When America Was 'Great,' Taxes Were High, Unions Were Strong, and Government Was Big

The bygone nation Donald Trump’s supporters yearn for looks awfully liberal, at least in terms of economic policy.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

There is plenty about GOP hopeful Donald Trump to which potential primary voters respond. He’s successful. He’s plainspoken. At a time when politicians are historically unpopular, he’s not a politician. And he has a great slogan.

That slogan resonates with his supporters, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who ran a recent focus group, the results of which were written about in Time. “I used to sleep on my front porch with the door wide open, and now everyone has deadbolts,” one man told Luntz. “I believe the best days of the country are behind us.” Luntz concluded that people see Trump as a “real-deal fixer-upper,” able to make repairs that others have bungled. “We know his goal is to make America great again,” one woman astutely observed. “It’s on his hat.”

It could be on your hat too—Trump has begun selling “Make America Great Again” merchandise—if you can find one, that is. They have a tendency to sell out.

As Russell Berman pointed out in The Atlantic earlier this month, many white Americans these days are pessimistic to the point of despair:

White Americans—and in particular those under 30 or nearing retirement age—have all but given up on the American Dream. More than four out of five younger whites, and more than four out of five respondents between the ages of 51 and 64 said The Dream is suffering.

No wonder Trump’s message is so powerful—it’s a sugar pill coated with nostalgia. He is not promising to make America great, he’s promising to make it great again. But to what era does he intend to take the nation back? And what would that look like, practically speaking?

The boundaries of America’s “golden age” are clear on one end and fuzzy on the other. Everyone agrees that the midcentury boom times began after Allied soldiers returned in triumph from World War II. But when did they wane? The economist Joe Stiglitz, in an article in Politico Magazine titled “The Myth Of The American Golden Age,” sets the endpoint at 1980, a year until which “the fortunes of the wealthy and the middle class rose together.” Others put the cut-off earlier, at the economic collapse of 1971 and the ensuring malaise. Regardless of when it ended, it would not be unfair to use the ’50s as shorthand for this now glamorized period of plenty, peace, and the kind of optimism only plenty and peace can produce.

In 1950, America led the world in GDP per capita. Even by 1973, it had only sunk to number two. Jobs were so plentiful that male employment peaked at over 84 percent. Unemployment, when it did strike, didn’t last long. Housing was cheap. Gas was cheap. Movies were cheap. If America was ever “great,” it was great in 1950, and one can sympathize with a desire to recreate those economic conditions, if not the social ones.

Most of Trump’s supporters (but not all) deserve some benefit of the doubt that when they look wistfully at the past, they aren’t yearning for Jim Crow laws, Communist witch hunts, or an age before women could own credit cards.

Still, Trump’s supporters might not appreciate what an economic return to the ’50s—even a ’50s lacking overt discrimination against women and political, racial, and sexual minorities—would entail. The ’50 were, as Stiglitz puts it, “a time of war-induced solidarity when the government kept the playing field level.” In other words, they were a time of Big Government. And Big Labor: As Alternet reports, “By 1953, more than one out of three American workers were members of private sector unions. That means there was a union member in nearly every family.”

Then there’s the matter of taxes. Though a conservative writer at Bloomberg View scoffs at the oft-cited statistic that the top marginal tax rate in the ‘50s was an astounding 91 percent, even she admits that “the Internal Revenue Service reckoned that the effective rate of tax in 1954 for top earners was actually 70 percent”—vastly higher than it is today. Indeed, for most of the past 100 years, tax rates have been much higher than they are now, including during some boom times.

If bigger government, stronger unions, and higher taxes on the rich are what it takes to make America great again, Republican primary voters might be surprised to learn that the candidate who truly shares their values is not Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders.