by Tony Wyman
“The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.”
– Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow
America Is No Longer the Greatest Nation On Earth
Something ugly has manifested itself in America over the past few years, something that seemingly coincided with the election of Donald Trump to the White House, but that, in my view, has existed for years, buried beneath our national skin, awaiting the arrival of a man like our president to come out in full.
If we want to be honest with ourselves about our country, something that we rarely want to be, this ugliness hasn’t always been a part of our national fabric, especially not at America’s beginning when men wrote words as progressive and beautiful as these:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
At the time those words were written in the Declaration of Independence, the newly formed country of the United States of America was the world’s greatest expression of national aspiration.
The Founders, and those who fought with them to establish a new form of government of and for the people, forever altered the way free citizens would govern themselves.
With practically no resources, with an army of untrained volunteers so inadequately provisioned many of their soldiers lacked uniforms, boots and proper weaponry, the Colonies took on the world’s mightiest power and defeated it in battle to form a nation so unique, so promising, it inspired, over the years, billions of other people all around the world to seek their freedom and to create their own lands of opportunity.
That was the America of Washington, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson and Adams, a nation that was imperfect, not fully formed, fraught with faults and contradictions, but one that aspired to true greatness, that recognized its role in the world as a beacon of hope for the oppressed, the poor and downtrodden, a nation that strove every day to become better, greater, more moral and more true to its founding principles.
We no longer live in that America.
Today, we live in an America that doesn’t aspire any longer to greatness. Oh, sure, that was the slogan of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, but his vision of American greatness was certainly not aspirational.
To Mr. Trump, greatness meant going backwards, to returning America to a time in the past when it interacted less with the other nations of the world and stayed, instead, mostly behind its own borders.
Think about the slogan, something surprisingly few commentators did in 2016. “Make America Great Again.” The key word in that slogan is the last one: Again. It was an admission, the first of its kind by a prominent candidate for the American presidency, that America was no longer great.
America, in Mr. Trump’s view in 2016, was no longer the “indispensable nation,” as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once called it. The country was, perhaps, still the world’s only superpower, but it was no longer exceptional.
Instead, it was, according to Trump, a punching bag for competitors like China, Mexico, the EU, and Canada. It wasn’t a “shining city upon the hill,” like the one Pres. Ronald Reagan described in his farewell address to the nation in 1989, a city that, “if it had to have walls,” had doors “open to anyone with the will to get here.”
Instead, according to Mr. Trump’s rhetorical approach to his voting base, it was a city under attack by foreign invaders, “drug dealers, criminals, rapists,” one that needed to be protected by “a big, beautiful wall” behind which our people could hide.
As ironic as it may seem, Mr. Trump, the nation’s greatest self-promoter and narcissist, a man who literally hugged the flag and called himself a great patriot, sold himself to the American people as a president who believed America was a country in decline, a sales pitch that was bought wholesale by millions of our fellow countrymen who would, ironically, take great umbrage to the title of this article, even though their vote affirmed its premise.
America Is Powerful and Wealthy, But Not Great
The thing is, Mr. Trump is right. America is no longer a great nation. It is, certainly powerful, militarily. No other nation on the planet can boast of the military might that we have.
And, despite the collapse in the economy caused by the Trump Administration’s failure to adequately address the COVID-19 virus, America is still the world’s largest and most important economy. The dollar is still the world’s currency of choice and there is always a seat available for American negotiators at any trade table in the world.
Despite retreating from numerous treaties and minimizing America’s diplomatic cooperation with many of our most important allies, America remains the leading diplomatic power on the planet. Even though the world’s political leaders hold Mr. Trump in contempt, seeing him as both unintelligent and oafish, they will still take his phone calls and meet with him whenever he calls upon them.
But power isn’t truly the exclusive standard to define “greatness.” The Roman Empire had unmatched power during its supremacy, but it was also corrupt, immoral, greedy and brutal. Genghis Khan led the Mongol Empire to become the largest on Earth, but it maintained its power by slaughtering millions of the people it conquered.
The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler‘s Third Reich came close to conquering the world, with only the combined military power of the Allies and Russia, and the German’s failure to develop atomic weapons, preventing them from succeeding.
The Soviet Union ruled over all of Eastern Europe and beat the United States to the moon, challenging Washington for the position of the world’s most dominant power, but no one in the West would consider Russia under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev to be a great nation.
What Defines Greatness?
So, if power doesn’t define a nation’s greatness, what does? I suggest greatest can be determined by answering three questions:
- To what does the nation aspire?
- Is the nation’s government and its people humane?
- Is the conduct of the people and their government moral and ethical?
For many years, America aspired to do truly great things. Settle the west, end slavery, defeat fascism, land a man on the Moon, end poverty, cure the worst illnesses. Now we build barriers. And fail at even that pathetic thing.
America’s aspirations have shifted over the past years, from achieving the unfathomable to merely holding on to what we have. We act like a soccer team trying to pass the ball around in the last moments of a match, hoping to run out the clock to protect a 1-0 lead, rather than to strive for glory by scoring another goal.
The America created by the Founders was never intended to be a protectionist state, afraid of its own shadow, timid and intimidated by foreign forces, unwilling to take chances and reluctant to risk a skinned knee when taking on a great challenge. But, thanks to the politics of fear and division, that is what we have become.
Because of aspirational paralysis caused by the politics of hate and division, we lack the will to tackle the biggest real challenges facing this nation. In a country of mansions, peaceful suburbs and trendy, exciting urban centers, nearly 570,000 Americans were homeless in 2019 and hundreds of thousands more, if not millions more, will become homeless this year.
