Politics & Policy

Translating ‘Make America Great Again’ into English

(Jan Kruger/Getty)

My friends and colleagues have said in National Review’s recently published symposium almost everything that there is to be said on the matter of Donald Trump, the vicious demagogue who currently leads the Republican presidential pack in national polls. I myself have written a small book on the subject. Forgive me for turning to one other aspect of the question, which is that the candidacy of Donald Trump is something that could not happen in a nation that could read.

This is the full flower of post-literate politics.

There are still individual Americans who can read, a fact for which we writers should say daily prayers of gratitude. There are even reading communities of a sort, and not only ladies’ pinot parties loosely organized around 50 Shades of Grey. Conservatives are great readers, which is why the overwhelmingly left-leaning world of New York City publishing constantly is looking forward to the next offering from Mark Levin or Bill O’Reilly, whose works produce literary profit sufficient to subsidize the careers of any number of poets and high-minded novelists. But we are not a nation that reads, or a nation that shares a living tradition of serious contemporary literature, fiction or nonfiction. Indeed, some critics of our Trump symposium sneered that none of the contributors had much in the way of “mass appeal,” as though the fact that our populist friends fail to read John Podhoretz and R. R. Reno were a judgment on those writers rather than on themselves. But serious writers, even those who manage to be both serious and popular at the same time, have rarely enjoyed much influence in the practical matter of winning elections: William F. Buckley could not carry Barry Goldwater very far on his own in an age when serious writing enjoyed much more prestige than it does today.

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Thomas Aquinas cautioned against “homo unius libri,” a warning that would not get very far with the typical Trump voter stuck sniggering over “homo.” (They’d snigger over “snigger,” too, for similar reasons.) Thomas’s “man of one book” is a familiar type to conservatives; often enough, that book is Atlas Shrugged, or The Fair Tax Book, or, for the more sophisticated sort, Economics in One Lesson. (There are more people who have read about the works of Hayek and Mises than have read the works themselves.) But a man of one book has something: William Shakespeare made more from his reading of Plutarch than most men could make of the Library of Congress, and a reader who has truly digested the Bible, or Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Capitalism and Freedom has something, having consumed with any one of those works not only the work itself but the works that nourished the authors.

The man of one book is, in our time, practically a scholar. Our problem is the man of no books at all.

The American Founders could have a conversation among themselves because they had in the main all consumed the same library of Greek and Roman classics (in the original or in translation), British and Continental literature ranging from fiction to political economy, legal literature, and the like. This did not ensure agreement or like-mindedness — far from it. What it ensured was literate and enlightened argument.

#share#From the man of many books to the man of one book, we devolved very quickly to the man of one sentence, the paragraph being too demanding and unwieldy a form. In the case of the Trumpkins, that sentence is “Make America great again,” which has a great deal of emotional meaning but no intellectual content. That sort of sloganeering hardly begins with Trump. But Ronald Reagan’s “It’s morning in America” was retrospective, a celebration of the substantial successes of his first term in office; it was not a substitute for a program, the program already being in place. Bill Clinton asserted that it was “time for a change” — not quite a sentence, even — without ever bothering to fill in the basics: a change from what to what? We’d had a lot of Republicanism, and he was promising a Democratic party that was no longer interested in burning down the cities — which, for a while, the Democratic party wasn’t. (Alas, the Democrats have regressed to burn-the-cities mode.) Barack Obama ran essentially the same campaign — “Hope and Change” — as Bill Clinton did, and his success was amplified by the fact that George W. Bush wasn’t Ronald Reagan, or as near to Reagan’s success as his father had been. What kind of change? Well, we’ve got a snoot full of that by now.

There is no substance cruder than that which composes Donald Trump, and no spirit of our time quite as poisonous.

But even “Make America great again” has embedded within it a vague general critique of the current political climate. It is essentially the same one as was proffered by the Tea Party some years ago, which is strange in that Trump was a prominent supporter of the proximate cause of the tea-party uprising — the bailouts — who assured his friends that he “didn’t march with the Tea Party,” though he could understand their anger. Of course he could understand their anger: Understanding and exploiting the baser emotions is what con artists do, and Donald Trump is a con artist par excellence. If you want to surf, you care about how big the wave is, whichever way it is breaking. In political rhetoric as in tacky ties, Trump’s is a volume-based business. The Tea Party’s fundamental complaint, which was the same complaint put forward by Occupy Wall Street minus the Maoist daydreaming, is that there exists a corrosive and distasteful relationship between certain politically connected businesses and the politicians who are both their patrons and their clients.

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Donald Trump is the face of that insalubrious relationship, a lifelong crony capitalist who brags about buying political favors. But his enthusiasts, devoid as they are of a literate politics capable of thinking about all three sides of a triangle at the same time, take a kind of homeopathic view of Trump, believing that they can dispatch a crony capitalist to undo crony capitalism in the same way that New Age healers believe that a little bit of diluted poison chases away similar toxins. The founder of homeopathic pseudoscience, Samuel Hahnemann, cited “the spirit-like medicinal powers of the crude substances.” There is no substance cruder than that which composes Donald Trump, and no spirit of our time quite as poisonous.

#related#It was inevitable that the man of one sentence should become the man of one word, but our populist friends in broadcasting, ever mindful of audience share and cynically contemptuous of those who tune in to their programs, have managed to reduce the whole of Republican presidential politics at this moment to a single word: establishment. “Establishment” means . . . whatever it needs to mean. And it excludes whatever it needs to exclude, including Manhattan real-estate heirs who boast that their Ivy League undergraduate degrees certify them as smarter than . . . the sort of people who can be seduced with a single supercharged word. There is a reason that Trump is so beloved of the con-trepreneurs on the radio and television: Every salesman has contempt and pity for his marks. The people drawn to Trump don’t know that they’re the marks, of course: They imagine themselves talking like a character from Glengarry Glen Ross and strutting around like the character that Donald J. Trump, a frequently bankrupt daddy’s boy from Queens, plays on television.

The next step is the man of one syllable, and November is far, far away.

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