What Does It Mean to “Make America Great Again”?

This is what I think would make America great: a reassertion of American leadership and exceptionalism.

Before WWI, we were a country defined by our exceptional national character. Leaders of other countries pointed to our collective character as worthy of emulation. This included our “pioneer spirit” – our eagerness to explore and discover. It included our “can do” spirit – the persistence and courage to overcome any obstacle. It included our independent spirit – the insistence on liberties to live our lives free from government mandates. These qualities came to full blossom during WWII, when we were forced to assume the mantle of world leadership. Since that time, American leadership in the world has also become part of what has defined our greatness.

In other words, what made America great was more related to national character and the natural results of that character than economic policy. As the world becomes ever more inter-dependent, it has put more pressure on American leadership. The world needs American leadership. Without our leadership, the world will be far more dangerous with the vacuum filled by the authoritarian power of Russia or China.

One could debate America is no longer great, but it seems to me that any progress we do make depends on restoring those parts of the American character that made us great in the first place. Therein lies the problem with Trump. How does his defunding of scientific research and imposing a political litmus test on scientists in government service square with the pioneer spirit? How does his withdrawing American leadership on climate change, retreat from NATO leadership, and realignment of alliances with authoritarian regimes and the whole “America First” rhetoric square with American exceptionalism and leadership?

I understand the appeal of “America First” because so many Americans are suffering economically. However, I would argue that most of these problems are self-imposed. Allowing money to be considered political speech, bad trade deals (mostly as a function of allowing moneyed interests to dictate the terms), and the devolution of the media from a source of facts to alt-facts based on advertising constituencies has created far more problems than terrorism, or any other external factors. Appeals to fear and exploiting divisions may enable the existing power structure to keep power, but it does nothing to make America great. Our greatness is rooted, and will be revived, by appeals to the “better angels of our nature”.

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