Let’s Talk About Greatness
Donald Trump wants, as did Ronald Reagan and others before him, “to make America great again.” And in all the critiques of Trump and his behavior, much of which is justified, his endorsement of greatness has not been challenged. And perhaps that is because most Americans accept greatness as an uncontroversial political goal, if not as the most important political goal.
This seems to me questionable, at best. Recently, I have been reading a book, Embers of War, about the fall of the French empire in what they called “Indochina,” embracing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The book has illuminated for me that while Ho Chi Minh was prepared to negotiate a peace with the French that would eventually lead to Vietnamese independence, the French were committed to restoring their rule over Indochina and, hence, unwilling to engage in serious negotiations with Ho. Why not? Because the kind of agreement Ho wanted would have been inconsistent with maintaining the French empire and, therewith, inconsistent with maintaining French greatness. For the French, to be great required that it reclaim its empire and that meant defeating and subjugating Vietnamese nationalism, as well as denying the Vietnamese their independence.
What’s the point? Just that the pursuit of greatness has consequences and not all of those consequences are uncontroversial, ala’ French efforts to subjugate – they would say “civilize” – the Vietnamese people, even though this would mean necessarily engaging in a long term, if not constant war. So the questions should be asked: Just what is required to restore American greatness? What would be the results of such a restoration domestically? Does the restoration require, as it did for the French, long or even constant wars, as seems to be the case in Afghanistan and the Middle East?
Interestingly, when our constitution was being debated, Patrick Henry raised just these kinds of questions. To wit: “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government. Shall we indulge the example of those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid Government? Are those nations more worthy of our imitation? What can make an adequate satisfaction to them for the loss they have suffered in attaining such a Government – for the loss of their liberty? If we admit this Consolidated Government, it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.”
So, as was the case in 1788, so too today it is the pursuit of greatness that needs to be talked about. What does it mean for how we Americans view ourselves and how we Americans will be, will act in the world? In pursuing this conversation, we might find that there is more that is defective about Trump than his often boorish behavior. And we might even learn some things about politics.