Aristotle described happiness as “human flourishing” which he said involved activity and exhibiting virtue, both of which should be in accord with reason. It’s no stretch to say America was, from its beginning, an Aristotelian state. Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit” of happiness is tied inexorably to virtue, to reason, and to action. When John F. Kennedy called upon Americans to ask what they can do for their country he was echoing Jefferson’s idealism—happiness is crafted in action, and action must be in the service of others.
My “take” on Donald Trump is that he is decidedly un-American precisely because his call “to make America great again” has virtually nothing to do with the contentment or well being of our citizens. He espouses no virtues; promotes no civic minded activity in his followers; and virtually all his rhetoric is driven by pathos as opposed to logos. He is not at all interested in human flourishing.
Many have described his taint of small “f” fascism. His appeals to racism and misogyny are well documented. No one can know just how real these impressions are or to what extent his contemptible language reflects his personal thinking. But we can analyze his campaign statements in terms of American virtue.
It’s in this latter area I believe our nation’s broadcasters are letting us down. Because no one demands that he talk about virtues, he’s free to whip up fear and loathing. Trump’s campaign is predicated on extremist lies. To echo Barack Obama’s last State of the Union Address, the United States is not disrespected in the world. We are not a failing state. We have a vigorous economy. We are safer from attack than any other nation on earth. A true presidential call to action in this time, which is to say a virtuous campaign, an American campaign would incite our citizens to action—whether on behalf of the poor, the climate, our infrastructure, the aspirations of young people. Trump merely tells his followers that others are stealing their right to happiness, a stance many have compared to Hitler’s rhetoric.
In America we know that no one can steal your right to happiness. The freedom to strive is the measure of our diversity and our national aspiration.
Donald J. Trump is many things. But “American” he is not, except to say, he belongs to a long tradition of ugly political snake oil salesmen best characterized by H.L. Mencken:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
With Trump, it’s all Hobgoblins, zero of happiness; not even the promise of happiness, for his slogan “Make America Great Again” is one of Mencken’s goblins, signifying greatness for only some, not others. No virtue to be found that way. But plenty of vicious activity.