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Are We Still Doing “Keep America Great”?

Trump is going to need a new slogan.
April 29, 2020
Are We Still Doing “Keep America Great”?

1. Keep America Great?

On Friday night I was standing outside my local pizza place waiting for someone in a mask and gloves to come outside and hand me two extra-large pies, because customers are no longer allowed inside.

There were four other people standing outside waiting. All of us also in gloves and masks.

Then a gentleman and his wife pulled up to the curb to join the line. They stayed in their pick-up truck. On the back bumper was a Gadsen flag sticker and a Trump 2016 “Make America Great Again” sticker. The couple were both on the older side—I’d guess early 70s. They were white. Obviously.

I watched them sitting there in the cab of their pick-up, chatting happily. And then I looked around at all of the closed stores in the strip center. And I thought about the latest unemployment numbers which had just come out—26.5 million people out of work in just five weeks.

And then I thought about the latest milestone we had just reached in the pandemic: 50,000 dead Americans.

When I looked back at this nice couple I thought, “Are you driving around with that bumper sticker ironically?”

Because this is not great. This—the world of masks and closed stores, body-bags and unemployment checks—is pretty forking far from great.

It was at that moment that I realized that the Trump 2020 campaign has a serious branding problem. Because as of right now, this is still the official campaign slogan:

That is . . . not going to work.

Because things are not great. Nobody thinks they’re great. You might say, actually, that things are as terrible as they’ve been in living memory.

Donald Trump is not going to win reelection by proposing to Americans that they “Keep America Great!”

I suppose he might be able to sell some sort of “don’t change horses midstream” message. He might be able to disqualify Joe Biden as not being up to the job. These are low-percentage plays, but they’re not impossible.

“Vote for me and I’ll keep things just as awesome as they are right now” is a losing proposition. A 1932-level losing proposition. Any campaign that’s running on that idea in this environment is completely out of touch and in total denial about the state of the country.

One of the great moments in Spinal Tap is when the great Harry Shearer asks, “I raise a practical question at this point: Are we gonna do Stonehenge tomorrow?”

The Trump campaign is going to have a moment like that. Because it’s going to be obvious that they have to either change the campaign’s slogan or cede the entire idea of “change” to Biden.

2. Biden’s VP

Ric Patterson has an excellent piece up today going through the short list for Joe Biden’s veep pick. You should read it.

My own view of what Biden ought to be doing is somewhat different than Ric’s.

If you were to try to distill the state of the race into two precepts, it would be this:

  • Biden holds a large and steady lead.
  • The race is a pure referendum on Trump.

That’s it. That’s the state of the race. If those dynamics hold, Biden will win.

There is a belief among some Democrats that Biden needs to use his VP pick to “energize” the party and turn out voters. I would suggest that every result we’ve seen since 2017 has suggested that a majority of voters are eager to walk over flaming broken glass mixed with hot coals to vote against Donald Trump.

They’ve done it in house races and statewide legislature races. In primaries and in generals. Donald Trump might be the greatest turnout engine in the history of the Democratic party.

I would submit to you that all Joe Biden needs to do to get voters to turn out in record numbers in November is have a pulse. Because there is nothing that any VP could give him that Trump won’t give him all on his own.

In this environment, the VP pick is almost entirely downside risk.

If Biden were to pick a VP who became an issue in some way—in any way—it would give the Trump campaign a handhold from which they could try to turn the dynamics of the election around and make it about someone else.

In other words: Biden’s VP can’t help him much, but could hurt him a lot. So first, do no harm.

If I were advising Biden, I’d want him to pick the most boring, governing-choice available. Someone like Sherrod Brown. If you think Biden absolutely has to take a woman because he said so on a debate stage once, then Amy Klobuchar is probably a good pick because she’s pre-vetted and she’s as close to grown-up and anodyne as there exists in the party right now.

When you’re behind in a race you need to snap the rubber band. When you’re ahead in the race—and especially when you’re as far ahead as Biden is—your upside is limited and you have to hedge against your downside risks.

And you don’t want to give the other side anything to grab onto that might help them change the dynamics.

3. Ranger School

Outside got a former Army Ranger to go back to Ranger school, do the experience again, and write about it for them. It’s great:

In late February of 2019, I join 363 soldiers and officers comprising Ranger Class 05-19 at Camp Rogers, which occupies a remote corner of Fort Benning, just outside Columbus, Georgia. These young men, and a few women, are starting what is arguably the most demanding course in the military. (The Navy SEALS would beg to differ. Debate about whose training is tougher is never-ending.)

For the next 61 days, I’ll track them as they shed their ranks and any past military accomplishments. The course they’re taking on is divided into three parts: Benning Phase; Mountain Phase, at Camp Frank D. Merrill, in north Georgia; and Swamp Phase, at Camp James E. Rudder, on the Florida Panhandle. Aside from a few short trips home to check on my family, I’ll lug my own, much lighter rucksack alongside the students, over mountains and through swamps, as I experience what I believe is the first opportunity for a journalist to embed with a class all the way, observing every aspect of their training.

The students will be sleep-deprived, often getting only two or three hours’ rest on rugged terrain, with little more than a poncho to shield them from the elements. They’ll be perpetually hungry, their daily field diet of two MREs providing only 2,500 calories, a fraction of the estimated 5,000 they’ll burn lugging 90-pound rucks up and down mountains. By graduation day, many will have lost 20 pounds or more, their gaunt faces sometimes shocking family and friends who attend.

Why do they voluntarily subject themselves to this? First Sergeant James Lovett, a seasoned veteran of the Ranger regiment and an experienced Ranger instructor (RI), puts the question to me like so: “Is Ranger School primarily supposed to be a suckfest, or are we trying to teach something? Because one comes at the expense of the other.”

In modern America, lives of relative comfort have led some outdoor athletes to seek challenges designed to push them out of their physical and mental comfort zones, in the form of pursuits such as CrossFit, ultrarunning, and adventure races like the Spartan series. It’s tempting to view Ranger School as an extreme example of this urge. But to an extent I never fully appreciated as a student, I’ll discover that it’s as much an exercise in teamwork as an assessment of individual prowess.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.