Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said America is “the greatest country on earth.” In 2008 at a campaign stop for her husband, however, she said it was the first time in her adult life she was really proud of her country. These are logically compatible statements—maybe Barack really is the original author of American greatness—but Michelle sounded more like a woman offended at any possible suggestion to the contrary, by anyone, at any time: “Don’t let anyone tell you America isn’t great!”
Yet this is precisely what the Left has been telling us for decades, and has been doubling down on with particular fervor since Donald Trump’s campaign. From “America Was Never Great” hats to the common rhetorical question “When was America ever great?” the Left has roundly criticized and rejected his slogan. From the country’s racist, sexist, and homophobic beginnings, it has never fundamentally changed, we are told, despite—for instance—the complete legal and political equality of women and blacks, and the election of a black president.
So when was America ever great? Some moderate voices on the Left tell a more nuanced story about America as a place that was in fact great. It was perhaps not always great at embodying the principles of its founding, but in expressing those lofty ideals about the dignity of humanity, striving mightily to live up to them—and even partially succeeding at times, such as in the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement.
Most Can Agree We Were Great Once
This scene from the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s 2012 “The Newsroom” embodies this somewhat more moderate take. Since its release, this scene has been perpetually viral. You will see it shared widely, die out, then come back and make the rounds once again. The linked version of the scene has four million views, and there are others with millions more. Clearly Sorkin struck a nerve in declaring that America used to be great, and we once “stood up for what was right, we fought for moral reasons… we waged wars on poverty, not poor people.”
But the most emphatic part of the video is the beginning, which insists we are no longer great, have lost these things that distinguished our nation, and are failing to even strive toward those higher ideals that defined our greatness. Sorkin even marshals an impressive array of statistics to substantiate his point.
If you’re of a more conservative bent, you’ll likely agree with the scene that the country was once great, but disagree with the liberal presentation of what made it so. You’d likely also agree that something has been lost, but not about what that is. Nevertheless, there are at least grounds for conciliation.
Donald Trump Revealed Their Hypocrisy
Last night Michelle Obama declared America the greatest country in the world without qualification, and the Left fell over itself fawning over the speech in effusive agreement. But these are the same liberals who loved “The Newsroom” and spread the flagship scene of the series to the far corners of the Internet. Some are the very same liberals who declared “America Was Never Great.” Your liberal friends who think Michelle’s line was a brilliant assault on the Trump campaign are the same people who all clicked “like” and “share” and “retweet” every time Sorkin’s vid made another pass. What was the message of that scene? Make America Great Again.
How to explain this? It can really only be chalked up to seething hatred of Donald Trump. When Sorkin delivers the message, it’s received enthusiastically; when Trump delivers an identical message, it’s rejected vehemently. They forget they ever liked Sorkin’s take on America in the first place and turn instead to Michelle Obama’s alternative: America is currently great.
This in turn shows the brilliance of Trump’s campaign slogan. If you’re a far-left ideologue, you can respond that “America was never great,” but most Americans, even on the Left, know that isn’t quite right. You can say America is great now, as Michelle Obama did almost without any qualification, but that undermines the common critiques of America as imperialistic, xenophobic, racist, sexist, et cetera, ad infinitum.
It also conflicts with the lived experience of most Americans, who are suffering economic hardship, the ravages of terrorism and war, disintegration of the family, severely strained relations between the sexes, racial tensions, and the erosion of institutions like the church, which traditionally mitigated the extent and effects of those problems. People know that America, if it is great in its ideals or has been great at times, is experiencing a period of social and political turmoil and upheaval. No amount of soaring rhetoric will convince them otherwise.
But there is a bipartisan alternative to the naively sunny optimism that papers over the darkness we encounter daily. From the pen of Aaron Sorkin or the jaws of Donald Trump, the path before us is the same: Make America Great Again.