Though the phrase "Make America Great Again" will forever be associated with President Trump in the national consciousness, it's worth remembering that the phrase was employed decades earlier by Ronald Reagan during his 1980 presidential campaign. However, when Reagan used the phrase, it involved a dramatically different attitude toward immigrants than the current occupant of the White House.
The political world has been abuzz about a report that Trump, in an immigration meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, complained of Haiti and other African nations, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Though the White House initially released a statement that did not deny the remarks, this morning Trump said he used "tough" but different language and that he "never said anything derogatory about Haitians" other than pointing out that Haiti was "a very poor and troubled country." He also said that the deal being discussed, that he opposed, would let in "large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly." So whatever words he used, it seems pretty clear that Trump is trying to make the point that the U.S. shouldn't be allowing too many people to come from countries doing poorly.
Observing this discussion, it made me think back to a speech Reagan gave on Labor Day in 1980 from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The speech, in which he twice employs the phrase "make America great again," demonstrates the stark contrast between Reagan and Trump, and shows how the Republican party has evolved over the decades.
Saying that the setting was fitting, Reagan spoke of the families that came through Ellis Island right by the Statue of Liberty. "These families came here to work," he said. "They came to build. Others came to America in different ways, from other lands, under different, and often harrowing conditions, but this place symbolizes what they all managed to build, no matter where they came from or how they came or how much they suffered."
He went on to say that, "They helped to build that magnificent city across the river. They spread across the land building other cities and towns and incredibly productive farms. They came to make America work. They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom. They came from different lands but they shared the same values, the same dream."
Reagan then transitioned into the political meat of his remarks — describing the erosion of the dream and deterioration of the economy under President Jimmy Carter, and touting his plan to get the economy moving and restore the dream.
That's when he employed the phrase now associated with Trumpism: "This country needs a new administration, with a renewed dedication to the dream of America — an administration that will give that dream new life and make America great again!" He would repeat the phrase at the conclusion of his speech.
What's interesting is that many of the economic policies touted by Reagan were similar to what you'd see in a Trump speech — talk of deregulation and tax cuts. But the tone and substance of his remarks about immigrants could not be more different.
From the start of his campaign, Trump and his supporters have been more likely to portray immigrants as people who are coming here either to commit crimes or take jobs away from Americans. Yet here was Reagan, not only celebrating the concept of welcoming people from all sorts of places during his kickoff of the fall campaign, but arguing that it was immigrants who helped build the country and it was the dream that they embodied that was what made America great.
Whatever position one takes on immigration, it says a lot about the dramatic transformation of the Republican Party, from Reaganism to Trumpism. Reagan emphasized the importance of the U.S. as an idea that transcends its mere physical space, whereas Trump is more focused on it as a distinct land mass. To Trumpists, Reagan's vision was a naive Hollywood portrait of immigration, as demonstrated by the aftermath of the amnesty he signed in 1986, whereas Trump is being more realistic and protective of Americans. To NeverTrumpers, Reagan's vision was inspiring and hopeful and optimistic and inclusive, whereas Trump has taken things to a much darker place.
Read Reagan's full speech here, or watch it (in two parts) below.