In the mid-1970s, the renowned political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, wrote that the United States was a great failure. We had not lived up to our own high ideals about liberty and democracy, he said.
But he added that in having set our civic and social goals so high, even our failure generated outcomes better than most societies of the world. And this was the real genius of the American vision.
We still have not yet reached our ideals, and never will. Indeed, Huntington’s point was that the continued effort is what matters. Forget perfection; the American mystique rests in pursuing the ideal in a way most societies simply forego.
Huntington offered this assessment during the post-World War II nadir of American self-confidence. Watergate, the Vietnam War and the collapse of American leadership of the world economy were the perfect storm dashing our self-image on the shoals of international political realities.
Then came Ronald Reagan, who embodied the return to self-confidence that most of us really did want to wear more comfortably.
Even if you disagreed with him, Reagan was the smooth and consummate purveyor of a Huntingtonian sensibility about who and what we thought America could be. Sure, a lot of Reagan policy and conduct fell short of the glorious ideals, but he led a stirring and valiant charge toward meeting them.
Now, nearly several decades on, Huntington and Reagan illuminate the reasons for concern about Donald Trump as president.
Trump’s tone is shrill, not confident. Not only does he almost scream his triumphalist rhetoric in a fashion that belies his claims, his words are hostile and denigratory – of other people and the American ethos, at the same time.
“Invasion” of “murderers” and “rapists” are not the words of one who wants to sustain an ethos (even if it might be more mythos) of welcome to the huddled masses yearning to be free.
It is hard to imagine President Reagan so thoroughly belittling folks who longed for a liberty best achieved in the United States. Indeed, it fit with his grandiose vision of our city on the hill to note that people came here because they wanted to live free.
Immigrants and refugees streaming to our country was proof that we were doing it right. Everybody wanted to be here, because they recognized it was better than most other places.
Even if you had distaste for vainglorious imagery, you could at least recognize an internal consistency in Reagan’s view of the world.
Trump speaks differently. His language and mood indicate that he thinks the freedom embodied in the Reaganesque view is a finite resource, and therefore must be jealousy hoarded by those who possess it as their supposed birthright.
Allowing more people to partake of that freedom would dilute it for those of us who hold a piece of that precious but limited pie. In a Trumpian view of the world, it’s not that “Freedom isn’t free,” it’s rivalrous and zero-sum. When others claim a piece of the supposedly finite freedom, mine is diminished.
Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” conveyed the quintessentially American optimism that the new day brings another chance to succeed. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” implies that we have had a (long?) period of failure, and not of the Huntingtonian type.
Reagan believed – and got many other Americans to believe with him – that by our commitment and energy we could achieve remarkable things.
Trump seems to believe that we must cling to the benefits that belong to us – the real Americans – by resisting the unrighteous hopes of invaders intent on exploiting us and our system.
So we might be “Mak(ing) America Great Again,” but if we succeed, it will be “Mourning in America.”
For the death of the Huntingtonian and Reaganesque vision of what might have made us truly great.
Andrew K. Milton of Tacoma is an eighth-grade English teacher in the Steilacoom School District, an occasional adjunct political science professor at local colleges and an occasional News Tribune op-ed contributor.