MAGA hats have become a symbol of support not just for Donald Trump but for a return to a lost world of white privilege. In the slogan “Make America Great Again,” the operative word is “again.” The slogan points vaguely to a time in the past when things were “great,” when white men were free to push black people, women, and immigrants around.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s admit the possibility of a more generous interpretation. In the wake of the Great Depression, many Americans during the mid-20th century—white Americans chiefly—experienced greater social mobility and economic security than at any time since. In the generous interpretation, “Make America Great Again” could mean let’s rebuild an America with that high level of opportunity and security. On its face, it could even mean let’s create those conditions for all Americans today.
But that generous view runs into a problem. The kinds of policies Trump and his party favor won’t bring back those conditions even for whites who are voting Republican, much less for everyone.
Here are five reasons why make-America-great conservatism has never made any sense on its own terms.
1. If we want to make America great, we need an updated understanding of the economy. The jobs of the future aren’t going to come from industries that belong to a fading past. Trump’s promises to revive coal and protect steel reflect an image of the economy and sources of employment that comes from a half-century ago. Coal is in the midst of an inexorable decline because of technological change, quite apart from environmental regulation; slapping tariffs on imported steel raises the price of inputs for other manufacturers and makes their goods less competitive. As the minor modifications Trump negotiated in NAFTA show, he was never going to reverse America’s interdependent trade relationships and bring significant numbers of high-paying jobs back that way. All the false hopes he has aroused have mainly served as cover for the one major economic policy the Republicans have passed—the 2017 tax legislation, with its giveaways to the rich.
2. If we want to make America great, we need to avoid a declining and aging population. Child-bearing in the United States has fallen below the replacement rate; in 26 states, there are more deaths than births among the white population. In that light, you’d think conservatives would recognize the need for policies to reduce the costs to families of raising children. That would mean providing public support for child care and paid family leave; it would mean help for families with housing costs and college costs. But since Republicans want to leave those things to the market, they have nothing to offer young families and no answers to the risk that America will enter a period of demographically driven national decline. Their opposition to immigration compounds the danger. Deporting millions of undocumented here would create an immediate economic crisis; businesses would go bust, and whole towns would die off. The higher birth rate among immigrants is a blessing; it helps counteract the falling birth rate of the native born. MAGA supporters ought to recognize that they will need enough workers to pay into Social Security while they’re collecting it. So if for no other reason they should favor immigration reforms that legalize the status of the undocumented who have long been here and that welcome immigrants in the future.
3. If we want to make America great, we need to support science and the universities, not undermine them. The conservative antagonism to knowledge-producing institutions makes no sense from the standpoint even of people who will never set foot in them. There is no economic alternative to investing in advanced research and education. That’s true not only for the familiar reason: new knowledge will be the basis for future growth. It’s true also because new knowledge is needed to regulate emerging technologies in the public interest. We are entering a dangerous era with the advances in artificial intelligence, big data, and other fields. Trump’s backward-looking conservatism has nothing to say on those subjects.
4. If we want to make America great, we have to face up to environmental realities. Denying climate change won’t stop it from happening, but it is blocking us from making necessary adjustments in our way of life and necessary investments to limit global warming and prepare for changes that can no longer be averted. If the Republican Party wasn’t so deeply tied to the fossil-fuel industry, perhaps it could free itself to confront the challenges posed by rising temperatures and rising sea levels. But precisely because the party is beholden to those interests, it is incapable of making America both green and great—the only way America's future can be great.
5. If we want to make America great, we need partners in the rest of the world. MAGA conservatism is not only backward-looking but inward-looking. It assumes that the United States was once great because it could push other countries around. But the real greatness came from alliances and cooperation. Globalism isn’t a conspiracy; it’s a necessity in a world with highly integrated economies, facing climate change, and trying to contain the risks from nuclear weapons and terrorism.
If liberals and progressives wanted to, they could make a much more persuasive case that their policies would “make America great again.” But the overtones of that slogan are ugly. “Greatness” is not as great as justice. Justice is greater than "just us." Those MAGA hats belong in a museum as a reminder to future generations of how many Americans in the early 21st century were unable to cope with change and struck out blindly against it. The next America has to find a path to national renewal that lives up to what is best in our traditions.