In Reagan’s 1984 campaign for reelection, he assured us that by fighting the enemy, which he thought government to be, he had made it “morning again in America.” The 37.5 million Americans who didn’t view government as the enemy and who believed he had changed America for the worse found the slogan difficult to counter. It took too many words to persuade voters that it had never been night. And Mondale would not have improved his chances by adopting a slogan such as “Night Is Good.”
In 2016, Trump ran on “Make America Great Again.” It suggests – demands – a comparison. The country under the previous president, a Democrat, had no claim to greatness; under Donald Trump, it would be tremendously, incredibly, unbelievably great.
Trump’s and Reagan’s tropes are unworthy of a serious leader. So too is Biden’s “Build Back Better.” Historically, none have been more unworthy than “I Like Ike.” These are empty boxes to be filled with whatever beliefs, resentments, enthusiasms, facts, or alternate facts each voter has at the ready. It’s usually pretty clear what each candidate wants and expects to be put into his box, but voters are free to fill it with whatever they want.
Campaigns would better serve the creation of a more perfect union if slogans spoke of specific policies and programs. If Trump were to run outright on “Americans for Rich White Men” voters would have an unclouded view of what he wants to do. And Biden might try “End Global Warming” or something like that. Neither of my suggestions would reveal details of implementation, but they would be slightly more indicative of what the candidates will try to do than are the slogans actually being used. As it is, voters have to guess what Trump and Biden mean. Guessing is aided, of course, by the candidates’ records.
Bernie Sanders gave us certainty with “Medicare for All.” We knew exactly where George Wallace wanted to take the country when he snarled, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Lincoln’s “The Union Can and Must Be Preserved” also comes to mind. Then there is the implied promise of Woodrow Wilson’s reelection campaign, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Demonstrating that campaign slogans are not guarantees, four months after his inauguration, Wilson signed a declaration of war against Germany.
Occasionally, political slogans are so entertaining their effectiveness is beside the point. Some Nixon supporters used “You can’t lick our Dick.” And there is a T shirt for sale now that reads “Unfuck America.” Like MAGA, it is premised on the regrettable nature of the past, only far more evocatively.
Weighed down by the prevalence of division and violence and not having the comfort of substantive slogans or elevator pitches, I am relying on a metaphor of my own: rear-guard action.
It’s usually used to suggest that strong defense of some lost cause is like the protection of a retreating military force by a rearguard (poor bastards). In referring to actual military activity, rear-guard action is often described as “furious” or “bitter.” My sense is that Trump’s hallucinatory America is in retreat. And as its defeat becomes more certain, the battle becomes bloodier. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and loony bloggers are the rearguard. “As everyone knows,” Hillary Clinton ran a child-trafficking ring in a pizza joint, and Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and other influential Democrats are cannibals. Feel free to add your favorites,
In retreat, Trump seems to grow steadily less restrained by reason and decency. He recently suggested that Congresswoman Omar married her brother, with the unspoken subtext that (as everyone knows) it’s what Somali immigrants do. And Somalis are pouring into the Minnesota suburbs, so get the woman and children off the streets and man the barricades. He takes private citizen Joe Biden to task for not “mandating” the use of masks. He sure sounds to me like someone who knows he’s whipped.
As bloody and awful as this rear-guard action is, I welcome it. It means Trump’s unprincipled, angry, narcissism-driven scorched earth way of governing has lost. We will soon be able to repeat the words Gerald Ford spoke upon taking office following Nixon’s forced resignation. “Our long national nightmare is over.” The American experiment is going to survive its four-year-long, near-death experience. If I’m wrong, well, few things last forever, maybe not even democracy.