Make America Big Again
Fans of Donald Trump typically say, “I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much, but I like his policies.” As you peel back more layers of the onion, they really mean they like his tax cuts and conservative appointments to the federal judiciary, but wish they didn’t have to defend every ridiculous thing he says on social media. But, of course, their loyalty to him is deeper than that. Every Republican president has slashed taxes and shifted our courts to the right over the last 40 years. It doesn’t take courage to push positions already popular within your own base.
Political courage is doing the right thing even when your own team, or both teams, disapprove. It’s taking the heat while everyone is watching. In four years, I can’t think of a single thing he said or signed into law that jeopardized the adoration of his followers. He constantly throws them red meat and catnip and could care less if it’s poisoned so long as it is good for Trump.
So what is it about our soon to be former president that got him through a hard fought GOP primary in 2016, a razor-thin race against Hillary Clinton, and four years of scandals and embarrassments that would have destroyed any other politician? I believe it’s all of his outlandish, unabashed, and pure absurdity that remains his greatest political asset (and liability). He’s entertainment for boring people. He makes white grievance and inferiority complexes orthodoxy. He’s replaced religion with politics and keeps score like it’s a sporting event. While he’s not a great businessman, he can brand and market himself, creating a false perception that many believe is reality. The same media he bashes actually created this monster in the 1980s and feeds the beast to this day. His voters are like fans, groupies, and cult members. They see a guy with balls who is willing to flip a table over and stick it to all the people they think look down on them. If Trump draws the ire of “the liberal media” and “coastal elites,” he must be doing something right even if deep down they wouldn’t want their own sons and daughters behaving like him.
Trump gives a false sense of toughness and superiority to a group who loves playing the victim card. They don’t mind being looked down on so long as the “billionaire” president vindicates them, tells them they’re smart and their problems are someone else’s fault (the Left, the liberal media & universities, socialists, communist child-trafficking Hollywood actors, Mexican rapists, Muslims, Antifa, BLM, and and and…). Instead of holding him accountable and remaining the party of “personal responsibility,” the Grand Old Party became Trump, Inc. Party leaders folded like lawn chairs to his partisan popularity and followed him like football fans, or parishioners in the Church of Trump. They went along with the politics of constant conflict and division. Starting with Sarah Palin, they searched for the lowest common denominator of politics and found it in Donald Trump. They played along with the Tea Party for years to get power and now they are swimming in the cesspool of QAnon, Breitbart, OANN, and other conspiratorial nonsense.
They went small.
America has had terrible men serve as president before and we’ve gone “small” several times. We’ve been divisive. We’ve had presidents lead the Trail of Tears, support slavery, back Jim Crow laws, use gays and lesbians as political pawns, and a whole host of other policies showcasing smallness. Divisiveness doesn’t take brains and toughness if you convince enough people you’re acting in their best interest. If you speak down to the American people, use fear as a political weapon, push conspiracy theories, and disregard facts, science, evidence and basic logic, enough people will go small with you so long as you convince them they’re better than the other side. It’s less important for your “team” to be right than to make the other side look wrong. Bonus points if you can put others down while cloaking yourself in the flag, the constitution, and the Bible!
But America can also be Big. We’ve seen it time and time again. When a leader with real political courage takes on popular opinion and takes the time to empower the people with facts and principles, the American people always rise up. Instead of treating us like two teams, real leaders create a common purpose. When we’ve been Big, Americans abolished slavery, expanded the right to vote to women, solved deadly diseases, won world wars, built grand cities, suburbs and transportation systems. We’ve invested in universities and reaped the benefits of scientific research. We’ve put men on the moon and been a voice for children’s rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, and religious liberty, freedom and peace at home and abroad. When we’re Big, the world turns to America for help and we don’t belittle our allies by publicly asking them to “pay their fair share.” We’re Bigger than that.
Donald Trump might fudge his height and weight on his medical records for his own vanity, but make no mistake, he lost the presidency this week because he is small. He is a small man. The Covid-19 pandemic was his last chance to show real leadership in crisis. Had he handled it well – even honestly – he would probably have been re-elected. He didn’t. He gave us more lies, more finger pointing, and more conspiracies without a shred of empathy. The public didn’t buy it and finally had enough of this uninformed, inexperienced carnival barker who couldn’t even keep himself, his family, and staff safe from the virus.
Last Tuesday, 75 million (and growing as ballots are counted) citizens showed up in an unprecedented repudiation of a sitting American President seeking re-election. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Nebraska’s second congressional district all flipped from red to blue precisely because they’d had enough of the small ball. They know what America’s great leaders have always known. “Greatness” requires inherent goodness and decency. Leaders talk up to their followers, share the credit, and take the heat. They avoid pettiness. They go Big.
Rob Ellsworth is a partner and cofounder of The Majority Group in Washington, D.C. He served 5 members of Congress, in both political parties, as one of the youngest legislative directors and chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. Ellsworth is a native Ohioan and graduate of Georgetown University.
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