The MAGA Campaign and American Exceptionalism: How We Move Forward - By Greer Clem
Einstein said, “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.” Indulge me this rather philosophical starting point because we’re going to talk about understanding American culture under the Trump presidency. Specifically, we are going to look back at the Trump campaign and what made it appealing to the American identity. You may be thinking that this is a question that has been asked and answered, and you wouldn’t be wrong; what must still be addressed, however, is how we can take the American identity Trump appealed to and use it to combat his presidency. Not only do we need to understand why “Make America Great Again” was successful, we need to understand how we can use it to save American democracy.
We’re gonna start off a little science-y; don’t worry, this is as science-y as I ever get. We first need to understand how the brain uses words to create concepts. Let’s use “tree” as an example. A “tree” can have certain characteristics and do certain things. A tree is green; a tree makes noise in the wind. In objective reality, green and noise do not exist. In order to efficiently communicate what a tree is, we humans created the concept of tree to describe the variety of instances that can encompass a tree. It’s an experience that we constructed and is only meaningful in the minds of others who agree with this concept. Let’s extrapolate this idea to culture – we humans are constructors of our own unique realities and, as a result, of our own culture.
In America, we have created culture specific emotional instances such as fear, happiness, sadness etc., but these emotions only exist to those who accept and experience these emotional instances of social reality. If we were to create an emotional profile for America, it would look something like this: celebratory, patriotic, loud, and proud. Why this more scientific breakdown of the American emotional profile? Because we’re going to use this breakdown to analyze why the Make America Great Again campaign was so successful, how it made Donald Trump the ideal vessel, and what we need to take from this going forward as we try to combat the Trump presidency.
The Make America Great Again slogan is a borrowed leftover from Reagan’s 1980 Presidential run. A lesser-used phrase, Reagan would often proclaim, “Let’s make America great again.” The reintroduction of this idea during the 2016 election was a battle cry for the idea of American exceptionalism, which is something the GOP has used as part of their political platforms since their inception. Republicans often reminisce about the time of Reagan; trickle-down economics and the strength of the American ideal. What Trump’s campaign really seized on, what was so efficient, was the idea of the return to American exceptionalism. During his 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney accused Obama of turning America into an average Western nation, of wanting us to be more like European powers, and of devaluing what is uniquely “American” about us. The Tea Party also harnessed this idea but were too far right to capture moderates’ attention. However, American exceptionalism became a Republican rallying cry during the last four years of Obama’s presidency. During the lead up to 2016, it began to seriously take root. Why then?
Well, with the idea of American exceptionalism comes the idea that if you are born here you have certain God-given privileges. This is a slippery slope, because this idea of exceptionalism thereby includes nativism – desire for less immigration, xenophobia, returning more jobs to native-born Americans, etc. Over the last four years, the Obama administration was able to accomplish more to help immigrant families, the dreamer generation, for example, and to boost international commerce and continue to build our economy at home. However, dissatisfied Republicans didn’t see it that way. The MAGA campaign began to rumble. And then the perfect vessel arrived for it’s message: Donald Trump.
Loud and proud (unduly so) with little regard for political norms but no extremist positions to scare away moderates, Trump was the ideal messenger for the MAGA campaign. The campaign itself, modeled to elicit and create situations that appealed to the American emotional profile, now had a fitting spokesman. He was a larger than life presence with the sense of entitlement that many Americans identified with. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, had a sense of entitlement that was a turn-off to these undecided voters. People believed her entitlement came from her husband’s former Presidency, her job under the Obama White House, and from being DC royalty. Sadly, this meant that her experience was entirely overlooked, because this form of exceptionalism had less value. People felt they could relate more to the blustering billionaire, less so to the first woman to make a real run for President.
After the election and during the first few months of the Trump presidency, this outer American idea seems to have fallen away to reveal the underlying sentiment that Trump was able to harness: American exceptionalism as entitlement for the every man. This sentiment appealed to 2nd Amendment rights advocates, those in favor of stricter immigration reform, those who wanted less government involvement, more focus on our domestic policies and jobs, etc. What’s been jarring is that this outer shell of the American ideal has also fallen away to reveal a deeply rooted anger towards a changing world. “Anger” as a concept, however, is only understood by those who agree with its definition. The problem is that Americans now have such different lived experiences that our definition of anger varies too greatly; it’s like we’re not even speaking the same language. A family man in West Virginia whose entire family worked in the coal mining business has entirely different lived experiences than a Muslim girl growing up in Baltimore. They both may be angry, but anger now means different things to them as Americans. In short, the reason Trump won the presidency was that his anger appealed to a greater number of people with shared experiences than Hillary Clinton’s. Rather than building a platform on hope and optimism, like the Obama “Yes We Can” campaign, Trump’s was based off of frustration and anger, the feeling that we were not being given what we were owed.
The scariest part of the Trump presidency is that is has made it okay to not talk to each other. We now inherently believe that our concepts are formed from entirely different shared experiences, ones that are too different to offer any common ground. But that is what has always made America great: the ability to find commonality among unshared experiences. That is what we need to harness.
We learned from the Trump campaign how successful an appeal to a common concept can be, and that Americans identify with the idea that we are exceptional. What we need to be advocating, however, is that American exceptionalism is not entitlement. American exceptionalism means setting a global standard for freedom, tolerance, and democracy. Those are the roots of American exceptionalism that we need to highlight, not anger and resentment to new kinds of competition. The anger Trump harnessed is based off of fear towards a changing world, one with climate change, modern technology, sustainable energy and a new geopolitical landscape. How do we secure our place in this changing world? Not through fits of entitlement like a spoiled toddler. We set the standard as the leaders of the free world. The next truly brilliant campaign will have to seize on this idea because it is a part of the American identity we all understand. We don’t have to have the same lived experiences or even be angry about the same things so long as we are working towards the same goal: preserving America as a leader of freedom. That is what makes us exceptional.