McCain, Cuomo, and Trump all Misunderstand American Greatness

by Benjamin Studebaker

At the late Senator John McCain’s funeral, daughter Meghan McCain went after President Trump, claiming that “America was always great”. She has largely drawn plaudits for this, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo draws derision for his line–that America “was never that great”. But both of these responses to the “Make America Great Again” slogan are badly flawed because both make indefensible reductions about American greatness. By claiming that American greatness is always present or always absent, both McCain and Cuomo draw no distinction between the America that helped defeat Hitler and created Social Security and Medicare from the America which tolerated slavery and continues to tolerate homelessness, poverty, and exploitation even amid unprecedented national affluence. Both responses are self-evidently ridiculous. The “MAGA” slogan misleads, but its political strength comes from how difficult this is to quickly and decisively demonstrate.

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No honest person can or should claim that America is, in every respect at its peak. There are of course some things at which we used to be better, and the MAGA slogan draws strength from this reality. Economically, America used to be a fairer country–it used to be easier for people to move up and down the social ladder, for people to go to university without incurring vast debts, and for ordinary working families to receive a fair share of our national output:

Other countries have surpassed us on some metrics. There are countries now with longer life expectancy and more efficient healthcare systems. Some countries have more modern infrastructure. Some countries have lower homicide rates. We used to be more competitive in many of these areas.

So there are two clear senses in which America could be made “great” again–it could become better relative to its own past self in the areas in which it has declined in absolute terms, and it could become better relative to its rivals in the areas where it has declined in relative terms. When people say that America was always great or never great, they elide these two clear senses in which it is certainly possible, at least in theory, for America to get better in a way which, in some sense, restores some past condition of greatness.

That said, there are other areas in which America clearly used to be a worse place. There were times when Americans owned slaves, committed genocide against Native Americans, subjugated women, imposed excessively narrow and restrictive gender and sexual norms on people, and treated immigrant and minority populations appallingly. We do not yet treat all of these groups in the way they ought to be treated, but a case certainly can be made that we treat these groups better than we once did.

We used to be a greater country and that we are now greater than ever before–in different respects. The MAGA slogan and the responses to it discourage us from seeing these dualities. Trump deliberately conflates these things together, using the legitimate grievances people have about the areas in which our country has genuinely backslid to attack the areas in which our country has become a better place. But the defenders of the status quo in the center also handle the question of American greatness in a manipulative way. They create a false dichotomy between our accomplishments on race and gender and the creeping unfairness and regressiveness of our economy. We saw it from Hillary Clinton in 2016:

And we continue to see it from those who dismiss the New Deal and Great Society and their attendant programs as racist, because they dealt inadequately with racial inequality. The insinuation is that economic justice and social justice are mutually exclusive projects, that the former must be abandoned to get the latter, that this tradeoff is worth making.

The right and the center both think economic and social justice are mutually exclusive, and each proposes to sacrifice one to get the other. The right claims that we need to roll back social justice to restore economic justice, that this is what will make America great again. Meanwhile, the center claims that we have more social justice than ever before, that this is what makes America great, and that the miseries inflicted upon the American worker and the American family are necessary tolls that must be paid.

The best response to MAGA–and to the centrists who trivialise economic injustice–is to vociferously deny the false dichotomy in which both traffic. While we have seen social justice expand while economic justice contracts, social justice would expand more rapidly if it came alongside economic justice. Disadvantaged groups benefit greatly from fairly structured economic programs. The New Deal and Great Society wrongfully left some groups behind, but this is eminently correctable in the economic proposals of today. By the same token, we will find that if we retrench on social justice, we will gain nothing substantively in the economic realm. The Trump administration’s regressive social policies won’t offer financial succour to the working families who, in desperation, gave the president their vote. Indeed, the administration’s determination to go ever further down the path of economic ruin–with regressive tax cuts and savage attacks on our public services–will, in the long-run, leave its voters even worse off than before. Behind his unconventional rhetoric, Trump governs far more like a Bush or a Clinton than he lets on.

We need to stop playing into this silly narrative that America moves all at once and all together in either a positive or negative direction, because both stories erase our faults and our accomplishments and encourage Americans to overvalue and undervalue who we are and what we do, in different respects. The right and the center are confusing people into missing whole sides of the story, into understanding the relationship between the social and the economic in an unnecessarily adversarial way. At its best, the left can tell a more realistic story about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going, because the left can see the virtuous and vicious circles which the right and the center too often mistake for binaries.