In the early years of the Republic Americans focused their efforts on democratic government, geographic expansion and settlement, and a program of national improvements intended to promote them.  In the decades immediately following the War Between the States they concentrated on industrializing and amassing national wealth.  Then, in the 1880’s and 90’s, they began to cultivate the ambition to become a dominant power in the world, a colossus benignly robed in the spotless garments of virginal democracy.  Theodore Roosevelt laid the theoretical, rhetorical, and military foundations of “national greatness” that Woodrow Wilson transformed into full-blown ideological democratism as the moral justification (and cache-sexe) of the new republican giant.  In the 1930’s the obsession with national greatness was diminished by concerns for economic survival, eclipsed during World War II by the imperative to defeat the Axis Powers, and replaced between 1945 and 1991 by the alternate idea of America as “the leader of the Free World.”

But following immediately upon the demise of the Soviet Union the neoconservative cabal resurrected “national greatness” as “national greatness conservatism,” a reformulation of the ideological slogan of historical memory whose stamina is being demonstrated in the current election cycle by the leading candidates of the two principal parties as they trade rhetorical blows and parry for advantage in a surrealistic campaign that would have delighted the heart of H.L. Mencken as the ne plus ultra in American politics.  From the starting bell Donald Trump has shouted his intention to “make America great again,” and Mrs. Clinton has countered this by insisting that “America has never stopped being great,” an implied rebuke to her opponent’s historical understanding, or his patriotism, or both.  Trump, of course, and some of his supporters perhaps, shrewdly perceive that if America is not great, then neither are the Clintons and the Obamas and the Bushes and the federal bureaucratic monstrosity and the American military over which they preside in imperial power and splendor.  The American elite, the great tortoise that aspires to bear along a more or less docile and compliant world on its heavily armored shell, is determined to create and sustain a country worthy of its own greatness, as it sees it.  But the great and powerful are not the whole of America but only a tiny part of her, and not the best part at that.  Indeed, they are the worst—the greediest, the most corrupt, the most ruthless elements of a population comprising 320 million people.  They are a kakistocracy that has emerged over the past hundred years and grown in power and number until today it holds the nation in a species of benign bondage to itself, a high-tech postcapitalist fiefdom encompassing 50 states.  This is the reward national greatness bestows on the American ruling class.  But with what benefits does it provide the other 99 percent of the country?  None at all.  America may be the richest and most powerful nation in the world, but in terms of comfort, wealth, health, education, security, political honesty, and public efficiency, she provides the great mass of her citizens with no more than so-called secondary powers like Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and Australia do theirs, and in some instances less.

National greatness is a trick on the American public, unsophisticated people from the lower-middle classes especially.  This has been evident at least since the 1960’s, when the loudest and most aggressive defenders of the flag, an interventionist foreign policy, and President Nixon were the hard hats eager to match violence with violence in confronting the crowds of antiwar demonstrators, most of them affluent college students beguiled by vulgar Marxism.  I thought at the time, and think today, that bellicose nationalism in America is the visceral unthinking response of uneducated and socially undistinguished people whose sense of superiority, such as it is, depends on their status as citizens of the world’s richest and most powerful empire.  No college professor, medical doctor, or other professional much cares or thinks about whether his country is “Number One,” and neither does the hedge-fund manager or stock jobber, except so far as national primacy maintains the dollar as the world’s exchange currency and gives him privileged access to global markets.  But the construction worker and the long-haul teamster are conscious of a sense of self-reflected glory, and it is to these people that Trump and Mrs. Clinton, like almost every other politician in election season, wish to appeal.

There is a type of disordered personality (the kind that runs for president) that can only be happy and satisfied in thinking that the fate of the country, and even the world, rests in its hands, and although even in the nuclear age this belief is partly delusion of grandeur, persons of this sort very well understand how to parlay that delusion into immense fortunes, which are not illusory at all.  (The Clintons are the supreme example today of such people.)  Yet their power and their money have no peculiarly national quality about them, and the greatness these people flatter themselves that they possess is neither a culturally specific American greatness nor a reward for a patriotism that would make its acquisition almost a matter of absence of mind, like the British Empire.  A present striking example is the panicked reaction of the Republican “establishment” to the electoral success of Donald Trump, a response having nothing to do with “Our Principles” (the GOP, like the Democratic Party, has no principles whatever except to win at any cost) but exclusively with their subsidized lunches at the Capital Grille, their lavish campaign donations, their power and influence as officeholders and political fixers, their perquisites, their celebrity, and their easy money—none of it anything to do with their noisily affirmed purpose of “keeping America great,” as their determination to export jobs and manufacturing plants and import Third World immigrants on the dole and potential jihadists shows.  Whether Donald Trump, campaigning on a platform to keep jobs in America and (illegal) immigrants out, is functionally a part of the Establishment’s national-greatness scam or a joyful saboteur of it remains to be seen, and then only should he reach the White House.  Until that time his populist supporters and admirers owe it to themselves to consider whether “keeping America great,” or “making her great again,” really is a project that will benefit them in ways other than keeping American jobs at home and illegal aliens off the welfare rolls and the voters’ lists.

Early in the last century, “American greatness” meant joining the ranks of the world’s great powers and preaching the gospel of democracy to our little yellow and brown brothers in oppressive tropical climes full of heathenism, malaria, and poisonous creatures, among these patriotic guerillas.  After 1945, it meant defending America from communism and winning the Cold War.  But since the early 1990’s it has meant asserting and maintaining America’s status as sole superpower and imposing “American values”—by propaganda where possible, by military force when necessary—on a benighted but resistant world, a world in which America’s will must be made irresistible and her word law.  The power and other advantages this policy confers on the various departments—political, military, financial, corporate, legal, charitable, and managerial—of our ruling class are perfectly obvious.  The burdens and liabilities imposed by the “strenuous life” advocated by the American elite upon ordinary citizens are equally plain.

