It is rather rare in human history that a leader arises who is the embodiment of his followers; their strengths and their weaknesses, their worst fears and their loftiest hopes, their nightmares, and their dreams. Far more common is the case when leaders use their constituents as cannon fodder for their self-aggrandizement at worst or lead them to greater glory than they could have ever imagined at best.
America has seen its share of both kinds; the Founding Fathers, epitomized by George Washington, embodied both the aspirations of their generation of Americans and their very essence. Resourceful, skilled, and fiercely independent, they were also careful planners: not risk-averse, but certainly risk-aware. They planned their rebellion against Britain to the last possible detail, setting forth both the rationale for it and the government they wanted to come in its stead in excruciating detail, the result of many years of careful planning. Lincoln, the other Founding Father, was, for late 19th century America, what Washington was a century prior. He embodied the new American spirit of limitless opportunities, frugality, common sense, and manifest destiny. Then came the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Obamas, all intent on converting votes into dollars and into power, both of which were designed to long outlive their years in the Oval Office.
And then came Donald J. Trump.
There can be little doubt that Trump is the product of his time. Like most Americans alive today, his American roots reach only to the beginning of the 20th century. He is the son and grandson of immigrants who fled the scene of excessive nationalism and limited opportunity, which held sway in pre-First World War Europe. Like most Americans of his generation, Trump was the beneficiary of the tremendous achievements of the Anglo-Saxon, Christian America that preceded them, but was not really a part of it. The ethnic, linguistic, and religious cohesiveness of the now-extinct American nation as experienced by its last and greatest generation gave Trump and his contemporaries a garden of earthly delights rarely if ever experienced by another generation of human beings anywhere. Such was the 1950’s America, at least if you were white.
As the Hollywood movies, especially musicals, produced in that era can attest, America and Americans were on top of creation at the exact time Trump was going through his teenage years. It must have been impossible, as a white American, to have been anything but a lifelong optimist growing up in that paradise on Earth.
Then came the, perhaps inevitable, collapse. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, America experienced social upheavals and, uncharacteristically, humiliating military defeats, notably in Vietnam. The milk soured, almost overnight. American cities, Trump’s beloved New York chief among them, became crime-ridden slums. American industry, driven by the sloth and negative attitudes of its once excellent workforce, was in steep decline. Just as Japan and Germany finished rebuilding their industries to better standards than they have ever enjoyed before all paid for by the American taxpayer, the American industry could produce nothing of value. Within a few short years, America stopped producing consumer electronics and its car industry was cranking out V8 station wagons with red velvet interiors when young Americans wanted VW Beetles and fuel-sipping yet sporty Datsuns.
The split in American society happened at that time. Between the squeegee men of New York and the boarded-up factories in the rust belt, many Americans, the ones with college degrees, decided that the way forward was to remake America in the mold of “progressive” Europe, with its social welfare programs, its public transport, and it is tiny (but oh so elegant) Ikea apartments. Other Americans decided to fight to bring America back to its industrial and military glory days of the 1950s, or, as Trump so eloquently put it, to Make America Great Again.
These Americans retained, justly or not, the immense sense of optimism that is, arguably, the most defining characteristic of the old American nation. Boundless, ingrained optimism is understandable for a nation that defeated, twice, (in 1776-81 and again in 1812) the leading world power of the time and then went on to beat it in its own game of rapid industrialization and international trade. It is unavoidable for a nation that took over the better (in both senses) part of a virgin continent by not simply defeating, but utterly decimating all who stood in its way, be they native peoples or the Mexican Republic. Optimism is par for the course for a nation that emerged not only victorious but substantially unscathed from two world wars and suffered no military defeats of any importance for the first two centuries of its existence, from 1776 to 1973.
The part of America we now call by names like “conservatives” and “patriots” chose, reasonably perhaps, to ignore the clear and unrelenting signs of American decline from the late 1960’s forward. This part of America believed, optimistically, that this decline could be slowed down, then stopped, and then reversed.
