Watching Trump’s speech to the Values Voters today (Friday), it seemed to me the cornerstone of the address was the word “hope.” America is great because America is filled with hope.
“Hope” was a word utilized by Barack Obama. Now we see Trump appropriating the word.
Make America Great Again, as I noted yesterday, is a compelling message for both liberals and conservatives. I referred to two messengers appealing to two different audiences:
Messenger 1: Jeff Daniels
Jeff Daniels’ depiction of jaded TV Journalist Will McAvoy in the HBO series “The Newsroom, with a message appealing to the college educated left. Daniels really nails his part in this clip, so much so it belongs to Daniels more than it does McAvoy, so with apologies I will refer to Daniels as the man behind the message going forward. This clip was widely shared in social media in the years running up to the 2016 election, before Trump was even a candidate. So, although it’s been used by presidential candidates before (we have Reagan on tape using it, for one example), I maintain the idea in its present iteration came first from the Jeff Daniels character.
Here, Daniels first asserts America is not the greatest country (without offering an alternative) and laments that America was once great, and that wanted America to be great again, but leaves us with the feeling he doesn’t know how that is possible. No hope is offered here, except that the diagnosis is that maybe America is no longer great because America is no longer very smart. Now, this is odd, because it suggests that despite an educational system more extensive, staffed, and funded than anytime in America’s past, America is becoming more stupid. So, there is no hope, except to maybe find a few brilliant people to put in control and have them “Just Do It” – make America Great Again somehow – perhaps with nobler characteristics brought about by maybe better test scores. This kind of solution, offered by liberals who adore secular, public education (for other people’s children anyway, if not for themselves and their children) usually gets translated into a new batch of DC directed initiatives and programs. Thus “Hope” is placed in government and better education – managed by smart, college educated people, who happen to be virtuous due to their superior liberal morality that will keep them out of immoral wars. The only real undeniable problem here is that with all these smart people now educating America in greater numbers and with ever increasing resources, the results show, according to Daniels, that America somehow is getting dumber and dumber (no pun intended)
The Jeff Daniels character is thus exhausted and disillusioned. The complaint kind of boils down to “The elite can’t educate people out of stupidity and wars apparently, aren’t ‘good’ anymore (even the most ardent lover of this clip can drive a Mac truck through that complaint). And of course, this confused lament is dished out with oodles and oodles of smarmy mockery for those who can’t see it.
Messenger 2: Donald Trump
Donald Trump, playing himself, took this disillusionment of America’s fading standing and made “Make America Great Again” his very own brand. To do so, he bypasses the college educated left who Daniels appealed to (based on the number of left leaning friends of mine who enthusiastically shared this clip as a meme), and brought his appeal straight to the Working Class right. Trump the populist politician and master brander – as the MAGA brand shouts out – offers hope. And Trump the builder of yuge, beautiful buildings, offers a blueprint on how to do it. Trump is a bundle of energy and contradictions, but he’s painting a vision in very broad strokes and has a history of knowing how to read and bring a blueprint to life. And so, the way forward to Making America Great Again looks roughly something like this (there may be a more formal blueprint on his website somewhere, but here is how I, now like you a veteran Trump observer, sees it:
- Put America first. Everyone else comes second. If private Americans want to help citizens of the world, we’ll enrich them so they can do it, by unleashing them to build great products and services the world will want. But the government’s priority is to take care of Americans. All other citizens of the world who need help in the form of government aid are encouraged to address their issues with their own respective governments. And so, for example, if North Korea starves, it’s the fault of North Korea’s leadership. Thus what is lacking is compassion “out there” as a government virtue: but compassion is a private matter and best served by people with means anyway.
- To restore our collective faith in God and love of our Country as our great help in this endeavor. Trump said in today’s speech we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas again this year. With his success in jawboning the NFL to make their players stand for the national anthem, don’t be surprised if he’s right.
- As great patriots who love our country, we unleash the power of the free market to empower the people of the nation to prosper. Regulations and tax structures that unduly hinder economic success are ripped from the laws. From here, government will use the unleashed creativity and power of the renewed America to rebuild the infrastructure, adding to our economic power and well-being as a nation.
This is a message of hope, hope, and more hope.
Obama’s Message of Hope: the contrast
Former President Barack Obama himself utilized the language of hope, earlier and more often than Trump, and was quite eloquent in doing so. But what was missing from Obama was the idea of “restoration.” Obama did not appeal to a golden age. His own wife Michelle admitted that she never had pride in America until Barack Obama was on the verge of winning the White House. By this, one can surmise that for them, the great American Century of Greatness began Day One on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009. You may be underwhelmed by this – Jeff Daniels and Donald Trump definitely were. But, being left leaning, his go-to machine for future greatness tended to be the unleashing of a strong central government as the instrument to a better America. Money for centralized healthcare, money for alternative energies for a greener world, money to take clunkers off the street so Americans could buy shiny new alternative energy cars.
