Greatness as Identity Politic

This essay was first submitted to The London School of Economics and Political Science

How did a red baseball cap with four words wield so much political power? When Donald Trump descended down the elevators of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for U.S. President, he brought renewed political relevance to the phrase “Make American Great Again [MAGA]” initially popularized by Pres. Ronald Reagan’s 1980s campaign.” This essay will analyze the salience of the phrase MAGA that led Trump to victory, situating it in scholarship considering nostalgia, belonging, collective memory, and authentic identities.

MAGA as a campaign slogan is uniquely multifunctional. The versatility of MAGA amplifies its salience and complicates analysis. I argue the primary function of MAGA is to evoke memory, specifically memory of American exceptionalism and success, in the interest of leveraging the concepts of nostalgia, belonging, and authenticity for the purpose of gaining political power. There exists an implicit contrast between the present and the past just by nature of the phrasing. When Pres. Trump evokes MAGA in his speeches or in the public domain, he asserts that the United States of America is not ‘great.’ While the value judgement expressed in the dictation of the expression is vague, his campaign’s language, as presented throughout this essay, clarifies what he’s referencing.

Nostalgia, as a scholarly concept, has evolved since its earliest construction. Swiss Doctor Johannes Hoffer coined the term as a medical conception in 1668 to describe a sad mood of someone longing to return to their homeland.[1] He noted that patients suffering from nostalgia produced “erroneous representations”—distortions of reality—caused by an obsession for a past native land. Contemporary scholarship on nostalgia advances the initial medical theories into the abstract, making nostalgia social and cultural phenomenon that cannot fully be understood through an Aesculapian lens. The nostalgia evoked by the phrasing of Make America Great Again is that of the latter—a nostalgia that it is abstract and cannot be cured with a prescription as Hoffer imagined.

Boym notes that “nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement but is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.”[2] MAGA as an expression is an active vehicle for conjuring nostalgia because it taps into fantasies that already exist. In his official speech declaring his intention to run for president, then-candidate Trump ended his remarks saying “Sadly, the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”[3] At the time observers noted that the U.S. economy had been growing and expanding, yet to Trump the American dream of economic and cultural prosperity was “dead.” When applied, Hoffer’s earliest work explains this phenomenon of seeking to return to an imagined period of success in American history even when substantive data would suggest that before the 2016 election the U.S. was undergoing one of the most successful periods in recent memory after a domestic financial crisis. This ‘erroneous representation’ is at the heart of nostalgia’s operation as a device for political persuasion.

Whiteness as a constructed political and cultural identity propelled Pres. Trump into office. Much intellectual work took place in crafting platforms, policies, media, and outreach that tapped into the specific communities Pres. Trump carried. Several scholars and mostly conservative commentators alike have tried positing Trump’s success as a result of economic anxiety and exhaustion by White Americans, like those showcased in Strangers in their Own Land and others. Opponents of that idea have raised concerns that simply understanding Trump’s ascent to the presidency as a result of dissatisfaction with material economic conditions ignores the reality that racial resentment and issues of culture not only mattered, but were a driving force in Trump winning over the communities he did. I agree with those who reject the notion that Trump voters did so exclusively in response to a declining economic status—racial resentment and cultural hostility certainly entertained and affected Trump’s base. Where standard analysis of these points of cultural discord could be improved, or made more explanatory, is in articulating the importance of the function of memory and nostalgia in explicit terms.

Understanding the impact of the Make America Great Again campaign requires an interrogation of the implicit geographic assumptions in the phrase. In its purest form, America refers to the United States of America as the nation-state. Post-colonial discourse challenges this very idea. To whom is America, ‘America’? Will an indigenous woman from Oklahoma feel the same claim to land and space as a white man from northern Alabama? These are two people who share very different demographics from and two areas in the same nation with starkly different cultural conventions. Similar questions explore the issues of homemaking and belonging in reference to the nation’s physical size, but some scholars advance the inquiry of America’s validity as a nation-state to begin with. Post-colonial critique is imperative to understanding the nuances of collective memory that shape the social construction of authenticity. Mamadou Diouf applies similar post-colonial critique to the work of history and collective memory in the Global South writing “The historical disputes are also about the validity of the identity associated with this ‘thing’ called Africa.”[4] In referring to Africa as a ‘thing,’ he rejects the standard conception of Africa as a continent and emphasizes the significance of regional distinctions and the implicit cultural associations therein. He continues to argue that “one area of academic history that cannot be neglected has constructed an identity for itself by producing national histories confined within the narrow limits of colonial territories that have been transformed into nations.”[5] Diouf points out the narrowness and rigidity of understanding former colonies—political units that have lost and received various autonomies throughout history—as states. Scholarship on belonging—both imagined and constructed—is particularly salient when met with post-colonial frameworks due to the implicit concern for questioning commonly accepted status quos, usually of Western bias. 

