AS A CAMPAIGN slogan, it wasn’t new.
But by taking ‘Make America Great Again’ – previously used in campaigns like Ronald Reagan’s – and making it his own, Donald Trump helped to reflect his supporters’ desires and move towards an unexpected victory.
Today, the new President-elect of the United States pledged to be a “President of all Americans”, telling people that:
Ours was not a campaign, but rather an incredible movement of people who want a better future for themselves and their family.
Key to that movement was tapping into the fears of voters who felt that the America they lived in, the America they loved, had gone downhill. The slogan speaks to people who desired not just for a new America, but one which takes its cues from the America of old – America updated. America V 2.0.
A return to the past glory days, to employment, to stability, to working together to realise the American dream.
Those who felt that the America of 2016 held nothing for them could look to Trump as someone who promised a return to the ideals they held dear.
But with Trump’s varied and controversial views on women and minorities, there were millions others for whom ‘Make America Great Again’ made them fear a return to pre-civil rights era USA.
Bill Clinton used the phrase himself at a campaign event in 1991, and again in a campaign ad for Hillary in 2008 – but when it came to Trump, he said that the use of the phrase was racist.
Given the amount of social change that has gone on in the US in the past century, the slogan Make America Great Again could, in some people’s eyes, return the country to an era where multiculturalism and social progression were disfavoured.
As Tavis Smiley of PBS wrote, the slogan raises many questions – not least of which: How is Trump defining greatness?
And to what specific period of American greatness are you wanting us to return?
Smiley gave the example of a student who asked him during a talk:
Mr Smiley, do you believe that given the crisis state of our democracy, we black folk could ever find ourselves enslaved again?
Make America Great Again connects with the patriotic, American dream-focused attitude of those who herald their great country. But it also sparks fears of a return to an America where ‘great’ equaled power for some, but not for all – and a fierce fight needed for progression.
A clear objective
So what makes a slogan like Make America Great Again so effective?
Eoghan McDermott is director of the Communications Clinic, which specialises in communications training. He has advised politicians, campaigners and the media on their approaches to campaigns, and told TheJournal.ie:
What you’re looking for in any slogan, whether it’s for a company or a business, is to be able to in a clear and concise way sum up what you’re all about. So Trump clearly had an objective of a message that he would make America great again.
“However,” continued McDermott, “a slogan is useless if it is isn’t targeted at a specific audience”. It also needs to resonate with people in terms of the message it sends out.
In one way, Make America Great Again – or #MAGA on Twitter – means whatever the supporters want it to mean. If they share the same political beliefs as Trump, then it’s clear to them what a ‘great’ America is – or was.
What Trump did with Make America Great Again, said McDermott, was appeal to “disenfranchised people who no longer believed America was the great country they had grown up in and lived in and loved, and so it connected with them”.
I think if you compare it to the Fine Gael slogan ‘Keep the recovery going’, it was a pithy short slogan but that didn’t resonate with a core audience and didn’t connect with them in a way that was meaningful.
McDermott noted that Trump’s slogan appealed to people who “felt they were becoming marginalised under Obama’ presidency” and those who distrusted Hillary Clinton,
“I think there was a huge distrust of Hillary Clinton and if the things that happened to Trump were to happen to any other election candidate or any other person, they would have dropped out,” said McDermott. “If Mitt Romney was caught saying the things that Trump said or Mitt Romney was doing the things Trump did, I think Romney would have had to drop out.”
As an orator, Trump has been less than impressive, but it hasn’t always been so much about what he is saying – though what he was saying was at times unprecedented froman election candidate – but also how he has been saying it.
“He is somebody who is supremely confident in what he is saying,” said McDermott.
I think he has the capacity to dominate the media by saying things that media find interesting. And I think he has a capacity to say things in layman’s terms that that audience he is targeting can understand. He speaks to people’s emotions and plays on that rather than anything else.
Trump knows, said McDermott “that there are large swathes of the population that are internally focused and wondering ‘what is in this for me?’ and they have the sense over the last four, or maybe eight, years that there has been very little in it for them” and so is able to capitalise on this.
As for Hillary Clinton, McDermott said his criticism of her campaign would be her “inability to create a really clear vision of what America would look like under her presidency”.
The slogans most connected with Clinton were Stronger Together and I’m With Her, the latter being most effective in terms of connecting with her supporters – but not so much with bringing new people into the fold.
This again speaks to the power in Trump’s slogan. Clinton spent a lot of time reacting to issues, pointed out McDermott. “Which again you could say is partly due to Trump’s capacity to dictate the agenda, which led her to fighting on his territory.”
Whether it is in an election or a referendum, what you are always trying to do is get opposition on your territory.
Not only did Clinton not always get Trump onto her territory, but the scandals around her email server helped to confirm the suspicions that were in some people’s minds.
As for whether Trump can indeed make America great – and what ‘great’ means in the eyes of the people who call it home – we will see what happens when he settles into his new role in 2017.
The reaction to his election today showed that though swathes of people believe that the America he envisions will hold jobs, hope, and unity, there are others who see it as a fractured country with deep divisions.