The rise of Trump was facilitated by America's obsession with "greatness," as two new books remind usby Diane Roberts / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Greatness” is the essence of the American brand. We are great because we are good and good because we are great: a land of liberty and opportunity, a nation favoured by God. That’s what we Americans tell ourselves, at least, though lately the story’s been sounding a trifle shopworn. The current occupant of the Oval Office got there by promising voters he’d make America “great again.” But after 18 months of posturing “greatness,” it’s hard to find areas in which the US really is a leader—other than mass shootings.
The US is no longer one of the most admired nations. The American healthcare system continues to languish at the bottom among developed countries. We’re no longer a bastion of press freedom: Reporters Without Borders places the US at 45th in the world, citing the silencing of diverse voices through corporate consolidation and hostility emanating from President Donald Trump, who has called the press “the enemy of the people.” The Economist’s Democracy Index ranks the US as a “flawed democracy,” on par with Italy, India or South Africa.
The US military remains the most powerful in the world and the US economy still rules (for now). But what does America stand for these days? Traditional answers—the rule of law, equal opportunity, equal justice, hope for the oppressed, human rights—are necessarily qualified by the uglier realities of American history: forced removal of indigenous peoples, slavery and segregation at home, ill-judged wars abroad. Nonetheless, America used to have certain ideals. We often failed to live up to those ideals, but they were a moral template inspiring (or reproaching) our leaders.
These days our government doesn’t even pretend to care. Trump’s Justice Department means to prosecute asylum seekers, refugees fleeing the murderous streets of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa. It separates children from their parents at the border and puts them in cages. (Though Trump, under pressure, has supposedly reversed this.) The “travel ban” has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The US has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump embraces the leaders of North Korea and Saudi Arabia with no mention of human rights.