What makes America great? Just ask America's elders.
Values and ideals
Donald Trump, vowing to 'make America great again,' commands his largest lead among Americans born before World War II. Some of them see progress, but many miss the patriotism and self-reliance of that era.
Sue Smith, an 81-year-old former recruiter for the GI Bill at Penn State, says she saw the greatest America as a child, when her patriotic aunt would drive around and knock on the doors of strangers who had their flag out in the rain and ask them to bring it in.
Eleanor Jensen, a former secretary from New Jersey who just celebrated her 98th birthday, says she saw the greatest America during World War II, when “everybody did their part.”
And John Clinton, a former political professor in Maryland and Washington born at the start of that war, says he sees the greatest America today.
At a time when Americans are talking about whether there’s a need to make America great again, these members were among those who made it great the first time.
The Greatest Generation – Americans born before 1925 – and their close contemporaries, the Silent Generation, differ in their views of the country, but on one idea they tend to agree: patriotism used to mean something deeper.
Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” inherently honors another time in US history – a time that Trump supporters remember as better, a country that they look upon as more moral, secure, and prosperous. But members of the Greatest and Silent generations say America was great not because those things came easily – it was great because they worked harder for greatness.
John Harrison, an 81-year-old retiree from Florida, sees it in little things, like when he asks his grandchildren, “Where does milk come from?” And, having never milked a cow, they say, “From the store.”
“We used to really work together because that’s the way we survived, and that self-reliance really built a lot of character in that society,” says Mr. Harrison, who says he doesn’t see the same kind of universal respect or commitment to family and religion these days. “Now our society focuses on ‘Who can help me?’”
Trump is both an effect and a cause of this problem, say America's elders: Americans physically fight one another at political rallies and debates have become a place of schoolyard taunts and PG-13 rated rhetoric.
“Looking back, I can recall that the grown-ups all seemed to have a sense of purpose that was evident even to someone as young as four, five, or six,” writes former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who coined the term “The Greatest Generation” in his 1998 book. “Whatever else was happening in our family or neighborhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small.”
Trump’s largest lead is among 65-plus crowd
To appeal to the national loyalty built into almost every older American, Trump – himself a member of the Silent Generation – is refurbishing the cornerstone catchphrase of US politics: the American dream.
“Sadly, the American dream is dead,” said Trump in his campaign announcement in June 2015. “But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better than ever.”
According to a poll released last month, Trump leads Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by nine points in the 65-plus age bracket, his largest lead of any age group.
“Absolutely” Trump directs his rhetoric to older Americans, says Michael Cornfield, director of the Global Center for Political Engagement at George Washington University.
“That’s the ‘Again’ in ‘Make America Great Again.’”
But David Steigerwald, a professor of history at The Ohio State University and director of the department's World War II study abroad program at OSU, says the nostalgic view of a once-great America is “a false memory.”
“When were things really tranquil from my perspective? There never was such a time,” he says. “It’s a creation of recent sensibilities of older white Americans – they are reacting to demographic change from the mid-1960s.”
Hershey bars for returning soldiers
Charlotte Miller, an 86-year-old retired schoolteacher and mother of six from Lincoln, Neb., says patriotism used to produce camaraderie among Americans – friends and strangers alike. She remembers going to the airport with her mother to hand out Hershey bars to soldiers and sailors returning home from war, and helped out at a hospital as an 11-year-old, feeding people and bringing them flowers.
“It was easy to have unitedness then because we thought we were all white Americans. There wasn’t an effort to get to know others,” explains Mrs. Miller, who says she could count on one hand the number of black and Hispanic students at her grade school in Illinois. “We’re mixing it up more and that’s upsetting to a lot of people.”
Indeed, Trump has played on fears that the rising numbers of immigrants and increased integration of minorities are undermining American security and prosperity.
“Many people fear the immigrants, because they feel that they’re taking their jobs away. But I don’t believe that,” says Miller, whose church group reaches out to Muslim neighbors. “Many immigrants are very hard workers and I have great admiration for them.”
Calls for greater civility
Despite greater opportunities for immigrants and minorities today, Hetlyn Lyles, an African-American woman living in Boston, says there is still segregation – and an element of civility that is missing.
It’s not that she didn’t experience the formal segregation of past decades. She recalls accidentally sitting in the front of a segregated bus when she moved to Georgia with her husband, and feeling embarrassed and hurt.
But Mrs. Lyles, 86, also remembers a day when she had worked all day to make a nice garden, and went inside to cool off and saw a white man from the neighborhood planting a rosebush in her front yard in recognition of her effort.
“[Segregation] is never going to go away, on both sides,” she says. “But at least people knew how to act when I was a kid.”
Mr. Clinton cautions against the nostalgia that makes everything look better in the rear-view mirror. But he echoes some of what Lyles says.
“We’re lucky to be alive in the time we live in – there’s nothing we need to go back to,” he says. “Unless it’s to pick up the spirit of the Founding Fathers, which was civility.”
(Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect the correct age range of those referred to as the Greatest Generation.)