Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is a deceptively simple—and simply deceptive—bit of rhetoric. These four words embed two arguments designed to appeal to the worst elements of human nature: resentment (by suggesting that America is no longer great), and vanity (by asserting that exceptional greatness is something to which all Americans are entitled). It’s hard to go wrong appealing to the baser angels of our nature.We should not mistake this slogan for optimism or praise. It is an objectively negative argument, as its rhetorical force depends on our NOT believing that America is great right now. If I were to go home tonight and tell my wife that it was time to make her beautiful again, I would spend the rest of the night on the couch. And if I said it was time for her to be a good wife again, I would spend the rest of my life paying alimony. We should treat Trump’s bumper-sticker slogan in much the same way.
But it is the other embedded argument that interests me most here. By demanding that America be “great,” Trump is playing into the rich rhetorical vein of America exceptionalism, or the belief that America is inherently set apart from—and better than—other countries. Nothing new here. Most presidents tap into this vein, and, when Obama suggested during his campaign that other countries might justifiably feel the same way, he was attacked ferociously for his anti-American views.
The problem, though, is that “greatness” is not a term that can be incorporated very well into an operational plan of how to govern. Greatness in nations is a mythic concept that has more to do with pageantry than with actually making laws and getting stuff done. Alexander was great. Rome was great. The generation that defeated Hitler was great. Our idea of national greatness is wrapped up in conquest and bloodshed—and in really big parades. It's all about the optics.
The important question for Americans in this election is not how to be “great,” or how to be the best country on earth. Rather, we need to focus on how to be “pretty good”—how to work together, compromise, pay the bills, keep the lights on, and make sure that people are reasonably safe and able to work and take care of themselves and their families—you know, like a lot of other countries do.
But you can't govern a country on optics. Actually governing is an unglamorous affair full of boring details and small fights about ultimately inconsequential things. It is a messy, imperfect, and flawed process that has more to do with making sausage than with making monuments. But in the end, we at least have sausage, and that is something.
But the partisan divides in our government have made it almost impossible to make even sausage. We now live in a country that has to have a three-month debate over whether or not to pay its bills. Our court system is dangerously overloaded because the last two presidents have been unable to get routine judicial appointments through the legislature. This doesn’t happen in most countries. We are not failing to be great; we are failing to be functional.
So I would recommend that voters in the coming election put the idea of existential greatness on hold and focus on just making America pretty good again. Let’s get back to governing—to debating and compromising and moving things forward in an awkward and inelegant way. Let’s pay our bills and muddle through, solving occasional problems when we can, and generally trying to make life a little bit better for our children. Let’s start making sausage again and let the monuments and parades take care of themselves.