How Donald Trump watered down the very idea of American greatness

Make America mediocre again!

Donald Trump campaign hats
(Image credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has said throughout his campaign that he wants to "Make America Great Again." Greatness implies some kind of aspiration. But Trump's speech capping a wild Republican National Convention wasn't really about greatness. It was more about just barely escaping the present unharmed. The theme felt more like "Make America Minimally Acceptable Again."

Trump promised to restore law and order, enforce America's immigration laws and repel immigrants who would break them, and bring back jobs to the country. Doing all of this sounds like the bare minimum of restoration. Trump is setting the bar for greatness pretty low.

Consider, for comparison, the greatness of decades past.

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The Boomer cohort Trump appeals to the most remembers America's true greatness. They remember a time in America when national pride didn't just come from low unemployment numbers, it came from producing the best cars in the world, or constructing a city, like Detroit, that was envied across the globe. It meant having the most innovative and essential industry in the world. American greatness wasn't just being employed, but hopefully, working at something important, a job of which you could be proud.

In 2016, Trump asks you to dream of an America where your family isn't killed in a terrorist attack. In the middle of the last century, American greatness was not just tamping down a few benighted radicals, it was protecting and shaping the whole post-World War II direction of a free Europe.

Remember when, more than 50 years ago, American greatness meant setting a goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade?

It seems we've drastically lowered our standards.

Bill Kristol, with some despair, remarked on Thursday night that Trump's speech was "Pat Buchanan's 1992 convention speech, considerably dumbed down, and — more important — delivered by the Republican Party's nominee." Indeed, Trump preached a nationalism of borders, tightly and narrowly defined interests defended fiercely overseas, and a trade policy meant to protect the American worker.

But Buchanan's culture war speech not only seemed to define a new era of American politics, it was a skillful piece of oratory. Buchanan evoked a scene from the L.A. riots, and compared his followers to the brave young men of the national guard who defended the defenseless. It's worth quoting at length:

They had come into Los Angeles late in the evening of the second day, and the rioting was still going on. And two of them walked up a dark street, where the mob had burned and looted every single building on the block but one, a convalescent home for the aged. And the mob was headed in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women inside. The troopers came up the street, M-16s at the ready. And the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated because it had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage. Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. [Pat Buchanan]

At the heart of Buchanan's speech were communities taking care of each other with self-sacrificial love. Trump's speech never mentioned God. Trump's speech never mentioned sacrifice for the community. Who needs a friendly neighbor when you have Trump? "I'm with you" is not just Trump's clever revision of Hillary Clinton's "I'm with her" slogan. It's the man's entire idea of American greatness. America will be great again when Americans can rely on Trump.

Some nationalists aspire to be their country's father figure. Trump wants to be our executive coach.

Or maybe he wants something more menacing.

In many ways, the concluding image of Buchanan's campaign speech is reversed by Trump. In 2016, Donald Trump leads the threatening and cursing mob. His campaign is not a force for retrenching order, it is anarchic. The campaign says with a smirk that it is on the side of the law, and then encourages people to beat up protesters. It says America has been involved in stupid wars for too long, but promises to treat slights to our honor as imminent threats. This Trumpian mob wants to tear down and loot Washington D.C. which, in their view, is the convalescent home for a political and media class that has lived far beyond its usefulness to the rest of the nation.

Why should these disgraced families, geriatric ideologues, and decrepit lobbyists rule the rest of us? If they want to retain their baubles of power, let them fight the Trumpian mob. If this senile elite wants to remain in its perches, let Hillary Clinton try and bolt the door. As the balloons fell, and the band played, I realized there is no backup coming.

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.