Global domination by whatever name, empire or hegemony, depends upon a strong military force engaged in perennial combat around the world. Since Washington ended the draft in the 1970’s the rank and file—and even some above it—of the American military has been drawn mostly from the lower-middle class political commentators call “populist,” much of it lacking a high-school degree and the larger part without education beyond that level.  It is people of this class who do the fighting and the bleeding and the dying in hopeless slum-countries like Iraq and Somalia where dwell lesser yet supposedly educable breeds without the law and feature as pathetic human wrecks in advertisements for Wounded Warriors on the nightly FOX News shows.  It is true that many American soldiers are recruited from the ethnic pools of natural warriors described by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed and for whom military life provides both employment and the opportunity to develop and exercise the instincts and talents scorned by their social and intellectual betters, but only for so long as the work lasts—into middle age if they are fortunate—after which life is too often a pieced-together affair lasting until early retirement on military pension.  Any broadly liberal government might be expected to consider this a scandalous waste of human potential—but not the imperial American one that has reigned in Washington for decades now and is at present fighting to preserve its privileged future from the grasping hands of the barbarians.

World domination and intervention, the humanitarian as well as the political and military sort, cost money as well as lives, and financial expenditures abroad are inevitably matched by either confiscatory levels of taxation or unmanageable national deficits certain to end in ruinous taxes and ultimately in national financial collapse.  Here again the burden is borne by the general run of the public, while the national-greatness class can count not just on saving its own skin but on conjuring national catastrophe into personal financial and political profit.  Congress can pass all the legislation it can think up to “stop loopholes” and in other ways create the legal and financial “level playing field” it is always promising to establish—and still the financial, legal, and political elites will find ways to circumvent and exploit each and every one of them.  No law ever was written that could not be got round by clever and powerful people and their legal guns.  One might say that the unspoken purpose of the laws in a unashamedly plutocratic society like our own is to spin bright veils of bogus fairness by the public-relations industry to cover the acts of legalized theft perpetrated beneath them in the smug expectation that the special interests represented by the legislators and their friends will prevail without the hoi polloi ever becoming aware of the hoax.  In America today, if you rise far enough and grow big enough, you can’t ever lose, and you can’t ever sink.  The equivalent of the golden parachute is the monogrammed golden life jacket, and the golden life preserver that goes with it.

But beyond the military and tax burdens one may discern more subtle and extensive ills incurred by the fateful obsession with national greatness.  One of them is the hyperpoliticization of American society that large national ambitions and projects, domestic and foreign, naturally produce.  European travelers to the United States in the early 19th century noted, usually with half-amused scorn, the intense restlessness and frenetic activity of the Americans.  The frenzy of the time centered on commerce and industry.  Today, it is mostly about politics, including the politics of industry and corporate business, but also and perhaps more importantly (and in any case entwined with) Washington’s global involvement through military intervention and support, foreign aid, globalist economics, immigration, migration—and now terrorism, which is substantially a reaction to America’s long history of intervention in the Middle East and in Africa.  No government that insists as ours does on great and intrusive national ambitions and projects at home and abroad can avoid meddlesomeness, and governmental meddlesomeness in a democracy inevitably produces restlessness and quarrelsomeness as society becomes less democratic and more managed —more socially and politically “aware,” as liberals say—and less concentrated on individual business interests and personal concerns.  The government that provokes bitter controversy, dissension, and uncertainty by its American-greatness policies abroad is also the government that believes America can never be great until she has established a domestic society built on the explicit repudiation of the laws of nature, of nature’s God, and of human nature.  In America today no one can feel at peace—with the world, with his country, with his neighbors, with his family, and with himself—and a disturbed, angry, anxious, and increasingly fearful people can never be a happy people except (perhaps) at the highest levels of society, which thrive on perpetual agitation, insatiable ambition, unflagging activity and excitement, and constant strife—the strenuous life.  Where Donald Trump fits into all this is, as I say, impossible to know today.  His keen sense of the deep American angst and its causes explains his remarkable success as a presidential candidate so far, just as that success, and school massacres, are the most dramatic manifestations of Americans’ confusion and unhappiness in the 21st century.  He could be the man who would let Russia and the Middle East sort out the Syrian crisis between them, as he has intimated he would do as president.  But he could also be the man who suggested over the winter that as president he’d send 30,000 American troops to Syria to battle a score or so of fanatical and implacable parties that have been warring with one another for millennia and that even Trump recognizes cannot be talked, threatened, and cajoled by a multibillionaire American real-estate mogul into coming to a “deal.”  We shall see, or we shall not see—and if we don’t see, it won’t matter one way or the other.

Of course, Donald Trump appeals not just to the lower-middle “populist” class but to a broad section of the American middle class as well, people who, like the populists, respond enthusiastically—and gratefully—to his plain speaking and his refusals to genuflect, apologize, and explain himself to the increasingly hated political class he defies, and who despise him in return.  Plain speaking has been out of fashion with American politicians, Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, since the presidency of Harry Truman, when they pretended at least to admire the man’s haberdasherly bluntness.  Unfortunately, Trump’s regular iterations of his promise to make America great again represent the least plain element of his famous style.  The plainest, most direct, most unexpected, and most welcome thing Donald Trump could say to Americans is to promise to make America happy again—happy as she has not been for many a decade—and the hell with greatness, like spinach!