But the problem with running on a slogan of “Keep America Great” at the moment is … well, look around. Nearly 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. The unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent, headed for 20 or 25 percent by the White House’s own estimates. Regardless of how you allocate responsibility for this crisis, things plainly aren’t great.
Thus was born “Transition to Greatness,” the third entry in Trump’s greatness suite, and by far the weakest. “Make America Great Again” was a promise; “Keep America Great” was a declaration of victory. “Transition to Greatness” is a confession of failure, a corporate-style euphemism that tries to spin a collapse as a success, replacing the ambition of 2016 with the wan incrementalism of 2020.
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The phrase first popped up on May 7, shortly after Trump first publicly acknowledged that the death toll might reach 100,000, and the day the Labor Department reported that 3.2 million Americans had filed new jobless claims.
“I’m viewing the third quarter as being a very important quarter because that’s—as I said, that’ll be a transition,” he said at a White House event. “I think you could almost say a ‘transition into greatness,’ because I think next year we’re going to have a phenomenal year—a phenomenal year, economically.”
Trump must have liked the sound of that, because he used it several times at an event the next day, and it has since become a staple of his remarks and Twitter feed. “We can go to Madison Avenue and get the best, the greatest geniuses in the world to come up with a slogan but that’s the slogan we’re going to use,” he said May 8. “‘Transition to Greatness.’”
In fact, the phrase is a flop, both as coinage and as messaging. Start with the language: Is there anything less exciting than a transition? There’s a reason Barack Obama didn’t offer “transition” you could believe in, because nothing inspires less enthusiasm. It’s flat, dull, and corporate—the sort of language that executives use when they’re trying to spin a setback as a minor blip on the way to success, which is of course exactly what Trump is doing here. It’s not hat material.
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“Transition to Greatness” is bad political rhetoric too. Trump said he’d make America great. Now he’s acknowledging that since America isn’t great, he either couldn’t make it great, or he failed to keep it great—betraying the two simple guarantees of the past two slogans. Reagan asked whether voters were better off than they were four years ago; Joe Biden might ask: Is America greater than it was four years ago? and point to Trump’s own slogan as evidence it is not.
“My verdict is that ‘Transition to Greatness’ is, at the very least, confusing,” writes Mark McKinnon, a former spinmeister for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. “But it is problematic, even more so, because it runs counter to the narrative Trump successfully pushed in 2016. He’s pushing, instead, a lot of snake oil: He hasn’t delivered the greatness yet, but try him again, and he’ll deliver it next time.”