The practice of “gifting,” as it relates to the continuation of culture via lineage, is complicated by the ontological confines of post-colonial states. Places are gifted from one generation to the next—materially by physical spaces and structures and abstractly in the form of memories.[6] Scholars argue that such an exchange is a critical part of “cementing and reproducing community relations and therefore of belonging.”[7] Accepting these theories, and the logical deductions made in their synthesis, renders Make America Great Again an inherently exclusionary phrase. Referencing a past America, an America before the present state that enjoys the expansion of civil rights, voting rights, and the eradication of slavery, exacerbates the negative capacities of “belonging” as a social function. By nature of providing those with positive relationships towards ‘belonging’ in a group a sense of inclusion, those with negative relationships towards belonging in a group experience exclusion. 

While the scholarly basis for theories on ‘belonging’ is strong, some scholars complicate the narrative. Dr. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in their Own Land challenges theories on belonging as they relate to power. Strangers in their Own Land seeks to document the Tea Party Movement in Louisiana. By administering sociological work regarding white Americans in the Deep South, Dr. Hochschild illustrates feelings of exclusion, lack of belonging, and nostalgia from a populace that other scholarly works suggests they should not feel due to their constructed belonging on white identity. Dr. Hochschild’s title does a lot of work on its own. “Strangers in their Own Land” demonstrates both an implied ownership, belonging, and right to comfort in a certain space: America. One participant in her research, addressing his feelings of exclusion, voices his frustration saying “You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black.”[8] By articulating that he “feels like he is being moved back,” he makes a statement on both his place on a broader socioeconomic ladder and also on temporality.  Dr. Vanessa Ogle notes that a “feature of capitalism similarly defies an eventful conception of temporality…This permanent expansion is somewhat peculiar as it is possible to predict confidently that capitalism will expand, continue to move into different localities while abandoning others.”[9]It is likely that capitalism, and a move to a greener economy away from the oil acquisition economy that at one point sustained the Louisiana Gulf Coast, that catalyzed the descent of material economic conditions in the region. As Dr. Ogle suggests, new economies elsewhere lead to the abandonment of once-prosperous regions like the Louisiana Coast. But the mentioned subject in Strangers in their Own Land does not accept this, suggesting that it is “them”—the most socio-politically marginalized in American society—who are responsible for his social decline. It is the construction of “them” that situates the inherent “me” or “us” within the scholarship of nostalgia. 

In late 2019, Pres. Trump suggested that four Congresswomen of color return to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”[10] Though three of those Congresswomen were born in the USA, and the fourth being a full citizen having immigrated from Somalia, the implication in his tweet was that they were not “real” Americans. This implication is predicated on the idea that because they are people of color, they are foreign, thus not “from” America and not entitled to the benefits of authentic American identity. To those like the subject referenced in Strangers in Their Own Land, they represent the people who are taking away opportunities from “real Americans.” This exclusion is not coincidental. “Hal and Du Gay note “The unity, the internal homogeneity, which the term identity treats as foundational is not a natural, but a constructed form of closure, every identity naming as its necessary, even if silenced and unspoken other, that which it ‘lacks.”[11] Trump’s rhetoric regarding the four Congresswomen highlights how, in the framework of Make America Great Again, being a U.S. born citizen and agent of the U.S. government cannot constitute an authentic America identity for people of color. A colleague of the Congresswomen and fellow Member of Congress suggested this publicly in response to Trump’s tweet, arguing that as a foreign-born member of Congress he would never receive such exclusionary remarks from Trump given his status as a white man.[12] Rep. Jim Himes wrote “I’m a white male of European descent. He’s not going to tell me to ‘go back to my county’. His tantrum has nothing to do with birthplace.”[13]His comments were essential to illuminating the hypocrisy and exclusionary practice of constructing an authentic American identity within a broader American public discourse.

