President Trump campaigned on a simple promise: he would make America great again. His rhetoric about America’s decline and her need for renewal resonated with enough voters to usher him into the Oval Office.
The opposition scorned Trump’s message. Mrs. Clinton made light of it at every opportunity. America, she insisted, does not need to be made great again because she is already great. But Clinton was swimming against the tide. The Trump campaign had tapped into Americans’ sense of loss. They understood the feeling that the country has misplaced (or even abandoned) something she once had, something important, something that made the nation great.
It is possible to identify any number of developments that may have contributed to this sense of loss. In 1979, just prior to the double-digit inflation / unemployment recession of 1981-82, manufacturing jobs were at an all-time high. Since then, the number of manufacturing jobs has decreased by almost 27 percent, while the population has increased by 43 percent.
Following the dissolution of Soviet communism in the late 80s and early 90s, America thought of herself as the world’s only superpower. But repeated terror attacks and the failure to attain a convincing victory in Afghanistan and Iraq have robbed Americans of their sense of supremacy around the globe and their security here at home.
Changes in communication technology coupled with an almost constant immersion in media have left Americans feeling isolated. Many people have gained hundreds of Facebook friends but have left behind the routines and activities that made for face-to-face friends. It’s a tradeoff, but not one that leaves people feeling satisfied.
The proliferation of federally mandated laws and standards in everything from what we eat to how we educate our children has left many Americans feeling a loss of autonomy. These various losses are real (for the most part) and keenly felt, especially by the working class. The Trump campaign clearly understood this and took advantage of it. It was their “trump card.”
President Trump hopes to make America great again by lowering corporate and capital gains tax rates, reforming immigration, requiring other nations to underwrite the cost of U.S. military interventions, and changing the calculus on energy use. Most of his suggestions revolve around improving the U.S. economy.
What wrong with that? Maybe nothing. But if America is going to “be great again,” wouldn’t it help to know what made her great in the first place? A keen observer who identified reasons for America’s greatness was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville came to America in 1831, and found much in America to admire. In his influential book, “Democracy in America,” he made this assertion: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Is that what happened? Did America cease to be good?
De Tocqueville attributed America’s greatness to her goodness, and her goodness to her religious roots, particularly among the Puritans. He wrote, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” And he warned, “Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.”
All this could be dismissed as the naïve musings of a puritanical moralist, who looked at life through religion-tinted lenses. But De Tocqueville was neither a Puritan nor a moralist; he was a diplomat and noted historian.
And might he not have been right? Is it a coincidence that doubts about America’s greatness have increased as America’s faith has been failing? Church attendance in America continues to fall. Religious liberty has faced an onslaught of challenges across multiple fronts. As regards religion, the fastest growing segment of American society are those who claim no religion.
If greatness depends on moral goodness, and goodness on faith, then stimulating the economy and banishing illegal immigrants will do little to make America great. It might even have the opposite effect by making America selfish. A rich America and a great America are not the same thing, and it is unlikely that one path will lead to both.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/25/2017