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Making America Something Better Than Great

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 10/03/2016 Micah Conkling

2016-03-09-1457552841-6829013-Donald_Trump_campaign_sign.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-03-09-1457552841-6829013-Donald_Trump_campaign_sign.jpg Photo of Trump campaign sign by Tony Webster via Flickr
A hat is the key piece of material propaganda for Donald Trump's Presidential campaign.

You've seen this hat donned by enthusiastic Trump supporters who gather in hordes on TV for rallies and boldly wear it as an insignia of adherence to the red-faced, bloviating capitalist who has gone from national joke to serious contender for the GOP nominee for President in just a few unexpected months.
You've seen this hat worn proudly by Mr. Donald J. Trump himself, not only as an advertisement for his Presidential run, but as a useful accessory in hiding his hideous hair.
The hat is for sale at Trump's campaign's online marketplace - according to his website, it's the only place you can buy it. It costs $25.00, is made in the USA, and is categorized as "a classic rope hat." I can't speak to the fashionableness of Trump's hat. I'm not really a hat guy outside of sporting my Kansas City Royals ball cap when I'm too apathetic to style my hair. I will confidently say, however, that I think a rope hat is more stylish than a fedora.
There are a thousand or more problems a person could have with Donald Trump's campaign and character, none of which I feel the need to express here. Besides, John Oliver pretty much obliterated Trump's legitimacy on that episode of Last Week Tonight.
I want to say something about slogans, though, and about how slogans can become hopes, and how craftily composed hopes can elicit faith where faith isn't merited. It is a debacle of a cycle.
Donald Trump's campaign slogan is "Make America Great Again." In our hashtag, 24/7 news culture, campaign slogans matter. You could argue that campaign slogans have always mattered, but unless you're David Axelrod, I'd quiz you on the last eight years of campaign slogans, and I doubt you'd be able to remember Obama or Romney's from 2012 ("Forward" and "Believe in America" respectively), or John McCain's in 2008 ("Country First"). Barack Obama's 2008 slogan was certainly part of his popularity: "Change We Can Believe In," but the word "Hope" and its placement on the famous poster by Shepard Fairey are the most memorable parts of that promotion.
"Make America Great Again" has moved outside the normal campaign slogan realm of merely being written on yard signs, t-shirts, or cheap coffee mugs only to be forgotten later. "Make America Great Again" consistently trends on Twitter and is now symbolic of the Great Trump Hope: Trump supporters sincerely trust that successful businessman Donald Trump has the character, skills, and policies it takes to make America synonymous with greatness. "Make America Great Again" isn't just a slogan - it's a mantra, a philosophy.
An argument one could make and some have is that America was never great to begin with. Plagued by the original sins of genocide and slavery and littered with a history of other imposed inequalities, it's a fair question to ask: "Exactly which era is Donald Trump referring to with 'Make America Great Again''?

There's an irony, of course, in the fact that it's Donald Trump using the slogan. What's more dangerous to me, though, than the fact that the man using the slogan wants to ban Muslims from the U.S. and deport Syrian refugees and build a huge wall between the U.S. and Mexico, is the fact that the majority of prospective candidates from both parties - as well as the voters who would cast ballots for those candidates - would probably agree with the sentiment.
"Make America Great Again"?
Sure, why not?
Besides the suspect notion that there was once some exceptional time in America's history when the country was "great," the problem with making America great - whether by returning to some magical nostalgic roots when greatness prevailed or looking toward a future when America will become great - is that greatness is a phantom.
Greatness as an attribute is entirely elusive. You can't nail greatness down and you can't ever truly call something "great" for very long because the criteria for greatness are always on the move. The standards for greatness are fickle and perpetually change. Greatness is not a standard to be achieved; it is an apparitional abstraction. People once thought Lindsey Lohan was a great actress. American masses used to believe that smoking cartons of cigarettes a week was a great way to spend your leisure time.
While "Make America Great Again" is currently inextricable from the Trump campaign, it is not a stretch to say the majority of Americans - Republicans or Democrats - would concede that making America great is a worthwhile endeavor, and something our next political leader should strive to achieve. It's a bipartisan motto.
And that's where we have another word problem, this time with faith. Tied to making America "great," politicians and voters chatter about wanting to be able to have "faith" in America, or they moan Jeremiads about losing "faith" in America. But here's what is true:

  • If you're losing or have lost faith in America, you don't understand faith.
  • If you have faith in America, you don't understand faith.

Here's what I mean:
Faith is defined as "complete trust or confidence in someone or something."
When it comes to America and all it means to be an American - the plenitude of buzzwords like democracy and freedom and republic and liberty and faith and rights that we spout - faith isn't a deserving or proper behavior.
We cannot have faith that we can "Make America Great Again."
First, because America has never been objectively great.
Second, because America is not a thing - however subjectively great it might be at times - worth having faith in. If faith means giving something complete trust or confidence, then only completely steadfast things - consistent and eternal - deserve our faith. That's not a very long list of things, and I'll let you compile it for yourself.
So where do we go?
If not for greatness, what do we who want to live healthily in a country of, for, and by the people hope for and in?
If not faith, with what kind of posture should we approach America?
In his poem "Let America Be America Again," Langston Hughes writes:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed -
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

Hughes, an African-American steeped in the Harlem Renaissance movement, is writing to a very specific America. The America he's lecturing is an America that "never was America to me"; because, as a black man living in the early part of the 20th century, many of the freedoms promised by the concept America were withheld from him.
Still, though, Hughes hopes for America. He admits early in the poem that the dream of America (America as "great") is "The land that never has been yet."

The problem with greatness is that it's elusive.
The problem with faith is that it's only worth having in something that won't let you down.
And there is a problem with hope, too.
Hope often springs from a well-intentioned place but fails to materialize into something tangible. Many stop at the hope stage and don't engage in action to make a hopeful dream a reality. Hope often equates to something whimsical without much of a chance of ever being real.
This election cycle, I'm trying to rid my political vocabulary of those three words - greatness, faith, and hope - when considering America its future President. Not because I don't think there are worthy candidates who can do some good for our country and its people, but because those words are empty and stale - and because when it comes to politics, I don't think they have much meaning or agency.
It is the most potent words of Hughes' poem I see as our best chance of working out a healthy and effective posture for approaching politics in America. Hughes writes of his country,

Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

It seems a little cliché and cheesy, but better than faith, greatness, and hope is another more obvious posture: love, especially in the practical way Hughes posits love - being the kind of active, selfless care where we make sure no "man be crushed by one above."
What if instead of giving our faith to a country assured to let us down or running around in weary circles attempting to make our country "great" or just offering up hopes without tangible strategies to achieve them into our national conversation, we went back to the beginning, back to the foundation of what it means to be a good human and citizen of a place.
If the thing we cared most about regarding "America" was love for the person below us - not conniving or scheming or religious, social, or personal gain - our posture for approaching political parties, candidates, policies, and laws might begin to look a bit different.
We wouldn't - couldn't - care to "make America great again" because greatness for the sake of being exceptional wouldn't matter.
Generosity and goodness would have to be our prominent mottos - and by God, we would have to throw away all those silly hats.

TRUMP HAT © Joe Raedle via Getty Images TRUMP HAT

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