Donald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again has been enthusiastically adopted in a British context by UKIP and deployed in a modified form by Conservatives. But why should we be wary of this seemingly uplifting phrase?
Calls for National Greatness are Nothing New
Last week I blogged about the origins of the autocratic libertarian ideology of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In many respects their political kinship reflects the Thatcher/Reagan consensus of the 1980s but in a much more dangerous form. In fact the phrase Make Britain Great Again has a long history, one which coincidentally involves Britain’s first female Prime Minister. It was used prominently by the Conservative Party in the 1950 General Election, notable for the first time Margaret Roberts stood for election as MP. They lost, though Roberts was to make her name famous as Margaret Thatcher.
Similarly, in the United States the idea that one person or family could ‘Make America Great Again’ long predates Trump. In fact neoconservatives such as David Brooks had been calling for it since the 1990s. Here is what he wrote in the Weekly Standard an outright neoconservative mouthpiece in 1997:
The national mission can be carried out only by individuals and families — not by collectives, as in socialism and communism. Instead, individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness.
It is important to note that Brooks also mistrusted democracy, believing that it would destroy a sense of grand ambition and noble purpose unless accompanied by an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. He disdained what he called a concern with ‘radical egalitarianism’ with its concern for compassion and caring. Surprisingly, it did not actually matter how this greatness was to be achieved, (provided that it was not advancement of the individual):
It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.
National Greatness at the Expense of Rights and Compassion
Whether consciously or not, Theresa May has adopted the assertion of Brooks that it does not matter what comprises the ‘great task’. This is what allows May, who opposed Brexit to enthusiastically embrace a Hard Brexit in pursuit of this shot at ‘greatness’. Likewise this great national crusade comes at the expense of private concerns, of the promotion of a caring and compassionate society or fuzzy, woolly things such as rights!