Donald Trump claims he will make America great again. Hillary Clinton responds that America has never quit being great. Bernie Sanders seems to have his doubts that America has ever been great, but he would be happy to try to make her so if only the American people would give him the power to make America something other than America. And Ted Cruz knows that America will seem great by comparison once he has reduced the Middle East and Russia to wastelands of glowing sand.
Growing up in West Michigan in the recession of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, I knew that times were hard, but I didn’t need anyone to tell me that America was great, or that she had once been so and could be again. The Reagan vision, in his 1984 reelection campaign, of “Morning Again in America” was no more profound than the slogans of today’s presidential candidates, but it was qualitatively different. It acknowledged that the United States had been through a rough patch recently—as those of us here in the Rust Belt of the Upper Midwest could certainly testify—but implicitly recognized that such times were to be expected every once in a while. The Great Depression was only two generations back; as their parents had taught them, our parents taught us not to waste water and to turn off the lights when we weren’t using them and to reuse (something different from recycling) paper not because it was the virtuous thing to do but because it was prudent. Everything cost money, and one could never be sure just how much of it your family might have next week. We grew vegetables and made sauerkraut and canned peaches and plums and beets and pickles, bought our beef by the side from my grandparents or uncles, and dug potatoes and stored them over the winter, and not just because all of these were better than what we could buy in stores. It was so we wouldn’t have to buy them in stores.
Life had its ups and downs, and if it seemed as if the downs were sometimes lower than the ups, our elders simply reminded us that it’s always darkest just before the dawn. Yes, their platitudes, like some of our clothes, were hand-me-downs, but that didn’t make them any less true.
When people say that life has its ups and downs, they usually have in mind a single life, or perhaps that of a family, but what is true of a small number of people applies just as well to a greater community. And when we speak of a community, we also imply a certain place (or at least we did in the days before the rise of identity politics—“the LGBT community”—and of the internet). We speak of the passage of life in terms of days (morning, noon, night) and seasons (spring, summer, winter, fall). And the thing about the cycles of nature is that they are continuous—no matter how long and dark the night, the sun will come up again; no matter how cold and rough the winter, there will be a first robin of spring—and they look different depending on where you live. Because of Lake Michigan, there’s nothing quite like a Chicago sunrise, or a West Michigan sunset; but the reverse can’t be said to be true.
Nearing a half-century of life, I have seen a lot of sunrises and sunsets, and the change of the seasons has been moving uncomfortably quickly in recent years. And I have seen the ups and downs of my family, across multiple generations, and of communities that have meant much to them and still mean a great deal to me. And my knowledge of the history of the places from which my people come and where I have lived and now live gives me a certain perspective on what it means to speak about the greatness, or lack thereof, of America—not of some abstract idea of this country, but of the lives of real people in real places, the triumphs and tragedies of families and communities, the sunrises and sunsets.
My father’s family, German immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, settled in the knobs of Southern Indiana, overlooking the Ohio River Valley, in 1832, and over the intervening two centuries, the hard times there have come and gone, again and again. Sometimes, those hard times led to hard choices, and people left their homes and their kin to create new homes and families elsewhere. That’s why my father was born in Ottawa County, Michigan, and not in Harrison County, Indiana. Yet others stayed, and made it through the darkest days of the Depression, and farming communities that, a few years earlier, looked as if they were on the brink of extinction got a new lease on life. Yet today some of those towns are struggling once more, and young people are leaving once again, and among those who are staying rootedness has not always been an effective vaccine against the pathologies of modern life—illegitimacy, divorce, alcoholism, and drug use chief among them. For many, the farming life gave way to factory jobs; the factory jobs gave way to NAFTA; and it’s not quite clear yet what morning will bring.
What the broad scope of history makes clear, though, is that morning will come, so long as there is someone still around to greet the sunrise. Communities are resilient when there are those who are willing to remain where they are planted, and to try to build for the future on the foundations of the past, and who understand that what makes life worth living cannot be measured simply in dollars and cents. Loyalty to people and to place has a value, and that recognition, as I wrote in these pages in March, lies at the heart of any conservatism worthy of the name. To draw an analogy in crude economic terms that even a libertarian should be able to understand, such loyalty is the capital that can be used to create something new.
Loyalty, however, is a foreign concept to many self-proclaimed conservatives today—certainly most of those who speak on behalf of conservatism on FOX News, or write articles for conservative publications damning certain presidential candidates for “betraying” core “conservative principles.” What’s more important—real people in real places, or abstract economic “principles” that justify casting off everything that has made you who you are, so that you can try to make yourself someone you never quite will be?
“If Your Town Is Failing, Just Go” Kevin D. Williamson wrote in National Review late last year. (Let it never be said that he has failed to take his own advice: Williamson is a “roving editor” for NR.) But if this is a “conservative principle,” where does its application end? Would Mr. Williamson counsel his readers, “If your marriage is failing, just go”? If your family is failing (however one might define said failure), should you just pick up and leave your parents and siblings behind? What about your church? Your friends? Your coworkers? How far must NR’s subscriber base decline before Mr. Williamson decides it’s time to rove farther afield?
Nothing Mr. Williamson has written in this article or others on this theme offers any rational argument why this counsel should not apply to anything else in life. I suspect that he would argue that it is self-evident that there is a difference. And therein lies the rub, because for normal people—most men and women in most times and most places—this loyalty to people and place, to friends and neighbors, to home and hearth and kith and kin does not vanish when times get hard, when others need us the most, but grows in moral weight and intensity. We may wish to run, to justify leaving our responsibilities behind in order to greet the sunrise somewhere else, but we know—instinctively, intuitively—that the decision to do so cannot be made lightly without losing some essential part of our humanity. There’s a reason why no normal person thinks that Mr. Potter, rather than George Bailey, is the hero of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
The problem today is not that there are too few jobs (though there are) in the places where people live; the problem is that Big Government and Big Business and both parties and Conservatism, Inc., have worked hard for decades to rob the American people of their desire for self-sufficiency and the imagination necessary to provide for themselves when times turn tough—and we have been all too willing to let ourselves be robbed. When my family came to Southern Indiana two centuries ago, there was no “economy” to speak of in Harrison County. Yet they broke the ground and built homes and raised up families because they could see possibility in the land and in the community they established. Like millions of others across this continent, they put down roots, and America grew.
Donald Trump isn’t the first candidate to use the slogan “Make America Great Again.” As he has in other elements of his campaign, Trump borrowed this slogan from Reagan (though it is worth considering that Reagan’s version was “Let’s make America great again,” an implicit acknowledgement that no president can do it by himself). Internally, the Reagan campaign had a different slogan—“Let Reagan Be Reagan”—that Aaron Sorkin borrowed for his political drama The West Wing. Trump’s closest advisors have borrowed it, too (whether from Reagan or Sorkin or both is hard to tell), and for several months it looked as if it might work to “Let Trump Be Trump.”
We will probably never see it, but I keep hoping for a campaign that will take that formula and make it a public slogan, not about the candidate but about the country: “Let America Be America.” Let people grow where they’re planted; let Reagan’s Dixon, Illinois, and Trump’s Queens, New York, be what the people who have invested their lives in each wish them to be. Give them a chance to put down roots and to raise up a family where children know their grandparents. Quit consolidating the economy in the hands of Big Business in the name of “economic growth” and “free trade”; quit empowering Big Government by piling debt upon Americans in order to invade the world, and disrupting their lives by inviting the world. Forget the “poor, huddled masses”; let’s see what happens if we let Americans once again breathe free.