The crowd applauded the way the crowd at a Bruce Springsteen concert might cheer an encore performance of “Born to Run.” There it was, the slogan from the hat!
But it does raise an interesting question. Trump’s been president for 3½ years now. Didn’t voters elect him to make America great again in the first place? What’s he been doing if not that?
Close observers of the president’s rhetoric may remember that, for a time, Trump debuted a new slogan more in keeping with the idea that he’d delivered on that original promise. At a rally in Manchester, N.H., in August, he did a voice poll of the audience: Should his reelection bid, then just getting underway, retain “make America great again” or shift to a slogan of “keep America great”? The results were inconclusive, but by then he had already begun using the pithier new formulation.
KAG (as the hashtag has it) is, like MAGA, fundamentally an electoral pitch. Each was first deployed during a campaign: MAGA during Trump’s 2016 bid and KAG during the 2018 midterms. At that point, Trump was using “keep America great” generally as a way of tying his endorsed candidates to his agenda.
“Your agenda is Make America Great Again,” Trump said to Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale at a rally in Montana in November 2018. “That’s what your agenda is. It’s very — It’s a simple agenda. It’s a very simple, very straightforward agenda.”
“You know, the new campaign, it’s going to be ‘Keep America Great,’ right?” Trump added, according to data compiled by Factba.se. “I don’t think — as much as I love ‘Make America Great Again,’ I don’t know that we can carry it forward, because people will say, ‘Well, what did we do for the last four years?’ ”
By March 2019, Trump was using the expression in a nonspeculative way. He’d used it a couple of times before that, but only through retweets or when discussing what his new slogan might be. Then, on March 13, he made it formal.
Twenty seconds before the above tweet, he sent this one:
Meaning that, according to Trump, America went from possibly great to certainly great at 7:17 a.m. on March 13, 2019.
Sort of. He kept returning to MAGA even as he was promoting KAG. In only one month, July 2019, did he use “keep America great” or “KAG” more than “make America great again” or MAGA. In every other month, as he was extolling the need to preserve America’s greatness he was more frequently insisting on the need to make it great.
Less than a year after that seminal March 13 day, Trump quietly phased out the KAG slogan. His last use of the phrase in reference to America’s existent greatness came on March 3 of this year.
The next time he used it, he’d reverted to his 2018 framing: first MAGA, then KAG.
At some point on March 3 or early on March 4, then, America became ungreat. This, of course, was just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to escalate exponentially and a few days after the first recorded U.S. death from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The damage done by the pandemic both to the health of the public and to the economy clearly made it hard for Trump to continue to insist that America was as great as it could be. So, in May, Trump introduced a new slogan, overlapping with his original one: America would undergo a “transition to greatness.” How that’s different from “make America great again” isn’t clear, but Trump has used that phrase more frequently in the past month than his MAGA slogan.
Then came that rally Saturday, at which Trump stood before a sea of MAGA signs and promised that he’d make America great again, again.
For about 356 days, from March 13, 2019 until March 3 or 4 of this year, America was great and could be kept great, according to Trump, though he also assured the public that America would be made great again. We are now experiencing a transition to that renewed greatness, it seems, though Trump hasn’t used that expression himself in a few weeks.
The last time he did so was June 5.
“Earlier today, it was announced that the U.S. economy added 2.5 million jobs in May,” he said during an event in Maine. “It was supposed to lose 9 million, you know, during this period — transition period. I call it ‘transition to greatness,’ but it’s coming a little earlier than I thought, and that’s okay.”
The event, held at a medical supply manufacturer, was meant to focus on the pandemic, not the economy. After Trump toured the facility, the manufacturer threw out a number of its swabs that had been exposed to the president, who wasn’t masked, and his entourage. Since June 5, the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in the United States has increased by 45 percent.
Renewed greatness remains elusive.