Make America Great Again.
That catchphrase was central to Donald Trump’s run for the White House, and on Friday, when Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, Americans will finally get to see what Trump truly meant.
For many of us, the meaning is already ingrained in our consciousness. Framed by bigoted comments concerning Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants and African Americans, the image of Trump’s great America is white, monolithic and trapped beneath the weight of its own hypocrisy.
That America existed once. It was a place where race and class were the best predictors of one’s success. It was an America where racial prejudice was codified in our laws. It was a country where segregation was enforced through physical and intellectual violence. That is the America the Kerner Commission referred to after the riots of 1967 when it wrote, “Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”
The future they pictured has arrived, but this future does not have to be defined by our past. This future does not have to threaten our existence. This future can be one that moves us forward.
But that depends on our definition of greatness.
I’ve seen America at its greatest, but only at times of threat and challenge, and only in recent years.
In the past, even war could not unite us because the stain of racism could not be washed away by the blood of our enemies. Black war heroes who returned from World War II were lynched in their uniforms, had their eyes gouged out in the South or were forced to ride in segregated train cars while German prisoners were ushered to the front.
Over time, we continued to struggle with the concepts of freedom and equality that our founding documents so eloquently expressed. But when other challenges arose, we rose along with them.
I saw America’s greatness in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when three planes flew into buildings in New York and Washington, and another plowed into the earth in Pennsylvania. Americans bonded in the wake of that tragedy, and, for a moment, we were one.
I did not see Muslims dancing in New Jersey in celebration, as Trump claimed he did. Rather, I saw first responders rushing into buildings without any assurance they would ever come out. I saw ordinary citizens comforting one another as bodies rained down from the sky. I saw George W. Bush assuring Americans that we were not at war against a religion, but against an ideology.
I saw Americans of all stripes united in a sense of purpose.
In the still days that followed, the background noise of commercial planes grew still. The occasional whine of military jets replaced them. We were left to reflect on what it meant to be American, and then the moment passed, and our greatness seemed to pass along with it.
Then came another moment of greatness. This one was born of hope rather than tragedy. In that moment, when our first black president was elected, America looked back on its history of discrimination and believed it was locked firmly in the past.
Alas, that was not the case. And now, our past could once again be crouching at our doorstep.
In this, a moment of great challenge, when our nation stands divided along the lines of race and class, we do have a chance to be great again. And, just as previous moments have shaped and defined us, this one can do the same.
If Trump is to make America great again, he must be committed to looking forward and not back. He must be willing to work with others and not alone. He must know that America is a country in its infancy – one that is still experiencing the growing pains that the world’s greatest nations have already seen.
Our greatness is not dependent upon our ability to wall ourselves off from the world. Rather, it is in our ability to open ourselves to new knowledge, to new ideas, to a new future.
As an American, I hope Donald Trump truly wants to make America great for all of us.
Starting Friday, he’ll get his chance.
Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.