The construction of authenticity and authentic identities is central to the effectiveness of MAGA as a political device and persuasive expression. The promotion of nostalgia in MAGA is effectively aided by the construction of an authentic American identity—that is who is considered a “real” American. Though authentic identities are presented as promoting similarity, many authentic identities are constructed through difference.[14] Furthermore, it is important to note that conceptions of authentic identities are not passively created, but intentionally crafted. They are produced in “specific historical and institutional and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and practices.”[15] It is beyond the scope of this essay to posit the exact context and origin in which contemporary authentic American identity was formed, but the effective politics of MAGA substantiate the merits of academic theories contending authentic identities are formed through exclusion. 

The exclusionary nature of MAGA is both implicit and explicit. Explicitly, Pres. Trump has clearly expressed to whom he believes America belongs. He has gone on the record denigrating immigrants from “shithole countries”—all countries with predominantly black populations.[16] The exclusionary nature of Make America Great Again is not experienced solely by those whom Trump chooses to condemn publicly, it is also experienced by those who carry the legacy of being on the losing side of colonization. The majority of African-Americans in the United States are descendants of slavery, meaning their arrival to the United States was forced. Enslaved people were not permitted under law to own property, and many were forced to relocate often as they were bought and sold. Applying scholarship of ‘gifting’ as a vehicle to reaching ‘belonging,’ the rationale for why African-Americans ultimately rejected Trump’s MAGA campaign becomes clear. Africans and subsequent African-Americans were excluded from American society under law, perceived as property and not people, meaning there was never a cultural identity within the framework of what constitutes ‘American’ for African-Americans to begin with. The fact that Blacks were not allowed to own property during the earliest stages and most formational placemaking periods in America suggests that the earliest America was one never meant to adequately accommodate those who are not white. If gifting is central to the development of belonging, it is reasonable to conclude that those who support the MAGA campaign understand America to authentically belong to property-owning white men.   

The advent of social media brought forth new opportunities to mediate memory, paving a path forward for what some scholars have referenced as cosmopolitan memory.[17] In the case of Donald Trump specifically, Twitter has served as his primary social media platform and primary method of communicating with the public. Some political users on Twitter have started using the expression ‘there’s always a tweet’ in response to major and minor Trump issues.[18] As a frequent user of Twitter, both as a private citizen and as president, Trump’s account has served as a mouthpiece to share his thoughts and feelings on a range of different issues of public interest. Beyond functioning as a digital bullhorn to millions of followers, Trump’s account has also functioned as a form of digital archive from which his past views can be expressed and understood, particularly in contrast to those views which he holds today. For example, in a Tweet before the assuming office, he criticized his predecessor for what he believed would be eventual aggression and escalation in the U.S. conflict with Iran for the purpose of self-indulgence.[19] Years later, Trump tweets and implies that he will enact some degree of military aggression, which was criticized by mainstream media forces as being self-servingly hostile and shortsighted.[20]

            MAGA is particularly salient given its entrance into public discourse through oration. As it relates to the transmission of memory, oral versions of events are particularly susceptible to producing the “distorted realities” noted by Hoffer. Miztal notes that “oral versions of events are recited in different times and places, oral memory becomes ‘re-worked experience’”[21] Though Mitzal’s theory primarily speaks to the process of various histories being transmitted generationally, the same process of re-working experience can be applied to the MAGA campaign. She notes that oral versions of events are subject to distortion as “the past is continually updated as new realities present themselves.”[22]Trump is often praised by conservative analysts as being a particular salient orator, but he leverages the persuasive value of nostalgia both online and offline. His Twitter account’s functionality as an archive affords the public a highly accessible form of memory that allows for an interrogation of past expressions in comparison to present politics. Pres. Trump routinely leverages political power in ways that contrast with memory accessible via his Twitter account. Generally, his supporters, even when confronted with hypocrisies publicly understood, support him, and thus essentially disregard the available historical memories.

