The two most powerful political slogans of our era are “Make America Great Again”, and “Black Lives Matter.” Both of them, once uttered, seemed to invite immediate, obvious, simple-minded rejoinders. “America is already great,” say Trump’s opponents. “All Lives Matter,” say those who are made uncomfortable by the hint of exclusion in BLM. But for the initiated, the rejoinders almost prove the necessity of repeating the slogan.
In other words, the genius of both phrases is that they are self-authenticating.
When pundits and think-tankers shout back “America is already great,” they confirm that they were servants for the winners of the last 30 years of American politics. Trump’s signature mantra is aimed directly at the places that have lost their manufacturing jobs to Mexico or China, the places that suddenly have a major drug problem or an abundance of unemployed middle-aged men, the places where life expectancy is going down and confidence in the next generation doing better than the last is at an all-time low.
The people shouting “All Lives Matter” energize anti-racist activists, to whom they seem obtuse. For most of its adherents, “Black Lives Matter” isn’t meant as a slur or slight on non-blacks. It is a cry for attention to problems that uniquely afflict black lives in America. It is a demand for addressing those problems specifically. It is a call for dignity. The black experience in America is unique to blacks. That matters, or at least it should. The very discomfort with acknowledging that of course black lives matter is evidence that the assertion has to be repeated over and over again until people get it.
There’s just one problem with all of this: MAGA and BLM turn out to be entirely empty slogans on close inspection. Or at least, any substance they might have represented has been emptied out by the pre-existing and elite interests that commandeered them.
What is the MAGA agenda? There isn’t much of one. There’s been no real plan for the opioid crisis or the revival of declining regions, no credible promise of great new infrastructure projects. Beyond a few easily reversed executive orders Trump has done nothing to make our immigration system sensible or serve the interests of lower-wage Americans. There’s been a lot of empty gesturing meant to look like substantive action — a phony trade war with China that ended in Trump begging for a few extra soybean purchases from swing states, a few hundred miles of border fencing funded out of the Pentagon’s coffers, rather than Mexico’s. Insofar as Trump has an agenda of any substance, it is a pre-existing one that he didn’t invent or modify: A massive tax cut for corporations paired with the partial elimination of a tax break for affluent blue-staters and the confirmation of lots of judges approved by the conservative legal establishment.
What is the Black Lives Matter agenda? The official BLM organization, the one that’s been in receipt of millions of dollars from the titans of global capitalism, has a statement of belief. The statement begins with racism and policing issues, which do rank in almost every survey as vitally important if not the most important issues among black voters. But what comes next? Do a search for words like “education” or “housing.” Nothing. Do a search for the most important institution in black life, the church. Nothing. A significant majority of blacks list “health-care” as one of the major issues that determines their vote. It’s not even referenced.
Instead, what do you find? The vapid cultural politics of academia talking to itself in the mirror. “Gender identity” and “gender expression” come ahead of the first mention of economics. “Cisgender privilege” is denounced. The only life-shaping institution mentioned is the “nuclear family,” which BLM vows to “disrupt.” (As if the nuclear family hadn’t already been disrupted in black lives! 65 percent of black children live in a single-parent home.) This is a manifesto for grad students and radical journalists.
The disconnect between these slogans, which are used to sell politics to the masses, and the substance they hide, which is used to serve or just titillate various elite interests, is demoralizing. It is also dangerous. For whatever you fear most — an American Putin or an American Hugo Chavez — is no doubt waiting in the wings for the moment when the hopes raised by our empty political movements are dashed again.