President Joe Biden denounced “extreme MAGA ideology” at a recent speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I’ve been to Independence Hall, but never did I picture it like this, lit in a garish red light:
Readers here know I’m critical of Biden and Donald Trump. I don’t want either man to get a second term. And MAGA, as in make America great again, is a movement that has cult-like elements in the way it elevates Trump as some kind of leader/savior figure. Being critical of MAGA is one thing, but Biden’s speech had all the subtlety of the red-tinged image above.
Having watched too many episodes of “Star Trek,” what I think of here is Red Alert. But painting all Trump supporters with the same red brush only aggravates tension and division.
Sorry, I don’t see my MAGA neighbor as my enemy. He or she is a fellow American, probably one who’s frustrated with the system as it exists today and is seeking an alternative to politics as usual. The shameful thing is our country’s political duopoly, which offers only two choices, Biden or a Biden clone versus Trump or a Trump clone. Maybe the “enemy within” is the duopoly itself?
Biden’s speech was disheartening. The way to win people over is not to paint your rival in red. Give people hope. Give them meaningful reforms. A $15 federal minimum wage. Affordable health care. Higher education that doesn’t lead to huge personal debt. Environmental policies that preserve the earth and address climate change. An end to gargantuan military budgets and overseas wars. Heck, I’ll settle for potable drinking water in Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan.
Railing against an “enemy” is easy. Sharing the fruits of America equitably among all Americans is the real challenge. Biden pushed a big red “easy” button that placed his followers on red alert against the MAGA foe, as if they weren’t our fellow Americans but a quasi-Klingon empire of aliens out to attack and conquer. It’s a move both wrong and wrongheaded. It’s also yet one more reminder that America needs new political parties and a new direction.
MAGA: Make America Great Again. That was Donald Trump’s slogan for 2016. He obviously believes he has succeeded, since his slogan for 2020 is Keep America Great. “Great” is obviously vague, protean, and labile in meaning, but what does it mean to Trump?
It’s a serious question that deserves consideration. Here, to my mind, is how Trump thinks he’s made America great, keeping in mind that greatness to Trump is all about that which produces adulation for, well, one Donald J. Trump.
Military might. Trump loves to brag about how he’s “restored” the military, making it bigger and badder than ever.
More riches for the richest. Hence that huge tax break for the richest, perhaps the signature achievement of his first term.
A galloping stock market. Well, until Covid-19.
More power and money for Trump and his family. Trump views greatness in terms of what’s best for him and his family empire.
Walls to keep out “the other.” For Trump, part of being great is denying that status to others. A world of great heads like Trump demands lots of little people suffering.
A neutered press (the “enemy of the people”). For Trump, the press is his foil, his lapdog, his trumpet, and his enemy, all in one. When it’s dancing to his tune, Trump knows he’s winning – and he feels like a winner, too.
Permanent partisan divide in which the Democrats are seen as almost demonic. Trump needs an enemy to measure himself against, and “Demoncrats” like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are tailor-made rivals to belittle, which helps to make him feel bigger.
Near-total dismissal of expertise, especially of science (climate change as a “hoax”). A “very stable genius” needs no help from others; he is omniscient. He even knows the best way to tackle and treat a pandemic!
Always blaming someone else for any setback. Greatness, to Trump, means never having to say you’re sorry.
Disenfranchising or discouraging as many “bad” Americans as possible from voting. Not every American can wrap their heads around Trump’s greatness. Those who can’t really don’t deserve to vote.
In all seriousness, Trump is great at one thing: shameless deception. The man knows the craft of the con. He often can fool most of the people most of the time. Imagine the good a man like this could do if he had empathy, ethics, and truly sought to serve others. But Trump serves only himself. A petty tyrant, he has commanded the attention of Americans in an almost unprecedented way, only to divide them and diminish democracy.
Herein lies a conundrum: How has a man whose spirit is so small, whose sense of service is so shriveled, whose judgment is so un-great, convinced so many that greatness lies within their grasp if only they listen to him, follow him, cheer him on, and reelect him?
Great may indeed be a protean concept – but by any definition the greatness of America does not reside in enabling or empowering one Donald J. Trump.
News that the Army is moving to a new, retro, uniform modeled on World War II-era designs got my military friends buzzing. Not so much about the “new” (old) uniform, but all the badges, ribbons, tabs, and related baubles and doodads that adorn U.S. military uniforms today, a topic I’ve written about before at TomDispatch.com and here at BV.
First, the new uniform. World War II was the last “great” war America truly won, so it’s hardly surprising the Army is reaching back to the era of the “greatest generation” and the “band of brothers.” Why not tap nostalgia for that “good” war, when Americans banded together against the Nazis and the Japanese? It’s also consistent with Trump’s message about “Making America Great Again”; we can even substitute “the Army” for “America” and keep MAGA.
For Trump, this mythical “great” America seems to center on the 1950s, whereas for the Army it’s WWII and the 1940s. Still, these MAGA uniforms and hats seem to say the Army and America are currently not great, and that the path to greatness is a retrograde one, a return to the past. (That return apparently does not include a revival of the draft and America’s citizen-soldier tradition.)