In the 12th most obese nation in the world, 58 million Americans will experience food insecurity this year. Despite spending 16.9% of our GDP on healthcare, the most in the world, we have only the 15th best health care system and the 39th ranked mortality rate, trailing nations like Kazakhstan, Burkina Faso, Angola and North Korea.
These problems and many others like them have existed in America for decades, yet our government is incapable of adequately addressing them because our political leaders lack the courage to step to the plate and risk losing support from their base by agreeing to necessary compromises required to make real progress.
And, the people who vote these men and women into office lack the resolve to hold their elected representatives accountable for their failures.
The bottom line is it simply isn’t important enough that millions of children live in poverty, often homeless and hungry, with limited hope for a better future, for voters to demand government do something meaningful and sustainable to eliminate this stain on our national honor. If it was, America has the resources and riches to ensure every child has a place to live, food to eat, and a future worth striving for, We simply don’t aspire to that as a reality.
What does it say about the United States that it is building another aircraft carrier at the cost of $13 billion dollars when it already has 20 of the world’s 44 carrier fleet, while simultaneously claiming the nation doesn’t have the money to solve the problems listed above?
What does it say about our national sense of responsibility as the global leader of the free and developed world when our response to the plague of poverty, corruption and oppression in the countries to our south is to build a wall to block those seeking a better life, rather than to use the might and influence of our nation to force, if need be, our neighbors to offer their citizens a better existence?
And before we accept the excuse that we aren’t the world’s policeman, that didn’t stop us from effecting regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other nations far from our borders in the past. So, why is it stopping us from using the power of our diplomatic and economic might, at the least, to improve living conditions in Latin and South America?
Are we, really, as a nation, so afraid of these poor and powerless people, these immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families, that the best response we can come up with is to punish them by taking their children and locking them away in cages?
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” And, when they get here, we will lock them behind bars.
For a nation to be great, it must also be good. And that means it must treat all those within its borders humanely. That doesn’t mean that all who come here must automatically be granted citizenship, but it does mean that, when they are here, immigrants, legal and otherwise, must be treated with compassion and decency, that the government and our people must recognize that, while we may not share the same citizenship, we share the same humanity.
And, of course, the same goes for our own citizens. In a humane society, there is no place for words such as “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
It shouldn’t have taken years and the death of George Floyd for America to take a knee and recognize that blacks still face great injustice 158 years after Pres. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
It shouldn’t, today, take demonstrations and outrage over the brutality of federal troops arresting protestors and throwing them in unmarked cars for white America to finally wake up and see the crisis for what it is: a frustrated reaction to America simply not caring enough to end racial injustice.
Moral and Ethical
Perhaps the greatest measure of whether a nation is truly great or not is whether it is moral and ethical. If it is neither, then it will use its power for its own benefit, not for the good of the people who make up the nation or for the world, in general.
Vladimir Lenin, the former premier of the Soviet Union, once said, “There are no morals in politics, only expedience.” By that, he meant that the ambitions of political leaders shouldn’t be delayed or interrupted by moral considerations, that the aims of the state were too important to allow ethics to delay them.
In many ways, American politics over the past several decades, going back to the rise of former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich, has reflected Lenin’s cynical view of the role morality and ethics play in politics.
“I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party,” Rep. Gingrich said to an audience of young Republican students at West Georgia College, “is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words.”
In other words, moral and ethical.
In Mr. Gingrich’s view, where the GOP went wrong in its political struggle with the Democratic Party was it was playing honorably by the rules, that it valued truth and facts to too great a degree and failed to stoke an emotional response from conservatives that could be harnessed into an effective political movement.
This movement, argued Mr. Gingrich, would lead to a political civil war in this nation and create a climate where radical change could change democracies all over the world.
“The old order is dying. Almost everywhere you have freedom, you have a very deep discontent that the system isn’t working,” said Mr. Gingrich, adding that this was, in his view, “essential if you want Western civilization to survive.”
About his approach to politics, The Atlantic writer McKay Coppins wrote, “Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.”
That “primal essence” was one where morality and ethics played no role, where winning at any cost was the goal. And that is what, essentially, the Republican Party signed up for when it elected Donald Trump president.
Knowing fully well that Mr. Trump was unfit to serve as the leader of a moral and ethical nation really didn’t come into play during the 2016 election with Republicans.
Instead of being concerned about what his presidency would mean for the moral fiber of the nation, what the party saw in the thrice married, corrupt and admitted sex offender, was a man who could disrupt the cultural progress made during the Obama Administration and stop Hillary Clinton from being elected president.
Having the first woman as president following the first black man as president was simply too much for many voters, a minority, as it turned out, but enough to win an electoral college victory.
In other words, the party that had preached for decades that it represented traditional Christian family values, was willing to elect a man, whose entire life was a repudiation of those values, for Lenin’s political expediency, a moral compromise that has backfired on the party, spectacularly.
First, Trump Must Go
But, more importantly, Mr. Trump’s election, and the nearly four years the GOP has protected his incompetent and corrupt administration, has exposed a great flaw in America’s political system and, consequently, our country’s claim to greatness.
That is to say that the system that prevents America from collapsing into Mr. Gingrich’s “deep discontent” only works if those elected to offices with oversight responsibility have the moral and ethical spine to do their duty and hold the nation and its leadership accountable.
It is up to Americans to determine in November if we, as a country claiming greatness, are willing to settle for more political expediency, if we are willing to forgo real aspiration as a nation, to continue the inhumane treatment of others that is a direct reflection of Mr. Trump’s sociopathic lack of empathy.
We must look inward and determine if we are content to spend four more years excusing the immoral and unethical conduct of the president that is undermining the people’s faith in our system of self-rule.
“The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one: America is not the greatest country in the world anymore,” said actor Jeff Daniels in the famous scene in the HBO drama “The Newsroom.”
Be we could be. . . again.