Bud Kennedy

How Reagan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ became a Trump takeaway

“Make America Great Again” was Ronald Reagan’s slogan in 1980, but Donald Trump trademarked and owns it.
“Make America Great Again” was Ronald Reagan’s slogan in 1980, but Donald Trump trademarked and owns it. @McClatchyDC on Twitter

If we’re talking about aggravated theft of speech lines, the crime wave did not just begin.

The current outbreak of Trump-related larceny began Nov. 19, 2012, two weeks after President Barack Obama was re-elected by 5 million votes.

On paperwork filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an attorney for Donald Trump reserved a name for a political action committee: “Make America Great Again.”

Nobody noticed. But the slogan of President Ronald Reagan’s come-from-behind 1980 victory campaign became the personal property of a New York developer in only his third year back in the Republican Party.

Maybe Trump didn’t remember Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

After all, he was giving money then to President Jimmy Carter.

But as recently as March of last year, he still claimed it was all his idea.

“The line of ‘Make America great again,’ the phrase, that was mine,” he said in a March 23, 2015, Fox New York interview.

“I came up with it about a year ago” — he’d owned it two years — “and I kept using it, and everybody’s now using it; they are all loving it,” he said.

Reagan’s nascent campaign first used the slogan in January 1980 newspaper ads, when only a scant few Republican officials supported him. A Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ad urged voters to caucus for Reagan: “LETS MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

I couldn’t identify the author. Michael Deaver was Reagan’s campaign strategist, but the line is nowhere in his autobiography.

At the time, “making America great” meant rebuilding a stagnant economy and regaining respect. Iran was holding American hostages, and the Soviet Union was taking Afghanistan.

“The country seemed weak on the world stage,” Southern Methodist University political science professor Matthew Wilson wrote by email.

“America had lost the war in Vietnam, had been rocked by the Watergate scandal, and had not seen a completed two-term presidency since Eisenhower. … It was easy to feel that America had fallen from greatness.”

TCU assistant history professor Max Krochmal wrote by email that Reagan’s voters thought like Trump’s today: “that they’ve lost ground in the wake of the recent civil rights and sexual revolutions, and that they want to turn back the clock to a time when their white and often male privileges were not yet being challenged, or in other words, to the 1950s. … What these nostalgic memories of the past overlook is that the much-vaunted prosperity of even that period was segregated along racial, gender, and class lines.”

But Reagan’s primary appeal revolved around strong defense, strong trade policies and patriotism. UT Arlington professor Rebecca Deen noted a flag-waving TV commercial at the Statue of Liberty.

Reagan’s son, Michael, supports the ticket but has kept his distance from Trump, even as vintage Reagan/Bush T-shirts from 1984 become a hot item with this year’s delegates.

“It’s sad to sit and watch that he’s doing this using my father’s name,” Michael Reagan said in a January interview.

“For Ronald Reagan, it was real. To Trump, it’s a slogan.”

How can he say that?

It’s also a $25 cap.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.