In the wake of the 2016 election, a community of artists started to answer a question: What really makes America great? Trump’s campaign hadn’t defined what “great” meant, or how the country would know that it had been reached “again.” Some called the slogan a racist dog whistle–a sanitized version of a Tennessee politician’s 2016 billboard that literally said, “Make America White Again” and tried to evoke white nostalgia for the 1950s.
A new book, What Really Makes America Great, collects the artists’ work, all in the form of posters designed to celebrate what’s already great about America, from freedom of the press and religious freedom to intersectional feminism and taco trucks.
“I think with the election and over the last two years, Trump has really been able to dominate the discourse and the narrative and what we’re talking about and what we’re arguing about,” says Max Slavkin, cofounder and CEO of the Creative Action Network, a global community of artists and designers that runs campaigns on social issues and launched the campaign in early 2017. “It’s brought out a lot of nastiness and a lot of things that just don’t reflect us at our best.” Instead, Slavkin says, they wanted to flip the question: “Not what we are fighting to save today, but what are we celebrating today? Why do we care about making the future better?”
Next to each image, the artist explains their inspiration. “‘We the People’ originally meant ‘We the Landowning White Men,” writes artist Nik Dodani beside his red, white, and blue poster of a woman in a headscarf with one hand on her heart and the other on her child’s shoulder. “It doesn’t anymore.” Next to a poster of raised fists that celebrates resistance, artist Trevor Messersmith writes, “Being able to openly resist oppression and challenge authority are what make America great.” Not all of the posters are political; some celebrate baseball or bourbon or hip-hop.
When the project first started, the team planned to publish 100 posters from 100 artists in the first 100 days of the presidency. But they were overwhelmed with submissions, and the campaign is still going. “It’s still very much alive,” says Slavkin. Until now, the art was sold as posters and T-shirts on Creative Action Network’s website. Now the book will be sold nationwide, “in places like Walmart and Target, and outside of our community and outside of the world of activists and political types who follow it,” he says. “Now we can bring this message to anyone walking down an aisle at one of these stores.” Proceeds support DreamCorps, a social justice accelerator founded by Van Jones.