17 October

One Man’s Truth: Why Trump Couldn’t Make America Great Again

by Jon Katz

When I first heard Donald Trump say he wanted to make America great again, I wasn’t as repelled as others were. It did seem presumptuous. Weren’t we already great? I thought so.

But I also felt he was on to something. We had gotten fat, smug and lazy.

One of the things the Trump Era taught me is that we were not as great as many of us thought, or there wouldn’t even be a President Trump, with so many millions of admirers and worshipers.

But in fairness, Trump is (was) a consequential President. He sensed something I didn’t sense, and neither did journalists or other politicians.

Trump realized there was deepening trouble in America, much anger and despair. It seemed to crept up on us, and he was the lightning rod that made us see it.

Something was wrong, and then he went and proved it for the next four years, and rubbed many noses in it. At least we can try now to fix it.

As a candidate, Trump was exciting.

As a President, he was just angry and irresponsible, playing to the rage of his followers, promoting racism and hatred, denying any reality that didn’t suit him.

America has always had a dark side, from slavery to white nationalism, and he connected with both on a very deep and ugly level. He is the Prince Of Our Darkness.

Trump was never able to articulate what his vision was of a great country but he had no trouble dancing with our worst angels, not our better ones, and almost all of what he seemed to value was about money and the economy and driving immigrants and refugees from the country.

President Trump has challenged us to see that we are not as great as we thought we were and that there was much work to be done.

It’s too soon to know, but that could be his greatest gift and noblest legacy.

Trump turned out to not be the Savior of us, but Humpty Dumpty on the wall, and as he falls, we are called to try to put the pieces back again.

His vision was always transactional, never moral, not once I never saw or heard him do something because it was right. He saw a problem, he promised to make it better, but then he got stuck on grievance, vengeance, and self-absorption.

He just couldn’t stop lying, he lied so much that even his most devoted followers stopped believing him, they just chose to forgive him instead.

Leaders are entitled to big egos, but one of the lessons of Trump is that empathy matters, as well as truth.

Millions of people voted for him because they thought a business person would help straighten out our government. It turns out he was too much of a businessman to be anything else.

And also that there was a chilling and menacing streak in him that transcended anger and rose to the level of viciousness. It wasn’t enough to win, he had to punish everyone who could not be loyal to him.

His was the white man’s idea of greatness – macho, lots of gold and a soaring stock market, trophy wives, a sense of dominance and sexual entitlement that bordered on abuse, and sometimes was abuse.

But his vision never seemed to include anything else or anyone else but his base- women, Blacks, genuine Christians,  members of his own political party, or anyone who didn’t want to be angry for another four years.

The big picture was hard to see from my distracted life on the ground. When you’re in it,  you can’t always see it. America was not great in 2016 or since.

A new book by Robert D. Putman and Shaylyn Romney Garrett called The Upswing makes the meticulously well-researched point that America really has been great several times, but not so much in the past 50 or 60 years.

From 1870 to the late 1960s, wrote Putnam and Garrett, community activism in America surged, bipartisan co-operation in congress increased, income equality fell, social mobility rose, church attendance rose, union membership rose, federal income axes became more progressive, and social spending on the poor increased dramatically.

The greatest improvement in many gains for African-Americans came not after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as is widely believed, but in the decades preceding it.

Black school attendance, income gains, homeownership rates, voter registration rates all began to improve in the 1940s and didn’t begin slowing down until the 1970s and ’80s.

Around the late 1960s, said these social scientists, America started being not so great, something I didn’t know or recognize.

Membership in volunteer and civic organizations collapsed, political polarization worsened, income inequality widened, social trust plunged, religious attendance plummeted, corporate work became insecure, social mobility decreased, homelessness mushroomed, suicide and deaths of despair have skyrocketed, and so has gun violence and epidemic drug use.

It seems when I look at the news that our social problems are beginning to outrun our ability to respond or cope with them.

Trump throws a lot of bluster at these problems but never has or had any concrete ideas about fixing them. He promised the coal miners that coal would come back.

He promised the industrial workers’ factory work would return.  The way to make America Great again seemed to be to go backward, not forward. It didn’t happen.

Trump had a habit of focusing on America’s darkest side, but unlike Ronald Reagan, he never quite got to the bright side. At first, he was exciting, then he just got depressing.

I think he sensed the country was sliding off the track somehow, but he didn’t know how. He is not a stupid man, he is just a damaged human being.

Mostly he looked to blame other people for our troubles – immigrants, refugees, minorities, women, Democrats, liberals, elites, bureaucrats, scientists.

He said he alone could fix it, but he couldn’t.

Our problems were a lot more complicated than that.

Our worldview and common culture have changed.

“The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century,” wrote Putnam and Garrett, “is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From “I” to “We” and back again to “I.”

We all live in our own cocoons; there is little “we” left in our lives outside of Super Bowl games and women’s marches.

Trump was too broken to take on this malaise in an inclusive and uplifting way.

Presidents like John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan loved to jab the elites; who doesn’t? But they also knew how to use them when they needed them. Kennedy’s academic elites wrote amazing speeches for him and gave him good advice, which he usually took.

Trump chased all the pros out of the White House because they challenged him, which he cannot bear. The gang of obsequious fools around him now has let him run himself to ruin.

If Trump had turned the coronavirus over to doctors and scientists like Dr. Fauci, he would be leading Joe Biden by 10 points and not the other way around. Any good politician knows to delegate people in crisis, you can blame them if things go sour.

But his ego was too large for common sense. He made himself the face of the virus, and he got what he wished for – all the blame. Thus he made America much worse.

