As a historian, the political slogan “Make America Great Again,” raised an obvious question—What period of history does Donald J. Trump think was great? The answer seems to be the 1950s. Many Baby Boomers remember the 1950s, the decade of their childhood, as a magical time. In reality, the 1950s were good for a certain subset of Americans. And even for that subset the memory is better than the reality. If Donald Trump really wants to take America back to the 1950s, then his agenda, budget, and foreign policies are an attempt at making that happen. If left unchecked his plans will radically reshape our country and the world.
Most of the agencies and laws headed to the chopping block under Trump’s administration are those passed after the 1950s. Medicare, Medicaid, Ameri-Corps, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Voting Rights Act of 1965 are Great Society programs passed during the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) in the 1960s. LBJ wanted a “War on Poverty” that helped the marginalized people in our communities—the old, young, poor, and minorities. For the most part, these are the people who did not do well in the 1950s. Cutting “Meals on Wheels” would be a perfect example of how Trump’s budget cuts target these specific groups. It’s the same for the Water Quality Act, Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency, these acts and agencies protect poor Americans.
Moreover, if these domestic plans go forward and the Korean Peninsula explodes in war, then we might full well see a recycling of the 1950s. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, boys sporting flat tops, joining Boy Scout troops, and marching off to wars in Asia, the Fifties will be back again.
Along with the imagined ideal qualities of the Fifties, we will all get to enjoy smog, polluted water, and the smell of waste. We will live a life of segregation, racism, bigotry, and poverty. There will be fewer educational opportunities, and a lack of medical care. The Fifties were pretty great, I guess, if you were a white male with plenty of money.
As a middle class white man, I shouldn’t be complaining. The 1950s represent the height of power and prestige for white guys like me.
But I am a worried about the people in the rural communities where I live and work. The majority of people here voted for Donald J. Trump. Yet it will be their children and parents who will suffer the most from his policies. It will be those living in poverty and voting for Republicans that will feel the pain first. It will be their water that is poisoned (for example, Ranger, Texas) and it will be their kids that play near the smoke billowing factories and the fractured gas wells.
Men like Trump may benefit from erasing the policies and governmental protections enacted during and after the Great Society but no one else will. The rest of the U.S.—the poor, the minorities, and the emigrants—will realize quickly that the slogan “Make America Great Again” really meant “Make the citizenry pay so rich white men can grow even wealthier.”