             Ultimately, MAGA’s strength as a campaign slogan comes from synthesizing the operation of nostalgia and authenticity. Bennet understands the intrinsic connection between authenticity and nostalgia, arguing that “authenticity is not a completely separate concept but entwines with nostalgia to create a sense of continuity through a direct link back to origins.”[23]  Furthermore, she delineates the different functions of nostalgia and authenticity writing that “Authenticity creates an anchoring sense of identity, an attachment to something ‘real’ or ‘natural’ in the past; nostalgia, in contrast, creates an oppositional ‘them and us’ sense of identity.”[24] MAGA does the work of both authenticity and nostalgia; it anchors an identity to an imagined reality in the past while also exacerbating the tension of “us vs them.”

            “Make America Great Again” to some is no more than four simple words often printed on a bright red baseball cap. However, to those who have constructed identities based on being “real Americans,” the slogan served as a unifying call provoking nostalgia as it is understood in a multiplicity of scholarly literature. Situating MAGA within scholarly literature of gifting, nostalgia, and identity construction offers observers context as to why the slogan was meaningfully relatable to those who donned it on hats and beyond. While it would be unsubstantiated to claim that the MAGA phrase was exclusively responsible for Trump’s success, it would behoove of scholars and practitioners alike to better understand nostalgia, and in turn collective memory, as a powerful political device and practice that one may leverage all the way to The White House.


[1] Boym, Svetlana. “Introduction.” Essay. In The Future of Nostalgia, XII-XIV. New York City, NY: Basic Books, 2008.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Staff, TIME. “Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech.” Time. Time, June 16, 2015. https://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/.

[4] Mamadou Diouf, “Historian and Histories: What For? African Historiography Between the State and the Communities,” South-South Exchange Program for Research on the History of Development, 2003, p. 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Julia Bennett, “Narrating Family Histories: Negotiating Identity and Belonging through Tropes of Nostalgia and Authenticity,” Current Sociology 66, no. 3 (2015): pp. 449-465, https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392115578984.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York City, NY: The New Press, 2018).

[9] Vanessa Ogle, “Time, Temporality and the History of Capitalism,” Past & Present 243, no. 1 (2019): pp. 312-327, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtz014.

[10] Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. July 14, 2019, 5:27 AM. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1150381395078000643.

[11] Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, “‘Who Needs Identity:” in Questions of Cultural Identity 

[12] Rebecca Klar, “Foreign-Born Lawmaker: Trump’s Not Going to Tell Me to ‘Go Back to My Country’,” The Hill (The Hill, July 15, 2019), https://thehill.com/homenews/house/453066-foreign-born-lawmaker-trumps-not-going-to-tell-me-to-go-back-to-my-country.

[13] Rebecca Klar, “Foreign-Born Lawmaker: Trump’s Not Going to Tell Me to ‘Go Back to My Country’,”

[14] Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, “‘Who Needs Identity:” in Questions of Cultural Identity (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 1996).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lauren Gambino, “Trump Pans Immigration Proposal as Bringing People from ‘Shithole Countries’,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 12, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/11/trump-pans-immigration-proposal-as-bringing-people-from-shithole-countries.

[17] Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, “Memory Unbound,” European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 1 (2002): pp. 87-106, https://doi.org/10.1177/1368431002005001002.

[18] Dan Mangan, “Years before Killing Qasem Soleimani, Trump Warned Obama Would Start a War with Iran to Get Reelected,” CNBC (CNBC, January 3, 2020), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/03/before-qasem-soleimani-killing-trump-warned-of-iran-war-by-obama.html.

[19] Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. September 25, 2013, 6:44 PM. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/382923478157910016.

[20] Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. May 19, 2019, 9:25 PM. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1130207891049332737.

[21] Barbara A. Misztal, “Metamorphosis of Memory,” in Theories of Social Remembering (Buckingham: Open Univ. Press, 2003), p. 4.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Julia Bennett, “Narrating Family Histories: Negotiating Identity and Belonging through Tropes of Nostalgia and Authenticity,”

[24] Ibid.

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