Obama used the word “hope” a lot. It was the key word in one of his two autobiographies: The Audacity of Hope. The other, interestingly, used a word that implies hope: Dreams of My Father. Obama often invited people to join him in “hoping” and to “dream” – even naming illegal aliens “dreamers”. Thus Obama became the President of Hopes and Dreams.
Diversity as foundation: we’re gonna need a bigger government
But as Obama did not point to a lost golden era, he had to invent a vision using strange, untested foundations that leaned upon an appeal to strength in diversity. Now diversity has its strengths, but it is shaky if it is meant to be the foundation. Unity, not diversity, is where a society finds strength. And so, because diversity is in its very definition disunited, it calls for a strong central government controlling more of the people. For a nation of people who from its very founding have a healthy distrust of central power, government made strong in the service of diversity had a strange aroma. And because of this, Obama found himself appealing to hope for hope’s sake. For a nation tired of war in nations that didn’t threaten it any longer, but which bled its best young men, and was now facing an enemy of economic uncertainty, hope undefined was good enough in 2008.
Evidence of America’s past greatness
But if America is or was great, the historical central truth of America’s position and role in the world as the greatest nation is located in its contrast to the alternative: the enemies of freedom who derived and utilized their challenging power from strong, collective government. In ending fascist Germany, fascist Japan, Communist Russia and prying China away from its own communist designs, America’s greatness is seen in the epochal struggle between Fascism (Communist and otherwise) and Freedom. Even Daniels said America was great back when it fought good wars for moral rather than economic reasons.
The problem however was this: The enemy of freedom in the 20th century – strong collective government – was now, in Obama’s eyes, the solution of all our ills in the 21st. If the era of big government was now over, as Bill Clinton said in 1995, Obama’s administration somehow missed getting that memo. And thus, the Tea Party was born, a threat to Obama and all good liberals – so much so Obama mobilized the IRS against the citizens who formed its platoons in the political battle over the size and scope of the federal government.
The communists that created the Soviet Union and became our adversaries in the long, cold war similarly had hope – Hope in their vision for the new reality they wished to create. They had faith in an ideology that said this new reality was inevitable and implied it was also moral. But it too was a faulty and false cornerstone and it filled the world with unspeakable miseries. The foundation was false so hope was betrayed, until it collapsed upon the evil it unknowingly promoted in order to exist – a parasite rather than a champion of the working class, who became slaves to the keepers of the vision. It fell, and great was the destruction. Today, the two great former champion nations of Communism, Russia and China, are placing their hopes in capitalism (sans a free market, corruption being so difficult to uproot when men try to control markets). The capitalism they embraced was the warped version, identical to the straw man they lampooned that was based on the Marxist doctrine animating the struggle for the worldwide liberation of the working class. Cronyism is rampant. Orwell, in his totalitarian fable Animal Farm said the oppressed animal workers in the end could not tell the communist leader Pigs and the capitalist Farmers apart. The Pigs became the farmers, the formerly oppressive capitalists who in the end rejected useless ideology and embraced the only tried and true method for increasing the means and ends of production. Rejecting the communist faith and adopting capitalism, the leadership and bureaucratic cronies leveraged their political power to place themselves firmly on top of the economic pyramid.
The seeds of American greatness: a merger of two viewpoints
America struggles with its own captialist/bureaucratic cronies, more so now than ever (hence the cry to “drain the swamp”). But, in contrast, it placed such eschatological dreams of an earthly workers paradise (best exemplified by John Lennon’s beautiful song Imagine) strictly into the afterlife. Capital and the moneyed class who deal in it is here to stay, it will not be replaced. But it offered the average man not merely a life of oppression but also one of opportunity and thus hope in this world. America was thus built by men and women filled with hope for now and eternity, with minds both in the clouds but also grounded in practicality. This hope for a better life now and, if played by the rules, a better life in eternity developed into a working faith in a beneficent God who watched over their affairs, and offered blessings but also a stern warning against oppression and overall bad behavior.
Those average and god fearing Americans who found blessings and warnings in their concept of God as an active agent, also found common cause with the men of the enlightenment, who were seeking more rational and less faith based solutions. The men of the enlightenment focused on the great advantages unleashed in this world by the testable, provable scientific knowledge it brought forth. God fearing Americans couldn’t help but find utility in such study. This study even spilled into political discourse as Americans, finding themselves a little more removed and independent from King and Country, better discerned and discovered their own natural rights. The religious American easily understood these rights as coming from their beneficent creator, while the enlightenment man certainly reasoned for a creator who developed the laws they now uncovered through said reason. As enlightened man and religious man came to common understandings, religious man brought aspects of the ancient law the enlightened man of reason could find agreement with as well. These included principles such as the golden rule, and government accountability to a higher power, and the lurking dangers when a king rules through oppression. Now, if that higher power is not to be some sectarian version among many sectarian versions of God, then at least a study of the reasonable principles expounded in those scriptures could locate vital areas of agreement. After all, these scriptures were well understood by Europeans who came to the New World, whatever the motivation. Limited government, spelled out, offered solutions to all European immigrants, including a sober understanding that within the heart of man were weaknesses that if unchecked could lead to many evil and destructive inclinations. Hence the seeds of American greatness began to germinate, and bear fruit.
