Melania Trump was not the only speaker at the Republican National Convention to co-opt the words of a famous African American.
Scott Baio, an actor who hasn’t been culturally relevant since the VCR era, ended his sales pitch for Donald Trump by saying, “make America America again.” The line was no doubt intended to revive the mythology of a time when people who called themselves Americans only needed sheer will and sweat equity to prosper. Yet, curiously, the phrasing of this hook is nearly identical to a verse and title of a Langston Hughes poem that attacks the idea such a scenario ever existed. MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall sat down for a post-speech interview with Baio that highlighted the incongruities between the slogan and the Republican agenda.
It’s not entirely clear why Scott Baio was chosen to connect with the people who might fear they are being edged out of opportunity and freedoms. Perhaps there are late baby-boomers and Generation-Xers out there who could identify with a white guy rising to fame and fortune from the gritty Brooklyn of the 1970s. Or, maybe Baio simply appeals to voters who were not saddled with burdens like mounting college debt or police brutality. In any case, his self-identification as a practicing Christian could endear him to the 57% percent of Republicans who feel it’s a good idea to shatter the First Amendment by declaring an official national religion.
When prompted by Tamron Hall, Baio defines making “America America again” as upholding “hard work, perseverance and not looking to the government for everything”. Hall grills him on his disdain for government assistance policies that have allowed Americans of modest means to survive economic turmoil and achieve some mobility in earlier decades. She points out to Baio that some of the people who frown on anything but tough love for struggling younger generations are still clamoring to hold onto Social Security and Medicare.
Baio, after proclaiming a need for a national return to faith-based values, reveals to Hall he drew inspiration for his convention speech from church. Hall reminds him that he recently tweeted a captioned meme of Hillary Clinton standing in front of a banner that displays the C-word because her head was blocking an “O”. The former teen idol has since tried to excuse the tweet as a joke and deny any responsibility for how the meme was interpreted. But Hall insists:
“Yeah, but you knew what it meant when you tweeted it out. You’re writing your speech in church, you talk about religion coming back to this country and us having a moral barometer. Where was your moral compass when you put up a photo of a woman that you disagree with politically?”
Baio is not the first conservative Republican or even the first 21st century politician to hijack the idea of returning to the good ole days. Variants of “make America America again” failed to make magic for John Kerry and backfired on Rick Santorum. And no one can say that Langston Hughes has a copyright, of course, on any iteration of the tagline.
However, the social poets critique of the concept evoked by this phrase remains a salient and powerful manifesto after 80 years. Hughes divined the American dream will be a fallacy, an elusive reality, until the wealthy stop building their dreams on injustice towards the poor and marginalized. The indictment of the “The land that never has been yet/And yet must be” was written during the nascent days of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s overdue social support policies. Those pioneering initiatives have have evolved to now benefit more than half of all Americans across all generations and ethnicities.
Regardless of whether #RNC2016 is a case study in irony or hypocrisy, one thing is clear: The Party seems determined to ride to the White House on the gas of nostalgia for a time that never existed while pushing a platform that ensures it never will. It’s doubtful, Baio and his comrades could have picked a more farcical rally cry to mobilize the base. Like the masterful Langston Hughes, Tamron Hall relied on her command of language to get to this truth, “I do this for a living. You can’t chop my words up.”