘middle class’. It’s a simple good vs. evil narrative wrapped up into two minutes, for easy consumption and to evoke emotion.

You’ll never see campaign ads featuring white collar workers, despite the fact they actually make up the majority of workers (60%), not blue collar workers:

Wall St. is not the evil that campaign ads and rhetoric portray it to be. Markets are how companies raise money so they can expand. Markets, by providing pricing transparency, are actually beneficial to the public and commerce, in general. Without markets and speculators, no would know how much anything is worth. Although prices can fluctuate wildly, markets are a real-time pricing mechanism that allow goods to be priced in a manner that is as ‘fair’ as possible, a committee of sorts whereby market participants and speculators cast ‘votes’ – buy or sell – to determine the fair price of something – be it a stock or a commodity – and through millions of these votes prices eventually converge to a value that is ‘correct’ rather than ambiguous. And the whole process is transparent. Futures markets allow those farmers that politicians love to pander to, to hedge, creating stability.

Wealth from Wall St. often trickles down to fund creative endeavors that may not generate profit but provides aesthetic value to society – things such as parks, movies, and museums. Even Stephen K. Bannon, chief executive officer of Trumps’ campaign, worked at Goldman in the 80’s and early 90’s, becoming wealthy after selling his spin-off firm, Bannon & Co, in 1998 and using his wealth to direct movies and various conservative causes.

A common theme of campaign ads is that America is broken, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Disposable income and living standards have surged since the 70’s, an era of ill-fitting hand-me-downs, grainy TV sets with limited channels, and gas lines. Nowadays, $7 Starbucks coffees are the norm, with $15 Chipotle lunches, and all while watching Netflix on an iPhone. Such extravagances were inconceivable decades ago, back when entire families had to share a single TV and food was much blander.

To quote David Brooks, there is an an epidemic of worry. Politicians are still stuck in ‘Carter’s America’, an era when the economy was dominated by both manufacturing jobs and high inflation, forgetting or ignoring how much better and different things have become. And enough with the obsession with manufacturing. Young people aren’t distraught about factory jobs going away – rather they are watching concerts outdoors and posting pictures of it on Instagram. For your average millennial in America, life is pretty good. Even as manufacturing jobs go away, new jobs are always being created: coding, web design, online tutoring, consulting, automotive repair, and Uber driving – all examples of growth industries that a decade ago either didn’t exist or were much smaller.

Just, as I explain in a post criticizing Michael Moore’s patronizing attitude to blue collar workers, as there is no single ‘blue collar worker’, there is no single ‘American’, nor single ideal of what it means to ‘Make America Great’. For millennials, to Make America Great may mean better job prospects and less student loan debt. For the middle-aged, it may mean retirement security and affordable healthcare. It may mean existential fulfillment. Or maybe something else. None those will be solved by campaign rhetoric, assuming a solution can ever exist. But given all the technological and economic progress made in the past three decades (America gave the world Facebook, Tesla, Google, and Apple), the path forwards seem better than longing for a return to the past.