Standing at the U.S.-Mexican border in Laredo, Texas, then-candidate Donald Trump wears a white, bulky hat. It has his campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — emblazoned across the front.
No matter what emotions the iconic hat inspires, its words resonate with Trump’s supporters.
Yet, Trump didn’t invent the slogan himself. Ronald Reagan also made “Make America Great” part of his campaign for president.
“For those who’ve abandoned hope,” Reagan said at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. “We’ll restore hope, and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.”
In that speech, Reagan capitalized on the electorate’s nostalgia — a sentimental longing for the past. He idealized a rosy, simpler time in American history. Intentionally or not, the actor-turned-revered-politician set the foundation for the flashy, 70-year-old billionaire rise to the presidency.
What is nostalgia?
Nostalgia derives from the Greek word meaning homesickness, said Robert Lehrman, former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. It’s a rose-tinted, sentimental viewpoint of the past.
Contemporary politicians can invoke nostalgia through speeches, advertisements or other forms of political communication, he said.
“Politicians use it to remind people of a better time in their lives, or in the political life of the United States,” said Candice Nelson, chair of the government department at American University.
Different segments of the population may also reflect differently on the past, Lehrman said.
One candidate that made nostalgia a central part of his campaign was Ronald Reagan, Nelson said.
Ronald Reagan captivates voters, redefines presidency
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, inflation plagued the U.S. economy, Iran held American students hostage and the Cold War threatened American security.
Four years of President Jimmy Carter’s administration were unsuccessful, Nelson said.
“He used the phrase was ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?,'” Nelson said. “The answer in 1980 was no.”
Enter Ronald Reagan, an actor and two-term governor of California. Reagan was articulate — known as The Great Communicator — and could make a speech sound simultaneously immediate and sincere, Judge said. He captivated the public by addressing them directly with words like “you” and “we.”
“Ronald Reagan had a view of America and Americans of being able to do anything,” said Anita McBride, first lady Laura Bush’s former chief of staff and a volunteer on the Reagan campaign. “I think that really captured people’s attention.”
Storytelling was central to Reagan’s candidacy, said Clark Judge, former speechwriter and special assistant to both Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush. In public speeches — which were his strong suit — he told stories about “airplanes that were older than the men who flew them” when trying to convince voters that he would be the right president to rebuild the military, Judge said.
“When I was writing, I could feel the audience. I could feel where they were going to laugh, where they were going to applaud,” Judge said. “The text went to someone who could make that happen. He didn’t stumble through and he could make more happen.”
Reagan reshaped the Republican Party, situating himself as a revered conservative leader, Lehrman said.
“When Republicans remember Ronald Reagan, and I’m somebody who couldn’t stand Ronald Reagan, they see a genial person who is eloquent, who believed in values like a balanced budget, self-reliance, that people today really do value,” Lehrman said.
There hasn’t been another candidate who used optimism in the same way, McBride said.
Ronald Reagan’s first term
His presidency “was, to some extent, a story of a seeking of rebirth, a fall, and then a seeking for renewal, repair, resurrection, which was achieved in those eight years,” Judge said.
As president, Reagan’s public persona resembled a mix of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, Judge said. His sense of optimism, giving Americans a “sense of a better tomorrow,” most closely mirrored Roosevelt.
“He was unusually smart in a way he preferred to conceal,” Judge said. “He didn’t want you to know he was working very hard, made many jokes that he wasn’t. But, I knew his work schedule.”
Some of the key events of his first term were:
- Jan. 20, 1981: Reagan is sworn in as the 40th president. On the same day, Iran releases the 52 remaining hostages.
- March 30, 1981: Reagan is shot in the chest upon leaving a Washington hotel. He makes a full recovery after surgery.
- April 28, 1981: Reagan appears before Congress for the first time since the assassination attempt.
- September 1981: Reagan appoints Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
- April 20, 1983: Recession ends.
- Oct. 23, 1983: U.S. Marines in Lebanon, Beirut are attacked by suicide bombers.
- Oct. 25, 1983: U.S. invades Grenada, which Reagan saw as the next step in eliminating communism.
White-glove elegance: Nancy Reagan transforms White House image
To First Lady Nancy Reagan, the White House should symbolize this new era in American politics. She restored elegance and charm to the White House, McBride said.
She compared the Reagan family’s arrival in the mansion to that of the Kennedy family, who moved in during the height of the Civil Rights movement and Cold War, two drivers of uncertainty for the country. She embraced a signature red color in many of her outfits, which later became known as “Reagan Red.”
“It’s a diplomatic message,” McBride said.
Her spending — including $200,000 for new china for the White House — sparked controversy. In a 1981 New York Times article, Lynn Rosellini writes about her nickname “Queen Nancy,” which political opponents used against her.
“I’m just being myself,” she told Rosellini in 1984.
Morning in America: Reagan’s 1984 campaign
Reagan’s ability to communicate remained essential in his 1984 campaign for a second term, which centered around a “Morning in America” theme. He ran against Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee.
“I can’t remember a time since 1984 when it was so uplifting, where it was so optimistic,” McBride said.
A one-minute commercial, titled “Prouder, Stronger, Better” but known as “Morning in America,” promoted an image of America as moving toward a better future. Things were better than they were four years ago, and Reagan had restored the tranquility of the 1950s, according to the ad.
Advertising executive Hal Riney wrote and voiced the famous advertisement, according to NPR.
“It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better,” Riney said in the ad. “Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”
At least two 2016 campaign ads — by Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio — mimicked “Morning in America.” Marco Rubio’s ad flips Reagan’s optimism on its head, depicting how Americans are worse off after eight years of President Barack Obama’s leadership.
Reagan’s optimistic campaign — demonstrated by “Morning in America Again” — resonated strongly with voters. Reagan defeated Mondale in a landslide victory, winning 49 out of 50 states.
Back to the future: Make America great again (again)
Fast forward to 2015. A billionaire descends down a golden escalator in his Manhattan hotel. He takes the podium, declaring the country to be “in serious trouble.” He calls himself the best candidate to “Make America great again.”
“The words might be the same, but certainly the ways they were delivered and how they were received is not the same,” McBride, who served as Director of White House Personnel under Reagan, said. “This was divisive. The language was not something I was used to.”
Sixteen GOP nominees fought in 2016’s tug-of-war to seize the mantle of Ronald Reagan, yet Trump won more primary votes than any other GOP nominee ever. He was also the first major party nominee in six decades who was not first a senator, governor, or member of the House, according to NBC Reporter Katy Tur in her personal essay for Marie Claire, “My Crazy Year With Trump.”
Both Reagan and Trump were outsiders, and neither a career politician. They drew support from “those who are nostalgic for a time that they imagine that America was great,” Lehrman said.
“I understand that things do change and we should always be an evolving nation,” McBride said. “We should always be a tolerant nation. We have to be conscious of protecting people’s civil liberties and civil rights. But, somehow I feel that in making those strides and those achievements, that we’ve denigrated people who choose to live their lives a different way, who maybe can’t accept all of this so quickly and they need more time. And that’s fair.”
There is no such thing as “one kind of Trump voter,” writes Emily Ekins, research fellow and director of polling at the Cato Institute. However, American Preservationists — those who believe the economic and political systems are rigged and have nativist immigration views — made up the core of Trump’s constituency that made him victorious in the primaries, she said. Staunch conservatives, free marketers and anti-elites carried him to victory in the election — and into office on January 20, 2017.