Trump sings one vision of America
Let's give credit where it's due. President Donald Trump is the greatest showman in the world. One might well ask what it means for a democracy to swap argument, debate, compromise and the depersonalized power of "we, the people" for a form of politics conducted by means of showmanship and a highly personal form of power, but I'll leave that for another day.
Here was the theme of the show: "We have shattered the mentality of American decline, and we have rejected the downsizing of America's destiny."
A sourpuss such as myself might be tempted to point out that the show is based on the fictional premise that any of us had embraced American decline but, again, I'll leave that thought for another time.
Let's instead consider whether, in this speech, we got that promised upsizing of America's destiny. To answer this question, I'm going to skip right to the end of the speech.
In the ringing peroration, we were reintroduced to the American nation, upsized. Here are some key moments: "As the world bears witness tonight, America is a land of heroes." Check. That's true. "This is a place where greatness is born, where destinies are forged and where legends come to life." Check, check, check.
"The American Nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women to ever walk the face of the Earth. Our ancestors . . . tamed the wilderness; settled the Wild West…We are pioneers…We settled the New World…The nation is our canvas, and this country is our masterpiece."
Now, I ask you, is that an upsizing of the picture of American destiny? I don't think it is. This picture empties the land of the people who were here before. This vision depicts the American enterprise as a matter of sketching on empty canvas and as primarily a matter of conquering the natural world.
But America is bigger than the world of the pioneers. Those hardy, determined people are certainly part of our national story, but so, too, are our native brothers and sisters who ultimately suffered mightily at their hands. Our America has not been about conquering a natural world devoid of human challenges. Our America includes those who have cut through the dense, complicated, painful tangle of human relations of justice and injustice growing up on these shores — from enslavement to Jim Crow; from Japanese internment to mass incarceration — to bring us to a more perfect union.
If we want to upsize our ambitions for America, it's time to sing all of America, to learn how to tell our story together. Here's the song we are seeking to sing: Can a people overcome its history of conflict and division to forge a shared commitment to the political institutions that can and should secure freedom and equality for all? Truly there is no harder challenge on this planet. Achieving this is harder than going to Mars. The moonshot of our generation is right here at home. Can we sing America together so that we are all in the song? We all love a version of this country, but who has a heart big enough to sing the whole thing?
Until I see a heart singing that big, I will know we have not yet upsized our ambitions for this country.
My show would sing that truthful song. It would be that big-hearted.
Danielle S. Allen is an American classicist and political scientist. She is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
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