By Jonathan C. Rothermel
After the November 2020 election, President Donald Trump became the 10th president in U.S. history to fail to win re-election. What went wrong?
It would be easy to simply blame the messenger. Trump’s narcissistic behavior resulted in often-inexplicable actions; even his supporters wished he would tweet less and act more presidential. At times, he appeared as an amateur who was out of his league.
But blame also lies with the political message that propelled an inexperienced, celebrity real estate mogul to a surprising victory in 2016. “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA was the rallying cry that mobilized a vocal and active army of Trump supporters.
The problem with this political message is that it was never truly defined, and because the message was so nebulous, Americans were able to define MAGA in whichever way it pertained to their situation.
The message implied that the United States was once “on top” but had fallen behind. Militarily, the gap between the US and its rivals (China and Russia) was closing. Economically, the Chinese – and even our allies – were taking advantage of us.
The simple strategy to MAGA was to quit thinking about “others” and focus exclusively on the United States. This resulted in policies such as the Muslim travel ban, building the wall on the nation’s southern border with Mexico, turning away political asylum seekers, renegotiating or pulling out of trade agreements, cutting foreign aid, withdrawing from international organizations and agreements, and openly criticizing allies.
But greatness is not simply reduced to where a country ranks on a list or the number of hard power assets it possesses. Greatness is also defined by the values and principles a nation stands for – what political scientist, Joseph Nye, defined as soft power or a country’s attractiveness to others.
For the past four years, the United States has lost its mooring. Instead of countries looking toward the United States with respect and admiration, people express sadness or even contempt for it. For example, a recent Pew Research Center poll reported that U.S. favorability ratings among 13 countries, including allies, have declined significantly during the Trump administration.
U Myint Oo, a member of parliament in Myanmar expressed a sentiment that is shared by many others in the world when he said, “I feel sorry for Americans,” regarding the American government’s bungled coronavirus response and Trump’s undemocratic behavior.
An Irish Times columnist evoked surprise in the U.S. in April 2020 when he observed that: “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.”
While the underlying message of MAGA was to support Americans first and foremost, the policies of the past four years have failed to help everyday Americans.
Instead of investing in broad policies such as education and healthcare, the policies of the past four years lined the pockets of the wealthy. Economic inequality worsened – even before the pandemic. While Americans struggle financially and emotionally during the pandemic, the net wealth of America’s billionaires has risen.
In a recent London School of Economics paper, authors David Hope and Julian Limberg questioned the notion that trickle-down economics and tax cuts for the rich leads to economic growth. Alternatively, investing in human capital would pay long-term dividends and opportunities for Americans.
In Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write, “There’s a brittleness to life for about 150 million Americans, with a constant risk that sickness, layoffs or a car accident will cause everything to collapse.” They dispel the “bootstrap narrative” as myth, and advocate for investments in universal healthcare, early childhood programs, baby bonds and child allowances, and support for education and employment.
In reality, MAGA was nothing more than a disingenuous campaign slogan because it lacked any meaningful effort to address the problems that a majority of Americans are actually facing, such as crippling debt, crumbling infrastructure, racial injustices, drug and alcohol abuse, and unaffordable health care.
Four years after Trump’s promise to make America great again, many Americans had come to realize the shallowness of the slogan and voted for substantive political change.
To be – as former President Ronald Reagan once said – “a shining city upon a hill,” American greatness needs to be defined more broadly and not simply as a measure of relative hard power. It should reflect the empowerment of Americans at home as well as the respect for U.S. leadership and values abroad.
Investing in human capital at home and working with countries abroad are not mutually exclusive. In fact, global problems such as terrorism, climate change, and pandemics require global solutions, which benefit from American ingenuity and leadership.
In 2021, humility, compassion and support for humanity, and leading by example are virtues that can help make America great again, because when America is truly great, the entire world benefits.
Jonathan C. Rothermel is an associate professor of political science at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @ProfJCR.