“Make America great again.” Donald Trump’s campaign slogan implies its critique. Isn’t America great already?
Apparently not. In recent days, though, Trump’s distaste for America has come clearer. His frontal assault on the basic legitimacy of the country’s presidential election is more than a rationalization — it’s a tell, a revealed preference, a window into how little regard Trump has for the country he seeks to lead.
America is great. And one of the reasons it’s great is that it has a long history of peaceful, predictable transitions of power. We venerate George Washington for stepping down at a time when his countrymen would have made him king. The Constitution was amended to ensure no leader, no matter how beloved, could hold the White House for more than eight years.
The tradition is so strong that in 2000, Al Gore conceded the presidency, even though he won more votes than the victor and only lost Florida, if he lost Florida, because of a confusing butterfly ballot. The end of his campaign came through a Supreme Court decision, not a full and fair recount. He could have contested the outcome. But he didn’t.
Gore loved America. He believed it great, and thus worth protecting. “Let there be no doubt,” he said, “while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
This spirit isn’t just noble; it’s essential for democracies to survive. “Graceful concessions by losing candidates constitute a sort of glue that holds the polity together, providing a cohesion that is lacking in less-well-established democracies,” writes Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at UC Riverside, and co-author of Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy.
“Graceful concession” does not appear to be the direction Trump is going. “Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted and should be in jail,” he tweeted on Saturday. “Instead she is running for president in what looks like a rigged election.”
“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary,” Trump clarified on Sunday, “but also at many polling places - SAD.”
So much for that.
The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary - but also at many polling places - SAD— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
The election isn’t being rigged. And the worst the media is doing to Trump is covering the things he has said, and the things he has done. Trump’s problem isn’t a conspiracy — it’s himself. But that’s almost beside the point.
Trump is pouring gasoline atop the foundation of America’s democracy and playing with a match. His promise to make America great again is backed by a threat to burn it down. There’s much to be said about that, but the simplest point is that it’s fundamentally unpatriotic. It shows how little Trump understands, or values, what America has built.
In his endorsement of anyone-but-Trump, Scott Alexander touches on Trump’s disinterest in America’s political institutions. “If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1 percent of the work, and building the better ones is 99 percent of it,” he writes. “Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the ‘destroying the current system’ step and expecting the ‘build a better one’ step to happen on its own. That never works.”
Trump has now gone further than this, though. I have some sympathy for the utopians who dedicate their lives to building the better system, even if they overestimate their chances of success. At this point, though, Trump is simply an arsonist. Sure, he would like to build a better system. But if he’s denied the chance, he’s just as happy torching this one out of spite. You wouldn’t do that if you valued what this country is, if you took seriously how rare its sustained political success has been.
“Make America great again” was Trump’s campaign slogan, but his closing argument is grimmer: Nice country you got here. Shame if something should happen to it.