But it was an image of Dwight D. Eisenhower that got my military friends buzzing. Ike led the invasion of D-Day and was the architect of victory in Europe as supreme allied commander, yet you’d never know it from his simple, almost unadorned, uniform. Consider the image below of Ike that accompanied the story in the New York Times:
As one of my military correspondents, a retired command sergeant major who fought in the infantry in Vietnam, wrote to me:
[Ike was] A man from a cow town in Kansas, Abilene, who was a lower rung grad at West Point and came back from WW I as a Major. Twenty years later as a LTC enters WW II and comes back a Five Star General, one of only about five ever made and he has two, count them, two tiny rows of ribbons, no hero badges, not even a bolo badge to show what a great marksman he is, no para wings, no ranger tab, no CIB/EIB and FIVE, COUNT THEM, FIVE STARS on his shoulders. He also ran for, won, and was a pretty damned good [Republican president] for eight years. The Generals we have had since, starting with Westy [William Westmoreland] were all losers although they all had badges, ribbons, medals, patches all over their sorry asses BUT no VK medals, no VVN medals, no Victory Medals from any damned place I can think of. Well, maybe Grenada or Panama, or a bar fight in Columbus, GA. Home of Ft Benning… Something to think about, eh?
All those “bells and whistles” on military uniforms today “are like Vanity License Plates for one’s car,” this same command sergeant major noted. Speaking of vanity, a retired colonel told me there’s a company “that’ll miniaturize your ‘rack’ so you can wear your ribbons on your lapel—all of them—when you separate [from the military]. LOOK AT ME: I’M A HERO!”
One thing is certain: We have a ribbon- and badge-chasing military. (General David Petraeus was the worst.) People literally want to wear their “achievements” on their sleeve — or blouse — or jacket, even after they leave the military. Military members chase these baubles. They “achieve.” But what about quieter achievements that you can’t wear? How about integrity, honesty, commitment, fairness? What about intelligence? Dedication to the craft of arms that doesn’t involve getting a fancy badge like jump wings from France?
The Army’s retro-chic uniforms won’t be of any value if we keep valuing the wrong things. A Boy Scout military that keeps chasing merit badges for the sake of promotion of self is a very bad thing, irrespective of uniform design.
Yet there’s another side to all this. As my colonel-friend put it:
Here’s the real cost of this ribbon chasing. There’s an enormous number of man-hours expended on writing and chasing the paperwork to award these doodads… At a time when the military is allegedly overtaxed and burned out, why are they wasting so much effort on this nonsense? Why are some units hiring editors to keep the decorations moving? In survey after survey, AF pilots cited decorations and other administrative nonsense, not deployments, as the reason they don’t want to stay in. But since generals groom and promote only those who think like them (having selected them when they were captains), nothing changes. “You have to take care of your people,” they say, and if you listen to E-9s [the senior enlisted] people are happiest when they get doodads.
As another close military friend put it: “And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of ribbons and badges today. A captain today will have as many ribbons as a circa-1944 two-star [general]. [In their new retro uniforms,] they’ll just look like extras in a war movie.”
In sum, a jury of my peers has come back with a verdict on the Army’s new retro uniform: Love the look, but can you please bring back as well the humble citizen-soldiers of Ike’s era, the ones who won wars without all the gratuitous self-promotion?
Every year, I watch a little of the NFL draft, one of America’s most revealing cultural displays. This year the draft was held in Nashville over two nights and one day. The NFL claimed 200,000 people showed up in Nashville for the draft, and indeed the outdoor audience resembled a mass political rally. Video boards and celebrities were everywhere. Last year, I wrote about the draft here, and so I won’t repeat those arguments. Suffice to say the draft is a massive commercial for the NFL and a massive exercise in nationalism.
Of course, the NFL is at pains to celebrate the military, and the military is at pains to boost recruitment, which lately has been disappointing. So predictably there was a prominent pro-military display during the draft. Early in the third round of the draft, there was a pause in the “auctioneering” of the athletes. Nine troops walked out in dress uniform: three Marines, two soldiers, two sailors, and two airmen. They stood at attention as the rally members chanted “USA! USA!” Then Lee Greenwood’s anthem came on: “God Bless the USA.” And the assembled masses sang along.
It was an exercise in pure, unadulterated, propaganda. “Proud to be an American,” indeed!
Last August, I wrote about sports and the military for TomDispatch.com, where I quoted this telling observation by Norman Mailer, which he made prior to the Iraq War in 2003:
“The dire prospect that opens, therefore, is that America is going to become a mega-banana republic where the army will have more and more importance in Americans’ lives… [D]emocracy is the special condition — a condition we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military, and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America already.”
A pre-fascistic atmosphere: a mass rally of 200,000 fans (fanatics?), applauding troops in uniform and singing about how proud they are to be Americans, where at least they know they’re free, as college athletes get auctioned off to NFL mega-millionaire and billionaire owners, all captured on gigantic video boards on prime-time television. Talk about making America great again!
Speaking of the Donald, Trump naturally had to get involved with the draft. One pro-Trump player who was drafted (Nick Bosa) had criticized ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had taken a knee at several games to raise consciousness of violence against blacks. Bosa had tweeted various insults against Kaepernick, calling him “Crappernick” and “a clown.” Trump, showing his usual leadership skills, urged Bosa in a tweet to “always stay true to yourself,” concluding “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Ah, “greatness” has so many different meanings, does it not? But something tells me America’s founders didn’t think “greatness” resided in the conjunction of sports, the military, corporations, and jingoistic shouts of “USA! USA!”