July 4th has passed. The sound of fireworks left over from the celebration is thankfully dwindling. The sale of antacid tablets has likely surged to treat our digestive systems ravaged by charred burgers cooked on backyard grills. The flag-waving parades and martial music are gone as city streets return to their summer silence.
The two major candidates for the presidency of the United States, no doubt, will resume their debate over whether we must return to being great or whether we have been great right along. America the beautiful — America the scorned. Never has our national schizophrenia about our past and our future been more evident.
The dictionary definition of “great” is “the ability, quality or eminence considerably above average.” I think that when one applies the adjective “great” to a nation, “eminence” is the key word in the definition. The argument between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton over whether America is still great is more than just political sloganeering. After all, if America is no longer great, it must be in decline. And polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans believe our nation is on the wrong track, an often used euphemism for decline. Yet the usual statistical barometers seem to indicate that America was in worse shape when Barack Obama took office eight years ago than it is now. Is perception different from reality? Here is where words matter.
It seems to me that Trump and Clinton are using different definitions of greatness when they describe our nation’s current condition. The confusion is rooted in the difference in the words eminent and preeminent. I apologize for going linguistic crazy on you, dear reader. I have never been mistaken for the late William Safire, the columnist for the New York Times who would regularly educate the public on why words matter. But if you have nothing better to do with your time, hang in there with me for a moment or two (or three or four).
For a nation to be great, it need only be eminent or prominent among nations. And that’s the definition that Clinton correctly uses when she claims that America has never lost its greatness. Indeed, few would argue that despite our considerable flaws our nation is no longer prominent among nations. She argues that we are great despite our flaws, but we need to do better. Whether one agrees with her or not, Clinton goes into considerable detail as to how she plans to make us a better nation.
Trump, on the other hand, mistakenly defines greatness as being preeminent or dominant among nations. This is not a casual mistake or merely being sloppy with his use of words. It is true we were once preeminent. We can even differ on just when that period occurred. I believe our preeminence spanned the years when we were the sole possessors of the atomic bomb. I would argue that we again became the preeminent power in the world upon the breakup of the Soviet Union. One can argue that we squandered our chance to make the world a better place, but that has no relevance to whether we have since been the dominant power.
The emergence of China as a superpower may have changed our status as the preeminent nation in the world. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, longs to regain its own perception of lost greatness. In so doing, Russia has shown that it is still capable of influencing world events, though not nearly as powerfully as the Soviet Union once did.
I have always believed that even as the dominant superpower, we overestimate how much we can influence world events. The world is too complicated. No nation has either the complete knowledge or ability to prevent catastrophe. The rise of radical Islamic terrorism is yet another factor in this respect. The recent exit by the United Kingdom from the European Union may lead to dramatic changes in the map of Europe, something over which we have no control.
This feeling of powerlessness is what fuels the Trump candidacy as much if not more than the economic conditions in America. Trump promises to make America great again — to protect us by building a wall, banning Muslims from entering the country, the mass deporting of illegal immigrants, and retaliating against China and other nations that are “taking advantage of us” in negotiations. All these promises are about giving us control again over our lives.
When Clinton argues that we have never not been great, she is literally correct. That’s why she can say that although we are great, we need to improve. But while the polls show that she is ahead, the Public actually believes that being great means that we should be preeminent and that being preeminent means that we can control our destiny. With that belief comes nostalgia for a time when we could control our own destiny. Thus the Public believes that we’re on the wrong track.
Although world events have eroded our dominance, we are still, by every reasonable measurement, a great nation. Trying to recapture a past that is no longer relevant is a fool’s mission. Looking for scapegoats does not befit a great nation. That is why words matter in this presidential campaign of 2016. We can’t look ahead by merely looking behind us.
That is the false promise of Donald Trump. ■