Americans in today’s society cannot agree in any significant way on a definition of the word “greatness” as it relates to our politics.
The president-elect has sought almost single-handedly to marshal the word into his rhetorical arsenal, and he asserts that America was once great. Yet, while it is true that he has never fully articulated just exactly what this greatness is, he surely believes that it is real and attainable.
But in his victory speech, Donald Trump spoke in a way that he never had during his entire campaign.
If someone who knew nothing of the election at all were to only hear the speech he gave early Wednesday morning, they would think that Trump ran a campaign that spoke to all Americans, that included those of all different types of backgrounds and beliefs and lifestyles, but that was absolutely not the campaign that Trump ran.
The morning of the election, “The Economist” remarked that no matter what the result would be, roughly half of the country would completely write the other half off and say that it has nothing to say to it. As I write this on the morning of Nov. 9, it seems the magazine very well could be right.
There are voices on the left who proclaim that American greatness, at least in the way that our popular culture conceptualizes it, has never established itself in this country at all.
Jelani Cobb, a contributor for the “New Yorker” whose views are known to be liberal, wrote last week that Trump’s candidacy itself represented a complete refutation of the notion that America has ever been an exceptional nation.
An exceptional nation, Cobb writes, would never have let Trump get anywhere near as far as he did. An exceptional nation would have rallied its “immune defense” more efficiently than the U.S. and would have dealt a decisive blow to Trumpism by electing Hillary Clinton in a landslide.
The choice for Cobb, therefore, was an easy one: elect Clinton, or guarantee the death of American exceptionalism and vote for Trump.
But for Robert Curry, a conservative author, this election served as an opportunity to take a side in what he considered the the all-out war on reason that is political correctness, and he implied that voting for Trump was “plain common sense.”
According to Curry, the U.S. exists today essentially as a “post-constitutional” nation. Whether it is the courts, Congress or the President, he contends that all possess the common flaw of taking action which violates the spirit of the Constitution and the letter of the law.
Curry clearly rejected Clinton’s platform, and while he did not explicitly state it in his piece, he likely viewed a vote for Trump as the only defense against political correctness and the only hope to lead America towards a future that comports with its founding principles.
How can two political commentators offer assessments that are diametrically opposed to one another in nearly every way?
Part of it, of course, is the tired explanation of an increasingly polarized political climate and a deficiency among liberals and conservatives alike to see the other side of any given argument. But in reality, the divide runs much deeper than that.
Not only do both sides talk past each other as they always have, they now — thanks to this election — fundamentally disagree on what greatness is.
Many liberals see, among many other things, a long history of slavery, Jim Crow, de jure segregation and racist housing policy that has left our nation with what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called “compounding moral debts” with which we are unable or unwilling to reckon.
Many conservatives see a rich tradition of freedom enshrined by the framers at the Constitutional Convention that political correctness, big government and freewheeling executive power have now done away with, and they also call attention to a poor white population in Appalachia and other regions that is almost ignored altogether and suffering without so much as the raise of an eyebrow.
These two narratives — which admittedly do not encapsulate either side’s platform entirely but rather serve as archetypal descriptions — are interpreted to be necessarily incompatible with one another.
If we live in a nation that refuses to acknowledge its horrific history, that incarcerates well over two million people in the supposed “land of the free,” the left says, we cannot be labeled an exceptional nation, much less a great one.
If we live in a nation that extinguishes free speech under the guise of political correctness, that no longer stays true to its founding principles of freedom and limited government, the right says we can no longer call ourselves a great country.
The tragic error of these arguments is that both selectively ignore key parts of American history.
The left’s argument frequently glosses over the true genius and brilliance of our founding fathers. Dismissing them as incorrigible racists who only wanted to secure the blessings of liberty to a very small group of people, many forget that the drafting of the Constitution was nonetheless a miraculous feat and a defining moment in human history.
The compromises that the Founders brokered during that summer in Philadelphia provided the foundation for the most successful country that this world has ever seen, and some on the left must recognize this accomplishment as a truly great component of American history.
However, the right’s argument too often exalts this part of the American tradition and overlooks the untold damage and destruction that our forbearers caused to make this country as successful as it is.
The U.S. pushed Native Americans down the Trail of Tears, enslaved African-Americans, forced the Japanese into internment camps, ostracized those of different sexual orientations and gender identities and police officers at present continue to kill and injure unarmed black Americans in our towns and cities all across the country — and that is not even close to an exhaustive list.
But now the American people have elected Trump, which to about half the country represents nothing short of an American tragedy.
But to the other half, the half who voted for him because they believed in what he does or because they hated Clinton or whatever it may be, the forthcoming Trump presidency is something that they helped ensure.
Many in the coming days will surely say, if they have not already, that American greatness no longer exists.
So does it exist? Was the U.S. (or can it ever be) a great nation?
That is the question that liberals and conservatives and everyone in between must come together to answer, and the only way to do that is to define what greatness is.
If we decide that we are not a great nation, then we must move on and figure out how we can work towards being one.
If we choose to say that America is in fact great, we have to know exactly what we mean when we say that, because as of now, this nation as a whole has no idea what the word “great” means.
But irrespective of our ultimate decision, we must at the very least undertake the task of trying to define what greatness is.