Donald J. Trump continues to run on his presidential campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again.” He never explained or defined, however, what strategies he would use to “make” anything. He never truly articulated how he defines “great.” And, possibly most importantly, he never talks about a time when “America” was actually “great.”
So which era does he use as his baseline for some sort of “greatness” that he promises to “make” “again”?
Though erratic and contradictory in character and temperament, Trump has provided some clear clues in his words, in his actions, and in his legislative supports and executive orders for us to decipher his otherwise cryptic motto to “Make America Great Again.”
On the issue of race relations, for example, Trump has increasingly raised the sound and pitch of his dog whistle to the level of an amplified system. He nominated an Attorney General with a record of racist rhetoric and actions.
He has continually attacked members the Black Lives Matters movement. He has demanded the firing of professional athletes who “take a knee” to highlight racial inequality and police brutality.
He refused to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and asserted a moral equivalency between marchers who support Confederate statues with opposing protesters. He gave full-throated support for a candidate in the Alabama senate race who waxed nostalgically for a time in history when “families were strong” during the time of slavery.
Therefore, it appears logical to conclude that Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” by increasing racial divides as it was in the antebellum South.
Donald Trump has provided us with strong clues on his regard for issues of health policy, and on HIV/AIDS specifically. He campaigned and continues to demand the death of the Affordable Care Act, while he and Republican members of Congress offer no viable alternatives. He supported a so-called “tax reform” bill, which he signed into law, that will reportedly cut 13 million people from quality affordable health care insurance.
And we don’t have to look very deeply to understand why his administration banned these seven words from use in Centers for Disease Control documents: entitlement, diversity, vulnerable, transgender, science-based, evidence-based, and fetus.
As someone who lived through the terrible initial years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, I often think about all my wonderful friends, and the tens and hundreds of thousands leading to millions of people throughout the world community who did not survive, who lost their lives through the intransigence and cruel societal and governmental (in)actions that killed so many.
How else are we to interpret Trump’s behavior other than to understand that he sees those as “great” times to which he wants to take us “again”? Recently, he fired all remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), a group created under Bill Clinton’s administration in 1995 to recommend strategic policy responses to the pandemic. President George W. Bush continued the group’s charter, and the Obama administration expanded its mandate to monitor National HIV/AIDS strategy.
In June 2017, however, experiencing a lack of commitment by Trump and members of his leadership team to tackle the pandemic, six members of PACHA resigned in protest. They cited Trump’s apathy in a letter stating their inability to work with “a president who simply does not care.”
A former member and a signatory of the letter wrote that Trump: “has no strategy to address the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, seeking zero input from experts to formulate HIV policy, and — most concerning — pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease.”
So, on the issue of HIV/AIDS, Trump works to “Make America Great Again” by taking the country back to the policies of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Ronald Reagan is not the model politician and leader that most Republicans worship today. Among other things, Ronald Reagan functioned as the Co-conspirator-In-Chief in the deaths of people infected with HIV during the early years of the eventual pandemic under his so-called “watch.” Reagan should have been charged with and convicted of genocidal murder, rather than seen as the much-venerated pseudo-saint he has been anointed by conservative Republicans.
Whenever I hear tributes of praise to this mythological figure coming from Republican stalwarts, what comes to my mind instead is a stunningly poignant quote from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, his stage play covering the early years of AIDS in the United States:
We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peace time, and we’re all in the same country.”
As I hear these words reverberating in my mind, images escape from my stored memory into consciousness of the excruciatingly long years of Ronald Reagan, under whose presidency the AIDS pandemic first came to light, when he finally and officially acknowledged the existence of the crisis. The one and only time he publicly spoke of AIDS before 1985, except to address a few reporters’ questions, was in his first year in office when he inferred that “maybe the Lord brought down the plague because illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”
Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s Chief of “Communications,” spoke for many by calling AIDS nature’s “awful retribution” that did not deserve a thorough and compassionate response. Later he said:
With 80,000 dead of AIDS, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”
Uninformed and prejudicial statements coming from the White House, the halls of Congress, and, yes, from some houses of worship during those trying times only encouraged the ceaseless bigotry and discriminatory actions against people with HIV while the AIDS Project patchwork quilt expanded exponentially day-by-day.
In those early years, HIV/AIDS affected most visibly what some called the “4H Club” – Homosexuals, Haitians, intravenous heroin users, and people with hemophilia – all but the latter considered as “disposables.” Governmental and many societal institutions refused to take wide-scale action.
One can reasonably argue that if most people with HIV/AIDS initially had been middle-class, white, suburban, heterosexual, Christian males, we would have immediately seen massive mobilizations to defeat the virus.
Some people refer to our current era as one in which HIV/AIDS and the discrimination surrounding it no longer pose major physical and social barriers. Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth even though much has improved since those horrendous early years.
Infection rates throughout the world continue to rise, millions still can’t afford the constellation of drug therapies needed to keep them alive, and ignorance and prejudice remain as major impediments.
Though he could have been a major force in leading the efforts to contain a crisis, Ronald Reagan failed miserably by commission and omission, and for that he must be held accountable for the deaths of thousands of people during his years as a derelict and criminal Commander-In-Chief on the war against HIV.
So, on a number of issues, to “Make America Great Again,” Trump imagines a time when draconian measures were used by men who were “real men,’ when women and people of color “knew their place,” when Christianity ruled, when leaders functioned by divine right as totalitarian dictators as the landed gentry exploited and robbed the peasantry.
Thankfully, though, more and more people see through the mottos, the rhetoric, and the lies. These are the people who wish to “Make America Great At Last.”