Tested in great trials, Time and again both religious and enlightened men found time to seek God and His help whenever destruction for their great shared experiment threatened its existence. In doing so, like believers sharing foxholes with atheists who lived to tell about it, they could look back and agree that perhaps they were steadied and aided by a greater power – in times when reason could offer no help, they shared a providential reliance on God. A healthy respect for both reason and faith were born in both camps.
Thus hope for a great nation was tempered, yet built on a greater foundation. That foundation included a respect for God and his providence. It included an insistence upon an understanding of man’s fallen nature as taught in the ancient texts yet affirmed through the study of man and his nature. It empowers people with their God given rights, while empowering society by continually reminding them through the gospel and the Bible to use those rights responsibly (hence the end the slavery through a bloody civil war). An evil people who abused their rights, would be thus be chastened, as was the South following their succession over slavery rights.
In this partnership, the American people offered the world a contrasting new vision for the future. Enlightened, but also relying upon an ancient faith of a providential, lawgiving creator, hope was placed on a solid foundation, and the Americans went about the work of making America great through individual self-realization and hard work in building lives in freedom and opportunity. Looking over the Atlantic, the Americans saw their cousins the French try to follow their example of freedom and the exaltation of the rights of man – minus God, only to descend into a barbarity followed by dictatorial rule by a new militaristic Emperor. The differences between the American experiment and where Europe stood following the French revolution were profoundly discerned and expounded by the observant writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, who sought to glean an understanding of the new American mind in order to help shape the future of French democracy.
Make America Great Again is aspirational. But it is restorative: a call to return to an understanding of our greatness, but with a sober understanding of our limitations. In it, we recognize our great victory in world events: by holding firm and defending our nation we outlasted the communist and fascistic threats of our previous century. But we also note that with greatness comes a prudential understanding of the dangers of hubris. We have been too careless with our greatest treasures: the men of the great American working class who we send off to fight our wars. In 1972, Democratic Presidential Nominee George McGovern accepted the nomination with a call for America to “come home.” Come home from Vietnam and take care of yourself, he put it.
In “America First” and Trump’s aversion to questionable military excursions, he has married that call to “come home” with Reagan’s doctrine of Peace through Strength. We take care of America’s needs first, and its foremost need in the world is to make it clear to friend and foe alike that we will not be threatened. America is first in our priorities, and first in the world. The Jeff Daniels character would no doubt be aghast, and launch into a speech about how Trump has misapplied the meaning of “greatness.” But then, Jeff Daniels’ character did not offer a source for greatness, nor a tangible alternative.
Collective central government to address the hurts and struggles of our people is very appealing to voters – many who hurt and are struggling. Politicians trade in hope or they peddle in fear. Trump understood this, and tailored his message to let the American people know he understood their fears of disappearing jobs, economic insecurity, and lax border control. Following that, he pivoted by offering hope in an appeal to principles that once made America great and would thus Make America Great Again. In his inaugural address, he made clear his administration would have their back in the endeavor. Government would assist, beginning with help for the Veterans by cleaning up the VA. But their own hard work, in a country and economic system made of free men and women investing the money the government had its own designs on, would be the engine to prosperity and greatness. And in tough times, it would be God we place our hope in, and a Federal Government with proper priorities toward its own people assisting in that effort, having the workers’ backs.
Is Trump the right CEO for the task?
Trump appeals are to a segment of America that is deeply religious and deeply patriotic. And, surprise, Trump himself – a New York billionaire- shares those feelings. And it connects. The shared connection, based on love of country, is producing a love between messenger and receiver.
More importantly, Trump knows these voters of his are the very people the elite, the educated, and popular media/political apparatus that make up perhaps 90 percent of film/TV/Print media most despise. Yet he courts them with genuine affection, and that respect and affection gets reciprocated.
Does Trump share the love of God the great middle class America has? I think that is less clear. I can’t look into a man’s heart, but it is a language he has trouble articulating. And with his past, is it any surprise? I would say he has a deepening respect for the basic godly faith these unwashed share, and has a faint memory, as a young man raised to attend church, of his own leanings upon it.
Trump, the celebrity millionaire, Emmy Winning Neilson ratings killer, and star of Celebrity Apprentice, spent a lifetime courting those who look down and condescendingly upon the great unwashed bumpkins of middle America. A man of great ambitions, he sought the Presidency, and determined somewhere along the way that these bumpkins would be his political base and pathway to the top of the ego pyramid any person today with great ambition will entertain climbing, if not actually aspiring to: The White House. We tell our children confidently that anyone can grow up to be President. But in turning his attention from celebrity culture to the heartland, Trump appears to have connected a dormant American spirit within himself as he wooed those people for whom it burns bright, and saw it in danger of being extinguished.