American medical and technological expertise has performed miracles repeatedly, and it turned out his rejection of the doctors was a fatal mistake for his presidency.

No one could have imagined that this colorful saga would end in this way, with a powerful virus dogging him to the end.

He just couldn’t bear for the spotlight to be on anyone but himself. That works when things are great, but it’s the last place you want to be in politics when things go bad.

Trump’s fatal flaw is that he is addicted to the spotlight, and four hard years and one out-of-control pandemic later, the light on him no longer looks good at all.

Elected to disrupt, he never made the pivot to leading. A candidate can be a bad guy all the time, not a President.

Trump grasped the unhappiness and despair growing in so much of the country, but for some reason chose to ridicule and alienate the people who could help him frame and embrace a vision for helping rather than hurting and dividing.

It’s not clear yet whether we need a cultural or political change; it is clear that most Americans no longer wish a President who cuts us from the top down.

New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote the other day that it was a political change we need, a “moral vision” that inspires the rising generation, offers a new national narrative, gives us something to hope for and be proud of, and helps to unite a splintered, divided,  and diverse group of people.

A government that encourages organizations where people work on local problems and help people.

I think Donald Trump was much more than even he knows or led people to believe. But his vision of greatness was always about greed: a booming stock market, tax cuts, over-the-moon profits for millionaires and billionaires.

He seemed to see the federal government as a business opportunity for him and his family; he went to play golf nearly 300 times as tens of thousands of Americans died.

He really did think himself invulnerable. He is not.

Trump’s ever complaining followers believe that people like me will never give him a break, no matter what he does. History may prove them right; it’s not for me to say.

I would have been delighted if Donald Trump had been successful; he is our President. But he never offered a vision for his great-again America that included more than his own admirers, or that included me or anyone remotely like me.

Great leaders usually do a lot better than that.

I haven’t heard a clear moral vision from Vice-President Biden yet unless you count treating people decently and acting with honor, not perpetual deceit and cruelty.

As the Trump era grinds painfully to a close, I suppose that is a moral vision in itself,  and a radical change.

Watching Donald Trump at his NBC debate, running into a brick wall moderator for the first time, I saw that he has learned nothing and is now overwhelmed with fear and dread and rage.

For the first time in his life, Donald Trump faces a great defeat without a line of rescuers waiting to save him. Historians always say the Presidency is the loneliest place in the world to be, except for a President who fails.

In the best traditions of politics,  the rats are beginning to jump off the ship.

Donald Trump did not, in fact, make America Great Again.

That would require a different kind of leader, one whose strength, compassion, and vision could lift people above their hard lives and inspire them to come together in a common goal.

Oddly enough, Joe Biden has done that. I’ve never seen so many diverse people come together in so united way as those who seek a kinder and gentler nation.

In the most surprising irony of all, Trump’s vision of making America great again turns out to be removing himself from office.

That’s the good news. That alone will make us greater. You can’t fix something you don’t know is broken.




  1. Jon, you have touched on something that many across the Atlantic knew for a long time. America has been living in a bubble. The greatness was gone a long time ago and in came Trump who exploited this with his Make America Great Again slogan. Majority of Americans were suffering for lack of basic needs and social insecurity. If compared with other developed industrial nations, there were too many factors contributing to the instability and people became desperate to look for someone and they were ready to embrace anyone who promised to bring that change. Trump jumped in with a promise even he did not understand.
    On the brighter side, four years of Trump has touched the better angels of people – at least of most – with a craving and a true desire to really Make America Great Again.

  2. “The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century,” wrote Putnam and Garrett, “is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From “I” to “We” and back again to “I.”
    An excellent book to read on this subject is “Habits of the Heart” by Robert Bellah. Read it in seminary – really exposes the shifts from “I” to “We” back to “I.” This is definitely worth reading and discussing.

  3. I enjoyed your thoughtful post, especially the ending.

    Most have learned not confuse a good stock market with what’s great about the country. In the past, I believed those were synonymous. But any business leader without substance cannot lead this country.

    I have been around long enough to see the “Greatest Generation,” the booming economy of the early 1960s, LBJ’s social legislation, and Reagan/Bush years. But there are not so many good times to remember lately. (And even back then, good times were not uniformly good, and not for everyone.)

    When we think of a “great America,” we must have in mind a definition of what makes for greatness in the country. Surely military strength and a strong economic system are very important; even critical. But those results stem from national principles and the strength of the people’s innate belief in them – not what a leader tells them to believe.

    In observing what our enemies are attempting to destroy through social media and our elections, they might understand this better than we do.

    We have advanced towards those principles most cogently when threatened by countries with different aims, when we can clearly compare ourselves with a Nazi Germany or a Communist USSR. Those remembrances, when fresh in mind, help us to clarify our identity.

    It’s a different world than it was in those “good times.” Global competition has contributed to an acceleration in economic inequality and a decline of Rural America. But a great country doesn’t abandon its principles when difficulties arise.

    Cultural or political — not an “either/or”: I believe we need politicians who can help preserve our culture while adapting it for modern times and infusing it throughout the populace. Tall order! Anyone younger than 19 was not alive during 9-11. Many of our leaders were not around during WW II. I don’t recall any president since Kennedy challenging Americans to contribute to the public good.

    You identified author Putnam’s predominant American qualities during past pinnacles of national greatness. Perhaps we need to refresh those metrics, starting with a version of this list:
    1. Community activism
    2. Bipartisan co-operation
    3. Income inequality
    4. Membership in organizations that promote American principles
    5. Progressive taxation
    6. Social spending on the poor (government and private)

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