Jimmy Carter, who had far deeper American roots than Donald Trump, did not share in these beliefs. He notoriously talked of a “deep malaise” affecting America and even more notably never attempted to offer any solutions for it. Trump, early on in his life, chose optimism, and did something to justify it. He was instrumental in revitalizing Manhattan and with it the rest of New York City. He liked Reagan, a guy from a previous generation, who could never bring himself to give up on America’s unique greatness. He worked with Giuliani, a fellow grandson of European immigrants and another dyed in the wool optimist.
Unfortunately, optimism makes for a poor ideology, especially when it is unfounded. In fact, unfounded optimism has proven itself over and over again to be fatal to individuals and nations alike. Jews, perhaps the most pessimistic people that have ever lived and with good reason, are a great example of this. Their two rebellions against Rome at the height of its power were rooted in unfounded optimism disguised as faith in the Almighty. The great Jewish sages who followed the devastation and exile caused by these disastrous actions, cautioned, time and again, against reliance on God to do men’s work and against false messiahs who make promises that they cannot keep. The fact that Zionism is exclusively the product of secular and even atheist Jews from Theodore Herzl to the Eastern European Jewish pioneers of the early 20th century is the result of Judaism’s deep-seated reluctance to take matters into its own hands ever again, that is to say, in its deep pessimism when it comes to God’s willingness to abide by any human timetables.
As much as it pains me to say this, the optimism in America’s future, in the ability, or even desire, of Americans to “make America great again”, was proven to be of the unfounded kind. There are many reasons for this, but it is worth recounting the major ones because they represent irreversible processes that no amount of wishful thinking can turn back. Chief among these is the fact that the people who managed so brilliantly to make America great in the first place are simply gone, the last ones being born circa 1925. America now is genetically, religiously, ideologically, and even linguistically radically different from the country it was from 1776 to 1976, the first two centuries of its existence. In addition to this, there is the simple fact that America, as a byproduct of opening the world markets to its goods, services, and even popular culture, has funded, massively, its own competitors. Starting with the Marshall plan in Europe and the free trade agreements with Western Europe and Japan and through the invitation of China to join the World Trade Organization and the encouragement of American companies to set shop in that country, America, Inc. has invested all of its capital in improving the ability of other countries to compete with it both economically and militarily. Finally, America, like most if not all Western countries embarked on a quest of cultural suicide, divorcing itself from its own cultural roots in Judeo-Christian ethics and morality and, in the process, poisoning the pure spring waters that gave rise to its greatness.
On a personal level, unfounded optimism ended up destroying Trump’s not insignificant legacy as a president, just as it led many of his followers to believe that everything will be fine in America and avoid making the tough choices that so clearly stem from the fact that it won’t.
America, if it has ever been exceptional, is certainly no longer such, nor is it going back to greatness. This means that Americans, like everyone else, must invest in themselves, first and foremost. Your votes, as we have all learned, are not worth the paper or the pixels that they are “printed” on. Your time is much better spent on earning hard, marketable skills and acquiring real personal wealth. Wealth and marketable skills are the only things that make you free, not documents like the Constitution, no matter how good they sound. This truth, this simple fact, is self-evident to most people in the world and Americans should be no exception.
Trump’s downfall was, in the end, the product of the same thing that fueled his rise to power; his optimism. Trump truly believed, with every cell in his body, that America could be made great again and this sincere belief ignited a fire in many Americans, especially those whom the new unexceptional America had left behind. This fire was what brought Trump into the Oval Office, but it was the same fire, the same unfounded optimism, the same belief that all Americans wish to go back to the exceptionally great America of the 1950s that made Trump surround himself at first with the worst kind of swamp creatures like Wray and Bolton and then when he understood that they all lied to him, with simple crooks and a** lickers like Giuliani 2.0.
The Founding Fathers were not Trump. Indeed, they were the antithesis to him. Where he led by his “gut”, they led with logic and analysis. Where he was rash and impulsive, they were slow and deliberate. Where he was ignorant, they were well-informed. America will never go back to what it was, but Americans can yet make the conscious choice to be more like Washington than like Trump, to believe in God without ever expecting Him to “take the wheel”, to look ahead with clear eyes, discarding forever the false language of “American exceptionalism” and “my rights as an American citizen”. Those Americans who do that will thrive even in the new, utterly unexceptional, America that is now upon us. Be among them.