Walking towards my departure gate at Reagan National Airport last October, I passed a kiosk selling merchandise items sporting the Make America Great Again (MAGA) slogan. The shop was closed for the evening, so I took advantage of the empty airport terminal to peruse the wares, wondering who still buys wearables blaring a political slogan nearly two years after its campaign ended.
It’s that word “again” in the MAGA phrase that stimulates my gag reflex. It’s been used as a mantra by so many, so often, it could almost stand alone as a message. This time, it’s an existential matter of definition; just exactly what is the meaning of again? It implies that a “something” once existed, now ceases to exist, and needs to be resurrected.
The proliferation of garb decorated with the meme of a retro campaign theme makes me wish that those who choose to wear it be required to take another history class. They need to learn about us—who we were in the past, are now, and could be in the future. They should start with comparing the demographics of American society and track the past 50, 100, or 150 years, graphing statistics in categories like life expectancy, wage increases, pollution levels, banking safety, fire departments, indoor plumbing, and disposable income ratio. Then they could determine precisely what era they would choose to compare with the present.
Obviously, what was the Golden Age in America depends on your race, gender, and religion. The Plantation economy was on a roll before the Civil War, but only because slavery was legal. The 1890s were good for the robber barons, but there was no minimum wage, child labor laws, or 40-hour work weeks. Oklahoma pioneers farmed cheap government land, but then, with no environmental protections, watched the Dust Bowl blow their profits across a million acres.
Labor Unions hit their peak during the 1940s, but then politicians tamed them, stagnating livable wages for the working class and giving CEOs more profits. Christian theology dominated the spirit of the law until the early 1960s when the protection of “the right to privacy” was deemed a Constitutional right, kicking off the Golden Age for women—making it legal to have contraceptives and credit cards. For African Americans, there was one Golden Day when Obama was elected President—but then they had to witness the strongest backlash to racial equality since the Jim Crow era. To that end, Caucasians feel their Golden Age is waning: 55 percent of white Americans now believe they are being discriminated against—but give no examples of legislation that would deny them any of the rights they’ve denied to others.
Ask anyone on the street what MAGA(gain) refers to, and you’ll likely get the party line that our decline in manufacturing, steel in particular, has cost us our position of strength in the world. You’ll hear the concern that perhaps we’re not still “number one” in military might. What you won’t get is any facts with those answers. Fortunately, economic and military strength are both easily measurable. We still are a leader in manufacturing. We still export at a healthy rate. We still have at least the second-largest army on the globe.
But those answers aren’t going to convince anyone wearing a MAGA hat.
True, we don’t manufacture and export the muscular products that made us wealthy. But we still have a monopoly on many lucrative commodities that are sold to almost every country in the world.
For example, the United States manufactures and exports 89 percent of the world’s pornography. Unfortunately, a big slice of earnings is lost to overseas markets through hackers, pirates, and homemade smut. Profits are hard to quantify because, as quoted by the associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism: “… pornography is an industry where they exaggerate the size of everything.” And with 428,000,000 porn website hosting pages, the U.S. leads the world by a longshot.
In addition to being the top exporters of obscenity, we are also the top exporters of obesity—in the form of global consumption of sugar, particularly in soft drinks. We ship soda to every country in the world except two: North Korea and Cuba. The American company that produces and bottles Coke and Pepsi, according to their website, is the “world’s most valuable brand associated with happiness … [and] are the number-one provider of sparkling beverages, juices, and ready-to-drink coffees.” The sugar they pump into their products are known causes of obesity—a world-wide health epidemic that contributes to diabetes and heart disease as well as orthopedic disabilities, as people struggle to carry extra weight on their backs and knees.
We also still keep our top-dog position in the manufacture and sale of arms, especially to Saudi Arabia, our biggest customer. We sold weapons to at least 98 countries between 2013 and 2017—even countries where rebel forces such as ISIS and the Taliban have used those weapons to fight against us when they get the opportunity. An added bonus: according to a 2016 Department of Defense audit, half of the 1.5 million weapons we supplied to Iraqi and Afghan military forces since 2002 ended up “missing” due to inadequate security, poor record-keeping, and lack of regulations.
And let’s talk about our military, which I served in for over seven years. Are we still the strongest and the smartest? China’s military is almost twice as large, but we’re still considered “the best” in terms of training. That may not last for long: of today’s population aged 17-24, 71 percent are not qualified for enlistment due to criminal convictions, drug use, obesity, medical problems, mental health diagnoses, low aptitude test scores, or lack of physical fitness.
Of the 29 percent who are qualified, only a few, less than 1 percent, have expressed any interest in joining—according to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. With such an overwhelmingly small pool of potential candidates, it’s especially ironic that anyone would think it vital to bar a few transgender people from taking the oath to guard our country. Ironically, factors for disqualification reflect the population demographic from rural areas in the south, like Kentucky, where obesity rates and drug abuse tend to be even higher—and where MAGA-wear is still very much in style.
And according to a 2010 article in the Military Times, “Overall, one in six military service members takes at least one type of psychiatric drug. The numbers are probably higher than estimated, since troops are also known to share and trade prescription drugs with each other, even while in combat zones.” Those outdated percentages are higher than the general population; as of 2014, nearly 13 percent of American teens take anti-depressant prescription drugs, not to mention additional medications for ADHD and anxiety disorders. As a country, we use more anti-depressants than anyone in the world.
Not surprisingly, pharmaceuticals are also one of our largest exports.
Harder Hat to Wear
So, we’re still great, if not the greatest—it’s just different products we’re making and selling. Plus, we use them ourselves; we’re drinking our own Kool-Aid. That’s our other most marketable product: delusion. Voters are made to think that we need to be great again, then convince the rest of the world to be like us, and then need a wall to keep them out.
But reality is a much harder hat to wear, because if you really want to make America great, you have to start with you. It’s not more steel we need to forge, it’s more people with backbones of steel—with the work ethic to go the distance. Instead, we provide our children a life of leisure before they’ve even earned one, playing video games on consoles made in China, to escape the real life they haven’t even experienced yet. It’s obvious that our education system isn’t working if people lack the logic to see through the con of a billionaire real estate developer. It’s not surprising that immigrants from Africa and India have higher levels of college and post-graduate degrees than home-grown Americans do.
But back to the airport kiosk display cabinet. Stacked neatly right next to the MAGA shirt for $9.99 was a similar product—a shirt with the Obama campaign image, selling for $12.99.
Citing the free-market law of supply and demand, I’d say that proves that there are a lot of us who are still willing to pay an extra premium for “Hope and Change.”
— Carol is a U.S. Army veteran, former ER nurse, and writes a bi-monthly column for The Journal. She lives in Berkeley County and hosts a textile art exhibit called “Fibers of Defiance” as part of her non-profit organization for veterans in the arts (USVAP.org). Her archived columns are published in book format, titled “the Age of Uterine Law.”
She can be contacted here.