The most visible symbol of Donald Trump’s implausibly successful presidential candidacy — with the possible exception of his hair — were the red hats he and many of his supporters routinely wore, emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” In an interview with the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, Trump discussed how he came up with and quickly trademarked the MAGA slogan back in 2012. His lawyers actually fired off cease-and-desist letters whenever GOP rivals used the phrase in speeches.
The president-elect, a man whose convictions about the value of “branding” are clearer than those he possesses about almost any other topic, is undoubtedly convinced his alleged origination and fierce flogging of MAGA was key to his political success. And perhaps he is right: Its plainly reactionary, yet policy-flexible nature made it a lot more compelling than the straddling stances on the past and present all his opponents assumed. That definitely included Hillary Clinton, who could never overcome the sense she was running for a third term for her husband or for Barack Obama, or both. And it put the Trump campaign in touch with an important strain of right-wing sentiment that is not strictly about limited government — viz. the efforts of David Brooks and William Kristol to promote something they called “National Greatness Conservatism” just before the turn of the millennium.
In any event, the shelf life of MAGA is limited, and as this remarkable moment in the interview with Tumulty shows, Donald Trump is thinking ahead:
Halfway through his interview with The Washington Post, Trump shared a bit of news: He already has decided on his slogan for a reelection bid in 2020.
“Are you ready?” he said. “ ‘Keep America Great,’ exclamation point.”
“Get me my lawyer!” the president-elect shouted.
Two minutes later, one arrived.
“Will you trademark and register, if you would, if you like it — I think I like it, right? Do this: ‘Keep America Great,’ with an exclamation point. With and without an exclamation. ‘Keep America Great,’ ” Trump said.
“Got it,” the lawyer replied.
It’s news indeed that a few days before he becomes president Trump is already thinking about his reelection. And there’s an obvious logic to KAG. But it doesn’t quite pull on the heartstrings like the simultaneously nostalgic and optimistic MAGA. And it puts Trump on the hook for, you know, actually accomplishing something great.
Trump seems to understand that. After some scary talk suggesting that “greatness” has a lot to do with military displays (“That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military”), he told Tumulty he needed some steak to go with the sizzle:
“I think they have to feel it,” Trump acknowledged. “Being a cheerleader or a salesman for the country is very important, but you still have to produce the results.”
Taking office with the lowest approval ratings ever for an incoming president, while possessing a campaign platform based on magic and Big Man posturing, and facing a common fate with congressional “allies” he plainly mistrusts, it’s not clear how Trump thinks he will “produce the results.” Quite possibly, he thinks that as a marketing genius he can convince voters in 2020 — and earlier, when his administration gets its first public feedback in off-year and midterm elections — that life is better through sheer rhetorical enchantment. If so, he should probably go with the exclamation point on “Keep America Great.” It’s based on an assertion that’s probably not going to be self-evident.