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Steinberg: Trump slogan rings familiar

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September is half over, but Donald Trump is still here.

Turning away our gaze and jamming our fingers in our ears isn’t working.

We have to look at him again, in advance of Wednesday’s debate.

The general media assumption since Trump burst into the GOP presidential spotlight in June has been that he’d eventually go off the rails and say something so staggeringly crude that even Republicans would be disgusted, would wake from their slumber, realize exactly who they are in bed with and hastily collect their panties for the walk of shame.

But it’s mid-September. Trump is still here, and the GOP is still in bed with him.

Believe me, I’d prefer to leave the whole Donald Trump Phenomenon to historians and psychologists. I try to squint and think well of my country, try not to imagine that a major and once-respected party is romancing the erratic demagogue who would drag us into chaotic decline.

OPINION

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So let’s look at him.

My gaze keeps falling on Trump’s baseball cap: “Make America Great Again.”

You can buy it for $25 on his website.

Make. American. Great. Again.

It’s his campaign slogan. I’ve already discussed it as a racist code.

It’s another way of saying “America Isn’t Great Anymore.” They wouldn’t rally around that, even though that’s exactly what they believe. America was great, before the Fall, back in the Garden, at some happy time, when white people ruled and minorities were either back in their home countries where they belong, making stuff for us, or stepping off the sidewalk with a mumbled “Howdy suh.”

“Make America Great Again.”

That’s soooo familiar. Where did we hear that before? Step into the Way Back Machine, and set the dial to 1980.

Ronald Reagan.

Of course. The patron saint of Republicanism, the smiling presence who first taught them to hate their own government. So much cleaner than hating the people government helps, directly.

“For those who have abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope,” Reagan told the Republican National Convention in 1980. “And we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!”

There’s a lot going on in that sentence. Some Dante: “abandon hope ye who enter.” A little FDR: “This is a great national crusade to destroy enforced idleness.” Reagan liked to echo Roosevelt. He also threw out a lot of rendezvouses with destiny.

“Let’s Make America Great Again” was plastered on Reagan’s campaign buttons, on posters.

Trump acknowledges its origin with Reagan, though that hasn’t kept him from trying to trademark it.

“This is a great country, but it’s not being run like a great country,” Reagan said in a 1980 TV commercial that ended with the tag line. “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

Trump dropped the “Let’s,” since that suggests communal effort. Americans, led by Ronald Reagan, would join together to regain its lost greatness. With Trump, the implication is we don’t have to do anything beyond elect him. He’ll do the rest, starting with kicking out the Mexicans who are standing between us and greatness.

Trump is aping Reagan’s rhetoric. It got him elected, but did he follow through? Reagan was president for eight years; did he make America “great again?”

A complex question, but I was there, and America was plagued by events that were not exactly proof positive of greatness. An economy mired in “Reagan Recession,” with 10 percent unemployment and the worst stock market drop in history. Both the Marine barracks in Beirut and the space shuttle Challenger blowing up. Iran-Contra. Nancy and her astrologer. Not exactly our country’s finest hour.

I don’t want to be too hard on Reagan. He had his successes too.

And compared to Trump, Ronald Reagan is Aristotle. He said something — to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago in August 1980 — that bears remembering. Thanking them for their endorsement, he noted the four previous VFW commanders had been Democrats.

“When it comes to keeping America strong, when it comes to keeping America great, when it comes to keeping America at peace, then none of us can afford to be simply a Democrat or a Republican,” Reagan said. “We must all stand united as Americans.”

Keeping America great.” Three words you’ll never hear strung together by Donald Trump, because they imply that our nation is great still, and Trump believes the ship has sailed on American greatness. I don’t believe he is correct; then again, he hasn’t yet been elected president either.

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