Donald Trump wants to “make America great again.” But when was America great? Was it 1776? The Gilded Age? The 1950s? The 1980s? “Greatness” is not a historical category of analysis. We can certainly report on people in the past who thought or believed America was “great,” but a good historian knows that what was “great” to one person may have been contemptible or debased for someone else.
The best way for the historian to deal with the phrase “make America great again” is to ask an interlocutor to reveal when America was “great.” Then the historian can explain everything that happened during that particular time period. In most cases, a complex picture will emerge.
This The Daily Show video recently came across one of my feeds. It was from seven years ago: