The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fundamental flaw in ‘Make America Great Again’

The America of the 1950s was great only for some Americans

A supporter listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Pitt-Greenville Airport on Oct. 15, 2020, in Greenville, NC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When Donald Trump poached Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign catchphrase “Let’s Make America Great Again,” it was not just the slogan but the meaning behind it that bonded the two Republican campaigns. What it embodies is less an ideology or even a conservative worldview than a deep yearning and determination to restore an idealized version of 1950s America that many Republicans believe has been lost. For the last half-century, that idea has informed much of what the GOP has come to represent.

According to a 2021 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 70 percent of Republicans believe that American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. To them, it was in the 1960s — when liberation movements demanded social and institutional change, sexual mores began to shift, and intellectuals labeled us a sick society — that the American century began to unravel. They believe we haven’t recovered since. Reestablish the belief system of the 1950s, these Republicans say, and we can make America great again.

In reality, however, the 1950s were great only for some Americans. Restoring that America — as many Republicans are attempting to do in places where they wield political power — would hurt almost everyone else.

In the popular imagination embraced by many Republicans, America achieved unparalleled greatness in the 1950s — a time of prosperity, social cohesion and global preeminence. It was a decade of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” when suburban bliss and national pride revitalized an American Dream that had been tested during the Depression and World War II. In these happy days, Americans saluted the flag, revered the police, believed in God, trusted authority and honored both the businesses that brought abundance and the lunch pail heroes who built the nation’s prosperity without griping or government assistance.

To some extent, there’s a grain of truth to this roseate view of the 1950s. It was a time of extraordinary economic growth, with household income rising nearly 30 percent in the four years after World War II and nearly doubling during the decade. Families that suffered hardship and sacrifice during the previous two decades could now afford a home with appliances and a backyard — in safe neighborhoods where children could ride their Schwinn bicycles without worry. Instead of shelter, food and clothing eating up their paychecks, this newly empowered middle class could spend, and spend it did — on televisions, hi-fis, cameras, furniture, just about everything for their baby boom children, and especially cars.

As Dinah Shore sang in a 1950s Chevrolet ad, a tribute to the car as a symbol of freedom, “Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all.”

To be sure, this bounty represented the byproduct of a unique moment in history when America’s economic competitors had been cratered by war and ideology, leaving them without the capacity to manufacture the goods we sold to them. America’s singular prosperity and “greatness” came, in large measure, because other countries weren’t yet ready to compete.

But to those who idealize the 1950s, how we achieved our prosperity is immaterial. What matters to them are the sepia-toned images of a time they remember as “great.” The problem is: That era was not so great for everyone.

The neighborhoods depicted in the TV shows “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” did not include a single Black family — and these television portrayals were, unfortunately, accurate. Redlining and discrimination excluded African Americans from the booming suburbs, no matter how well-educated they were or whether they were World War II veterans who fought for freedom.

As William Levitt said of his suburban Levittown developments, “If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our White customers will not buy into the community.” When a middle class Black family managed to buy a home in the Levittown outside Philadelphia, they were met with violence, riots, Confederate flags and racial threats.

Not even celebrity could shield people of color from this treatment. When the New York Giants moved to San Francisco in 1957, it wasn’t until the mayor intervened that baseball great Willie Mays could buy the home he wanted.

Many labor unions and educational institutions also excluded Black Americans. And because of discrimination, the GI bill that helped launch the White middle class was of only limited value to Blacks. The ladder of opportunity that enabled White families to grasp their American Dream largely didn’t exist for Black families.

Religious minorities faced exclusion, as well. Pluralism was embraced in name only, and those who weren’t Christian faced overt and subtle discrimination. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictive housing covenants in 1948, communities continued to exclude Jews, as did country clubs, law firms, resorts and elite universities. So as not to stand out, many Jews celebrated Christmas, Anglicized their names and sat through Bible readings at their children’s schools. Even the play and film about Anne Frank deliberately de-emphasized her Judaism. Atheists fared even worse: A 1954 survey found that only 12 percent of Americans favored allowing an atheist to teach in a college or university.

These also weren’t happy days for many women, who were told that work was unbecoming and fulfillment could be found only by marrying a man, raising children, serving their husbands and massaging their egos. Only a third of women who attended college graduated, or, as many quipped, they went to receive their “Mrs. Degree,” or simply to find a husband. Society harshly judged women who deviated from this norm.

In 1956, Life magazine featured five male psychiatrists who attributed anxious husbands, troubled households and even homosexuality in boys to female assertiveness and ambition. In one survey, 80 percent of adults said that women must be sick, neurotic or immoral to remain unmarried. Newspaper want ads were segregated by sex, and women who sought work found few opportunities beyond typist, secretary, stenographer, receptionist or nurse — with ads describing the perfect “girl” as “young” or “attractive,” with one requiring applicants to be “5’ 5”-7” in heels.” As for sex, it was the classic double standard: a wink and a nod for men’s sexual adventures, shame for women.

Gay men and lesbians in the United States also faced unrelenting repression. “Perverts Called Government Peril,” blared a 1950 New York Times headline, and in 1953, the Miami Beach police chief proudly announced that his officers would “harass those men who affect female mannerisms in public places and let them know in no uncertain terms that they are unwelcome on Miami Beach.” Suspecting a “widespread homosexual underground,” as Time magazine put it, Boise police interrogated and investigated 1,500 men in 1955. To cope with the discrimination, many gay men and lesbians married or stayed in the closet — because exposure could bring imprisonment, social isolation and the loss of one’s livelihood.

Also under siege were core principles of American democracy: political diversity and the freedom to express unpopular opinions. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his allies sowed fear, ruined lives and reputations, trafficked in insinuation and demagogued Hollywood, the media, academia, the State Department and even the Army.

McCarthy was not alone. In 1950, President Harry S. Truman vetoed the Subversive Activities Control Act, known as the McCarran Act, calling it “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press and assembly since the Alien and Sedition laws.” Congress overrode his veto. States adopted their own versions of the law, which empowered authorities to investigate teachers and public employees, delving into their reading habits, magazine subscriptions, the rallies they attended and petitions they signed. Fearing accusations of disloyalty, readers abandoned magazines that had any association with the left. The New Republic’s circulation plummeted from 97,000 in 1948 to 24,000 in 1952.

Few Americans want to bring back the worst injustices and excesses of the 1950s. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that those who want to restore this bygone era — to “make America great again” — would re-create a society that resurrects some version of them. Talk as they may about the prosperity, respect and values of the 1950s, it’s the impact of their policies today that have the potential to reopen the wounds and inequities we have spent the following decades healing.

In fact, the 1950s echo through recent Supreme Court rulings and “red state” laws that promote Christianity, restrict women’s and LGBTQ rights, end affirmative action, limit voting, and criminalize books and ideas related to race and sexual orientation. While they won’t mirror the bigotry of the 1950s — they once again prioritize a society and culture in which some Americans dominate at a cost to everyone else.