Trump’s ‘promised land’ of white masculine economic success

Populist campaign rhetoric is about making grandiose and demagogic statements. The more ambitious and adaptive a candidate’s message is, the more it resonates with different kinds of voters. Donald Trump’s successful campaign relied on his famous slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Its power is in the temporal scope of its promises, which invited white Americans to access their ‘happy place’ in the past, when America was great, and promised them that he would make that imagined past their future. Trump’s past and future, I suggest, summon a promised land of white masculine economic productivity. 

While Hillary Clinton was not a ‘big promises’ candidate and sought to keep the conversation about the present, Donald Trump tapped into bygone pasts and a future still to come. He told Americans how the greatness they yearn for, and they know to have existed in history, was stolen from them by ‘the establishment’— Washington insiders who do not care about ordinary people. Trump fixated on the message that Americans were once great and can be great tomorrow. 

This mirroring of past and future was at the centre of Trump’s populist campaign message. In form, Trump’s strategy seems reminiscent to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which owned the future as a promised site of hope and change. Obama, however, promised only a new and better future and did not continuously link it to the past. Obama himself as a Black man embodied change and did not look or sound like any previous president. However, Trump’s promise was that of a return. It is a ‘return’ to a serene past however one imagines it.

That promise of a future return to a great America made sense because, without being explicit, it portrayed a white, economically-robust, and socially conservative America. The power in the use of this temporal and nostalgic trope is that it inspired white people across class lines. The strategic vagueness of the content of the message, such as ‘Make America Great Again’, was concealed by the intimacy of its nostalgic intonation.  Trump’s slogan painted images of a serene past of simpler politics and economics. Trump did not specify what period in history America was great. What exactly should be resurrected? This ambiguity was demonstrated in a Daily Show skit , in which Trump supporters were asked: when was America last great? Answers ranged from 1776, 1913, 1950s, to the 1980s. Of course, as the Daily Show presenters insinuated, those imagined pasts erase the political struggles of women and people of colour. 

The past that Trump invoked is one where the factories hummed. White men made stuff and were content with their day’s work. White family values prevailed. White men could say what they wanted. There was no political correctness. No one made a fuss about racism and misogyny. And men acted as men, and women as women. It is an imagined past before the first Black president and before Black protesters cried out in the streets of US cities about how their lives matter. 

This is not to say that all Trump voters had the same vision of that past that included all these images. Rather, this is to make the point that the ambiguity of what kind of past and future Trump means is appealing to voters whether in relation to present-day economic stress and/ or racism and/ or misogyny. 

The poetic invocations implied and enabled by Trump’s message are a good reminder that voter choice is often difficult to verbalize. It is not a simple rational choice. Voters respond to what inspires them. Trump had a message of change to voters with a scope rooted in an imagined past and projected onto a new future. His success is in the populist mirroring of the past and future, both of which gave a vision of white masculine economic productivity.