There’s no doubting the genius of “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump’s 2016 election slogan. While the campaign’s operations were chaotic, the candidate volatile, and many of the policies contradictory, the phrase offered a clear, coherent summary of Trump’s redemptive vision for the country. It was a testament to Trump’s decades as a master marketer, though he took the phrase from Ronald Reagan; the president is a magpie, clever at borrowing and attracted to shiny things.
The one danger of a slogan so simple is that it offers a simple test for voters: After four years, Trump has either made America great again or he hasn’t. The president long ago made the logical choice to assert that he had, even before he had any evidence to back it up. Days before he’d been inaugurated, he told a Washington Post reporter that his reelection slogan would be “Keep America Great,” though he has repeatedly re-announced it as “new,” garnering credulous press attention each time. The phrase wasn’t quite as punchy as its predecessor—there was a reason Trump continued to employ MAGA, even in the self-proclaimed KAG era—and it raised the question of what the point of a second term would be, if he’d already made America great, but it sufficed for a while.
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.
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.
“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.”
When greatness will arrive is anyone’s guess. Maybe in the third quarter, as he said May 7. Maybe next year. Perhaps it “has started, ahead of schedule.” Maybe the real transition to greatness was the friends we made along the way. If Obama borrowed the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals to describe his White House, the historian’s Wait Till Next Year might provide a better epithet for the Trump administration.
All of this blunts one of Biden’s greatest weaknesses: the bland incrementalism he is promising, in place of a major change. (The Democrat’s nostalgic approach echoes nothing so much as Trump’s 2016 message, as I’ve argued, though they long for different regions of the past.) If Trump also has nothing more to offer than bland incrementalism, though, it weakens the contrast between them.
The notion that Trump can deliver on his promise of a transition to greatness beggars belief, too. Imagine that Trump wins reelection, a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available quickly, and the economy bounces back quickly—all three of which are hardly chip shots. Assuming all that, what reason is there to believe that Trump will get done in a second term what he couldn’t accomplish in the first? Put differently, what will he have next year that he doesn’t already? Even if Republicans both hold the Senate and take back the House in the fall—not the expected outcome at the moment, but if Trump wins, his coattails could be long—that would bring only a return to the situation in 2017 and 2018, when most of Trump’s initiatives (save a major tax cut) came up short.
It’s extremely rare for a president’s second term to be more productive than his first. Second terms are for consolidating achievements, and outside of his impressive reworking of the federal judiciary, which would continue, it’s not clear what legislative successes Trump has to consolidate. (Trump’s overhaul of governing norms, as well as his erosion of checks on the executive branch, is a different story.)
Offering only a “transition to greatness” tries to elide all these difficulties by subsuming them into a gradual process, but in practice it only underscores the problems. People don’t pick candidates based on campaign slogans, of course, and this clunker is unlikely to sway any votes. Nonetheless, the phrase’s weaknesses show the challenge Trump faces in convincing voters that he should get a second term—and that greatness remains within reach.