“Make America Great Again” is the slogan for Donald Trump’s phenomenally popular presidential campaign. With it, Trump has tapped a deep well of frustration among American conservatives about the direction of the country under President Barack Obama.
This longing for lost greatness especially concerns American foreign policy (although upon close examination Trump’s actual statements are less hawkish than those of his Republican rivals).
Conservatives are sick of America looking weak on the world stage. They sense that Obama has transmitted his own lack of virility to the nation as a whole.
Many blame the spectacular and gruesome rise of ISIS on Obama for having pulled out of Iraq. The bad guys are on the rise, because our leader wasn’t “man enough” to stay and stand up to them. As the great George Carlin said:
“This whole country has a manhood problem. Big manhood problem in the USA. You can tell from the language we use; language always gives you away. What did we do wrong in Vietnam? We pulled out! Not a very manly thing to do is it?”
Masculine Trump promises to be different. Oh sure, he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place. But if he had inherited the occupation, he wouldn’t have pulled out until he had taken all of the country’s oil. A “real man” doesn’t leave until he gets what he wants.
And now, so this narrative goes, Obama has “yielded,” on behalf of America, to both Cuba and Iran. Trump, who presents himself as a masterful business negotiator, sneered at Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran as, “one of the weakest contracts I’ve seen of any kind.”
But perhaps most emasculating of all is Obama’s feeble showing next to the famously tough Russian president Vladimir Putin. Virile Vlad has taken Obama’s lunch money time and again.
Putin frustrated Obama’s plan to launch an air war on Syria by calling Secretary of State John Kerry’s bluff over a chemical weapons deal with the Syrian regime.
Putin countered the Washington-backed coup in Ukraine by swiftly annexing its Crimean province without firing a shot.
And now, in a blitzkrieg campaign, Putin seems to be smashing in a matter of days the ISIS menace that Obama declared war on eight months ago.
Many Americans look at Putin with a mix of fear, hate, and envy. They wish they had a leader like him, and hope Trump will fill that role. Trump himself has predicted that as president he will get along with his Russian counterpart, because Putin will respect him (perhaps as a fellow alphamale). In contrast, Trump added, Putin, “has absolutely no respect for President Obama. Zero.”
It is conceivable that Obama feels he has something to prove as a spindly former community organizer, and that is why he has been susceptible to be pressured into foreign interventions by the neocons (like Victoria Nuland of the Ukraine debacle) and liberal interventionists (like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power of the Libya debacle ) in his administration (especially the above female ones), as well as his steely-eyed generals (like Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus of the Afghan Surge debacle ).
And perhaps Obama’s non-martial inclinations have curbed his commitments to these foreign misadventures, preventing them from being quite as grandly calamitous as Bush’s, while at the same time making him look timorous and indecisive.
It may be tempting to think that Trump is comfortable enough in his own masculinity to not start fights he can’t finish, and that this is why he strays from the GOP script on Iraq, Syria, and Russia.
But ultimately it is a waste of time to pore over what candidates say on the hustings. Politicians are generally inveterate liars and manipulators whose policies in office rarely match their rhetoric, and often don’t even resemble it.
What is important is why the rhetoric is successful: why it resonates with the public and what that says about the spirit of the times, which is what actually limits or enables the rapacity of government.
What exactly are conservatives longing for when they clamor to Make America Great Again? What do they even mean by “America”?
It could be any of three senses, each of which was expounded by the great American journalist Randolph Bourne in his 1918 essay “ The State.”
They could mean America the Country. According to Bourne, when speaking of country or nation:
“We think vaguely of a loose population spreading over a certain geographical portion of the earth’s surface, speaking a common language, and living in a homogeneous civilization. Our idea of Country concerns itself with the non-political aspects of a people, its ways of living, its personal traits, its literature and art, its characteristic attitudes toward life.”
Or they could mean America the State. According to Bourne:
“The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice.”
It is important to note that Bourne’s idea of the State is distinct from his idea of government, which is:
“…the machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. (…) That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamor and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities.”
And in wartime, the State eclipses all else, as the alarmed populace amalgamates into a herd, huddling and stampeding in unison under the guiding rod of government-as-shepherd:
“Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. (…) For war is essentially the health of the State. The ideal of the State is that within its territory its power and influence should be universal. (…) And it is precisely in war that the urgency for union seems greatest, and the necessity for universality seems most unquestioned. The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd.”
Bourne noticed a key problem for clearly thinking about these matters:
“The patriot loses all sense of the distinction between State, nation, and government.”
As a result, these terms have become thoroughly confused.
The terms “patriotism” and “nationalism” as used by today’s arch-conservatives refer to attitudes that used to be called “jingoism.” So, what is today called “country” in the sense of “patriotism” and “nation” in the sense of “nationalism” is actually what Bourne referred to as “the State.”
What is today called “the State” Bourne instead called “government.”
And what Bourne meant by “country” and “nation” is a concept so neglected today, that it doesn’t really have its own name at all.
It will clarify things if we adopt our own set of labels for Bourne’s rigorous concepts: one that doesn’t confusingly contradict current usage as Bourne’s does, but also doesn’t have the deceptive Orwellian qualities of standard modern parlance.
Our meaning should be unmistakable if we speak of America the Civilization, America the Herd, and America the Regime.
Those who display the “Make America Great Again” injunction on baseball caps and bumper stickers are specifically hoping for a particular prospective government official to fulfill it. So, they are clearly not saying “Make the American Civilization Great Again.”
Yet they are also saying far more than “Make the American Regime Great Again.” They are not merely concerned with the glory of the Federal government.
