COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 14, 2016 — Something that has been lost in the press’s amateur psychoanalyses of Donald Trump is the impact his candidacy has already had on Americans. Millions of Americans have become enthused about politics, many for the first time, and have attended Trump rallies and voted for him in their states’ primaries. Many have crossed party lines to do so.
What is it about Trump that has caught America’s attention? How has he managed to excite voters in a year when so many candidates have not?
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Trump has tapped into an essential tool of successful leaders: pride of country. He follows a series of great leaders whose names still command respect and a sense of pride among their countrymen.
That gives hope for the future, hope for an America that’s still that shining city on a hill, where any man or woman may achieve great things with effort.
Vive la France!
French President Charles de Gaulle and American presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan each in his way exemplified great leadership. Each radiated pride of country, irrepressible optimism and the strength of character to punch through the national malaise to allow pride to flourish.
Each returned his countrymen to their glory days. Each fought against negativity and narcissism. Each eschewed irony in favor of unapologetic love of country.
Charles de Gaulle, 1890-1970, was a French general and statesman. He was the leader of Free France (1940-44) and the head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic (1944-46). In 1958, he founded the Fifth Republic and was elected the 18th president of France, a position he held until his resignation in 1969. He was the dominant figure of France during the Cold War, and his memory continues to influence French politics.
Politics of Grandeur
During the Cold War, de Gaulle launched his “Politics of Grandeur,” asserting that France as a major power should not rely on other countries such as the U.S. for its national security and prosperity. He pursued a policy of “national independence.”
He restored cordial Franco-German relations to create a European counterweight to the Anglo-American and Soviet spheres of influence. He opposed the development of a supranational Europe, favoring a Europe of sovereign nations, and twice vetoed Britain’s entry in the European Community.
Consider de Gaulle’s oddly prescient rhetoric:
Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idee de la France.
(All my life I have had a certain idea of France.)
Je vous ai compris!
(I have understood you!)
Les hommes peuvent avoir des amis, pas les hommes d’Etat.
(Men can have friends, statesmen cannot.)
America’s Camelot: “The best and the brightest”
President John F. Kennedy brought “the best and brightest” minds into his administration. He and his fashionable wife, Jackie, extolled American culture as they highlighted American artists and thinkers.
Jackie viewed the White House as a national repository of history and hunted down dusty pieces of art and furniture to be restored to their rightful places.
Kennedy, facing down a Soviet nuclear threat just off the Florida coast, emphasized America’s exceptionalism and lofty position as peacekeeper in a dangerous world. He clearly laid out his view of the nation in his memorable inaugural address in 1961. Not surprisingly, many phrases contained in that famous speech, like those contained in Lincoln’s oft-quoted Gettysburg Address, have made their way into the American lexicon years after his death:
“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.
Read also: John F. Kennedy, a champion of freedom
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place … the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war … Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Cowboy visions of American exceptionalism
Perhaps no American presidential candidate has suffered more slings and arrows than Republican Ronald Reagan, the cowboy Hollywood actor.
Said Christopher Hitchens June 14, 1986, in the Nation, “Ronald Wilson Reagan knows a thousand ways of being sentimental, hypocritical and cheap.”
Said Andy Rooney Feb. 22, 1987, in the Chicago Sun Times,
“Reagan bashers know no middle ground … ‘What an idiot!’ is their idea of how to start a conversation … They don’t have a conciliatory bone in their bodies. They feed the birds all winter, cry during sad movies and hold the door open for elderly people, but they wouldn’t give Reagan the time of day if they owned the Timex watch company.”
Yet Michael Duffy and Michael Scherer wrote for Time Magazine Jan. 27, 2011, that no less a liberal and enemy of conservatism than President Barack Obama saw fit to wrap himself in the cloak of Reaganism in a meeting with him, where “it became clear to several in the room that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln’s team of rivals or Kennedy’s Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier when he arrived in the Oval Office.”
Read also: The Reagan Revolution in the 1980 campaign
In an homage to Reagan for USA Today, Obama observed that Reagan recognized the American people’s hunger for accountability and change.
Like his policies or not, President Obama recognized the leadership skills of his partisan predecessor. Historians agree that President Reagan helped to redefine the purpose of government and pressured the Soviet Union to end the Cold War.
His faith in American exceptionalism continued unabated and unapologetically throughout his life:
“Democracy is worth dying for because it is the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”
“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
And, Reagan wasn’t above expressing humor to lighten the national dialogue:
“It has been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”
“I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress.”
A renewed American sense of mission
Presumptive candidate Trump is being labeled as a vulgarian and a reality TV star. His populism is being used to beat him over the head. He dares to be different and to stand apart from the politicians who have taken the people’s money and votes with little to show for it.
No one can yet predict if his brashness and consummate individualism as well as his single-handed destruction of political correctness will work. But the man’s sense of country, of mission and of his own capabilities bear stunning resemblance to other great leaders.
All this may not have the resonance and tone of “Ask not what your country can do for you.” But Trump’s message has a certain timeliness and appropriateness in 2016, as he tells the nation’s partisans, “You’re fired!”