Donald Trump vows to “Make America Great Again,” and on Tuesday, a good chunk of the Republican electorate implored him to do just that by handing him victories in Illinois, Florida, and North Carolina. If elected, Trump promises, he will restore America to its former glory and make life good again for Americans whose lives, Trump’s campaign slogan implies, are no longer particularly good. For Trump’s base of white, working-class men without college degrees, this message resonates: This used to be a great country for them, and now they are hurting. But for most Americans, the good old days weren’t actually that good, and the “greatness” Trump talks about was delivered on the backs of large swaths of the American public. When Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” we should ask: Great for whom?
Certainly not for women, or Americans of color, or children, or gay men, or religious minorities. In the bygone days that Trump harkens back to, it wasn’t so great to be anything but a straight white Christian male. Trump, of course, doesn’t specify when, exactly, America was “great,” but at no point in history was this country a better place to live as a female citizen, or a black one, or a very young one, than now. The establishment of the republic? We have “Founding Fathers” for a reason: Men (white ones) were the only ones in charge. Women couldn’t vote or own property, and they lost their individual rights when they married, since they were legally absorbed into their husbands. Women couldn’t enter into contracts on their own but were still automatically liable for their husbands’ debts. White landowners, including many of the Founders, owned and enslaved blacks, who were not only ripped from their homes and forced into servitude, but routinely beaten, raped, and resold away from their families. There’s also the small detail that American land was stolen from Native Americans, many of whom were murdered directly or killed off by new germs early on in the European settlement of the United States, and who saw their communities torn apart not just by early American wars but by centuries of colonization and land-grabs.
Maybe Trump is talking about the period just after the Civil War, when the country was officially reunited after a painful Southern secession. Still, in 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could bar women from certain jobs, holding that Illinois didn’t have to grant a married woman a license to practice law. “[C]ivil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley in his concurrence. “Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” African-Americans were freed from slavery, but disease, neglect, and poverty meant that hundreds of thousands died in the immediate aftermath of emancipation. Those who survived saw their opportunities quickly narrow, as conservative, mostly Southern states passed a series of laws restricting the rights of black citizens. Black men could vote, but not black women; even for many black men, the promise of a vote was a mirage, as states set up nearly impossible-to-surmount barriers to African-American voting. Those barriers were wildly successful, and by the turn of the century, virtually no Southern blacks were able to cast a ballot and participate in the political process. The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful social and political force, effectively restoring white supremacy; African-Americans were terrorized, assaulted, lynched, and murdered, the murderers and assailants rarely prosecuted.
Perhaps, Trump believes, America was great during the World War I era. In the early 20th century, women died from childbirth in huge numbers. Children, too, perished at astounding rates. Married women typically couldn’t open their own bank accounts or have independent access to their money. Birth control — even talking about the benefits of birth control — was largely illegal. Jim Crow laws were in full effect, with the Supreme Court holding a few years earlier that keeping the races “separate but equal” was just fine and dandy (although of course in reality, separate meant vastly unequal). The Ku Klux Klan continued to gain in popularity. For years, Congress wasn’t even able to outlaw lynching: Southern Democrats, then the party that represented conservatives whites in the South, repeatedly defeated anti-lynching bills.
Is Trump instead harkening back to World War II, when the “greatest generation” went to fight in Europe and the Pacific theater, and women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers? Even then, women were paid at half the rate of men, and were swiftly removed from the workforce when the men came home. Very few were able to attend college. African-Americans, many of whom fought in the war, continued to live as second-class citizens under segregationist policies across the South. Japanese-Americans were locked up in internment camps.
The 1950s are often held up as a beacon of conservative American morality; perhaps that is when America was great. When was teen pregnancy at its highest rate since researchers began recording teen pregnancy rates? The 1950s. The difference was that most women (or girls, as the case was) married before the baby was born, often locking themselves into less-than-ideal relationships. Girls who got pregnant and didn’t marry were social outcasts, forced to quit school and often shunted off to private homes where they would give birth only to be forced or coerced into adoption. Young white women were expected to marry young and serve their husbands instead of finishing college or pursuing their own ambitions; women of color and working-class women routinely worked outside of the home for depressed wages and little respect, and were often vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault, for which there was little practical recourse. Gay men and lesbians largely lived firmly in the closet; those who stepped out could face public humiliation, loss of their jobs, involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, and near-total ostracism. Jim Crow laws didn’t meet their end until the mid-1960s, and so while Trump may be enjoying Leave It to Beaver reruns, the black-and-white reality for much of the country was considerably uglier.