Making America Great Again: What Does It Mean?
President Trump wants to “make America great again,” or so he claims. And despite the controversy Trump almost always generates, it seems fair to say that most Americans agree with Trump that being “great,” that is, being a “great” nation is desirable. One indication that such agreement is almost universal is that no one has asked what it means to be a great nation or whether being great is desirable. That is, how do nations become great and, if once great, what is required to maintain or restore their greatness? Further, is acquiring or maintaining such greatness desirable, that is, conducive to or consistent with living well?
To begin to question the desirability of greatness, consider the following phenomenon. The U.S. has been waging war in Afghanistan now for about seventeen years with, apparently, no end to this war in sight. Now what makes this situation interesting is that, at least among our powerful politicians and many establishment figures, this war, our policy in Afghanistan is not considered a failure. Moreover, those who implemented this policy, as well as those who have executed and are executing it even today, are not thought of as needing to be held accountable for that war. Hence, that war is not seen as a failure and those who started and continue it need not be reprimanded or held accountable for their actions.
But how can this be? That is, what is it that makes it possible for most Americans, both those in office and those not, to accept a seventeen year long war, a war seemingly without end, as anything but a failure? Is this rather strange mindset a result of thinking of our nation as great? I believe it is.
Quite often, the U.S. justifies its actions abroad, its foreign policies as the results of the need to maintain the nation’s credibility or prestige or resolve. Such justifications were used to legitimate US “involvement” in the Vietnam War, as well as for US involvement in other wars or military actions. Consider, momentarily as a thought experiment, that such concerns, viz., with credibility, prestige, and resolve, are measures of a nation’s greatness. To be great means to be credible, to have prestige, and to demonstrate resolve. Nations without credibility, without prestige, without resolve are not great. At most, they are second best, bit or marginal players on “the world’s stage.” Great nations, on the other hand, are the leading players on “the world’s stage,” are those around whom the action of the world’s drama revolves. So those nations that step aside or are pushed aside from the world’s action are not, cannot be great. And maintaining credibility, acquiring prestige, and demonstrating resolve require embracing a central role in the world, regardless of the cost involved. In fact, the greater the cost involved in being in the action, the greater the reputation for greatness.
In this light, U.S. war making in Afghanistan, even after seventeen years and billions of dollars and much bloodshed, including American bloodshed, testifies to the greatness of the United States. Only a great nation could bear such great costs for what is apparently so little return. And it is only a great nation that would bear such costs, that is, choose to undertake great actions despite the possibility or even the likelihood of failure. To lose a war fought for “a noble cause,” as is often said about the Vietnam War, testifies to a nation’s greatness. And if in losing such a war that nation “sacrifices” the lives of many of its warriors, well, this only adds to the calculus of greatness. “Bearing any burden, paying any price” is the way of demonstrating a nation’s greatness. The heavier the burden, the higher the price, the greater the nation, the more glory to be reaped.
It should be clear that a politics of greatness comes at a great price, that of seemingly endless war. But there is more as well. Being in the action is easily confused with controlling the action, when the latter is far more difficult than is imagined. And when this confusion is exposed, as it almost always is, it reveals the sordid alliances and actions great nations must embrace to be great. Once the veil is lifted, the sordidness underlying national greatness is revealed in a way that only a Machiavelli could make of light of or could reconcile himself to. It is discovered, for example, that while “no one would ever suspect” it, “Ronald Reagan’s staff [was] buying guns from the ‘Evil Empire’” and using a terrorist serving that “evil empire” to do so. “In other words, three separate U.S. networks were purchasing Communist weapons for Iran and the Nicaraguan rebels. All of them were run by Vice President Bush’s planning staff inside the White House . . . .” [The Secret War Against the Jews, 422]
On the other hand, the “common people,” who strive for “common decency,” not greatness, are appalled at what they see behind the veil, which is why the veil is needed and why the “commoners” must be kept in the dark. Or perhaps they should be blinded by “the pomp and circumstance” of their allegedly “brilliant” government, composed of offices of great power and prestige, with flags flying, bands playing, and weapons of war gleaming over “purple mountains’ majesty.”
Both the war making, even futile war making, and domestic propaganda are necessary components of national greatness. So, it is worth asking: Do you want to “make America great?” But be careful what you wish for because, as the old adage has it, you just might get it.