A pledge to make America great again implies that America was great the first time. It has been, in fact. Twice. No, make that three times, if you include the transition from colonies to country. America came into being as an idea, so its greatness depends on its living up to that idea. That idea was the liberty and equality of opportunity, which in the beginning applied only to white, propertied men. Imperfect as it was, merely to record as a promise the pursuit of a hitherto unheard-of ideal gave the moment greatness.
The half a century that followed seemed to be almost a deliberate attempt to undermine that idea. We wallowed in a trough of slavery and unenlightened self-interest before the status quo became so intolerable-whether the abominable institution itself or the sectional differences that made slavery possible-that people were willing to die to keep the idea alive even if it conflicted with their personal interests. Following its bloody triumph, the idea was then shelved for close to a century, buried under a tidal wave of economic banditry, international aggression and isolation, before the rise of Naziism made us reluctantly remember what we stood for.
When Tom Brokaw called those who fought the Second World War, the “greatest generation”, he wasn’t talking about exceptionally skilled, courageous or bright people, but those who had put aside their own prejudices and preferences to meet a challenge bigger than themselves. After this relatively good war, however, Americans sank back into their old ways, forgetting the responsibilities for which they had fought: to protect and expand the liberties we enjoyed at home, and by our example, be the beacon so much of the world believed we were.
Instead, we interpreted greatness as having the power to bully: to try to turn back the clock at home, while using force to bring a corrupt form of our ideas into places unwilling or unable to receive them. Making America great again does not refer to lording or coming out on top of every deal. Being great was and is the willingness to rise to any challenge to “liberty and justice for all,” whether from abroad or right here at home.
With a Perspective, this is Richard Friedlander.
Richard Friedlander is a mediator and actor. He lives in the East Bay.