What Trump’s supporters desperately want is to Make the American Herd Great Again. And by “Great,” they mean big, imposing, mighty, and fearsome.
In a time of sparse grazing (that is, a deep economic recession), they are irrationally alarmed at perceived economic inroads being made by the Mexican and Chinese Herds.
And in a time of military and diplomatic humiliation (see above), they are irrationally terrified that the Russian, Chinese, and Muslim Herds may someday supplant or even overrun them.
They want their Herd’s military stampede to be irresistible and earthshakingly awesome again, and its huddle (immigration and trade barriers, the national security state, etc.) to be impenetrable and intimidatingly forbidding. And they are looking to Trump to restore these herd characteristics as the new strongman shepherd.
This is why Trump’s vaunted masculinity is so important. His fans want their shepherd to have a firm hand, like a stern but protecting father.
As Bourne explained:
“There is, of course, in the feeling towards the State a large element of pure filial mysticism. The sense of insecurity, the desire for protection, sends one’s desire back to the father and mother, with whom is associated the earliest feelings of protection. It is not for nothing that one’s State is still thought of as Father or Motherland, that one’s relation towards it is conceived in terms of family affection.”
And this is especially true in times of war such as ours. Bourne added that the wartime State’s…
“… chief value is the opportunity it gives for this regression to infantile attitudes. In your reaction to an imagined attack on your country or an insult to its government, you draw closer to the herd for protection , you conform in word and deed, and you act together. And you fix your adoring gaze upon the State, with a truly filial look, as upon the Father of the flock, the quasi-personal symbol of the strength of the herd , and the leader and determinant of your definite action and ideas.”
But in order for this filial piety toward the Herd to really take hold, there usually needs to be a figurehead with a face, a name, and a personality to function as a devotional focal point: a father-figure embodiment of the Herd itself. This was the function of Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And this is the function of Trump in his supporters’ dreams of an American Herd made great again.
If America’s spooked-herd mindset continues to intensify, it could even turn the populist demagogue Trump into Nationalist America’s answer to Nationalist Italy’s Benito Mussolini: our “Il Douche” to their “Il Duce.”
Conservatives need to snap out of their fight-or-flight response, take a moment to step out of the fevered haze of election season, and realize that there is no need or good reason to seek provision and protection in a Herd. (Class warrior leftists are also guilty of this in their own way.)
The shepherds they bleat for don’t tend to their flocks for the sake of the protection and provision of the sheep, but for the sake of their own wool and mutton. And such regime herdsmen are the ones who set herds against each other in order to divide and rule.
And protection and provision cannot be sustainably achieved through the bestial means of swarming and stampeding over outsiders. The “ biological competition” (as Ludwig von Mises called it) of tribalism and warfare (both military and economic) is a zero-sum game. And it ultimately only endangers and impoverishes all by breaking down the positive-sum division of labor (social competition and cooperation), which is the rational and characteristically human means of attaining protection and provision.
As Mises taught , civilization is based on the division of labor, which in turn depends on respect for individual property rights (including self-ownership): in a word, justice.
The more that justice reigns, the more intensified and productive will be the division of labor, and the more the populace will be civilized: i.e., economically integrated, prosperous, and peaceful.
Justice (liberty and property) is what makes a civilization great. And civilization is what makes a populace rich and safe. In short, being good is what makes a people truly great.
Being good means peaceful and voluntary exchange, both commercial and cultural, to the enrichment of all, both material and spiritual.
Being good means not making enemies throughout the world by bombing, starving, and subjugating potential fellow members of the ecumenical market society and excusing it as “foreign policy,” “global strategy,” and “collateral damage.”
Being good means not pretending to have a partial claim over every single piece of private or “public” property under your government’s illegitimate jurisdiction, such that you can exclude others from it based on them being born under a different illegitimate jurisdiction.
And as the left needs to realize, being good also means not raiding the coffers of other socio-economic “classes” simply because they have more than you, and excusing it as “addressing wealth inequality.”
In other words, being good means acting like decent human beings, and not like a ravenous, paranoid, amoral Herd.
America the Herd is ever at odds with America the Civilization. It is America the Herd that is keeping America the Civilization from feeling and being prosperous and safe. For too long, we have let our rulers ride us roughshod, using us to trample the economy and global tranquility with its economic and military interventions.
Apocalyptic Islamophobes like to speak of a “Clash of Civilizations,” but that is a contradiction in terms. Civilization is a concept of natural, unforced harmony. It is Herds that clash, not Civilizations. Civilizational commonalities may determine who is considered in the fold. But it is the Herd dynamic that hurls the throngs against each other.
And such clashes damage civilization in two senses. Civilization is degraded domestically, as the heterogenous dance of individuals yields the stage to the homogenous march of the horde.
And civilization between the two peoples is shattered as well.
There are many nested levels of civilization. Within the American civilization, there are distinctive sub-civilizations. The Midwest, the Northeast, the South, etc, each have their own recognizable subcultures and trading networks, even though they are also to some extent integrated with the broader American culture and trading network.
All these civilizations are, in turn, integrated with a broader Western civilization. And Western civilization has certain cultural affinities and (especially) economic relationships with virtually all the rest of the world as well.
So, no matter how distinctive two sets of people are, military and economic warfare between them breaks the bonds of civilization that culturally and materially enrich them both.
Next time someone accuses you of “hating America” for denouncing beastly policies and the tribalism that endorses and enables such savagery, tell them, “I love America the Civilization, which is why I despise America the Herd. For you, it seems to be the other way around.”
Make America good again, and the kinds of greatness actually worth having will naturally follow.