Many, many years ago, when I was a young student one rather iconoclastic teacher suggested to us that we needed to reconsider who were the “greatest” British monarchs … it was not, he said, Alfred the Great, nor Henry V nor even ‘Gloriana’ (Elizabeth I). The monarchs who did the most to make England English and Great Britain both Great and British, he said, were King John and, a few hundred years later, Mary Tudor.

Yes, that King John (1166 – 1216) … old John Lackland, who we usually remember, by those informed mostly by Hollywood’s version of the  tales of Robin Hood, as a dreadful fellow. He was also stupid and inept ~ so inept that he managed (1202-1214) to lose the almost Henry-eleanor-tombentire of Angevin Empire, and, therefore, unlike his parents, King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, he was not buried in Anjou, the seat (until then) of Plantagenet power, but had to settle for a grave in England (Worcester Cathedral) as, in many respects, the first really English King of modern England … more by circumstance than desire, to be sure, but he made England English, at last, after 150 years of Norman rule.

Mary Tudor is, of course, remembered as Bloody Mary and she, too, is generally, left out of polite discussions of the great monarchs ~ but she managed to lose England’s last foothold, Calais, on the European mainland, thus, once again, affirming the essential Englishness of England. John and Mary, our teacher said, deserved to be remembered for having rid us of the pernicious influence of the statist French.

All that to convince you to read an article in MacLean’s by Bruce Andersson, Chairman of Abacus Data (and father of Katie Purchase, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Director of Communications) about Donald Trump being an ‘agent of change’ who is forcing America to redefine its own ideas of greatness. “U.S. politicians,” Mr Anderson writes, “routinely unquestioningly refer to America as “the greatest nation on earth” as though it’s a birthright—something God gave, and Americans received … [but] … something’s different now. Even as Trump boasts that he is righting the ship, he has put America on a path of embarrassment in the world, and anxiety at home. Across the 37 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Centre, America’s image has suffered a brutal decline: 64 per cent had confidence in Obama, while only 22 per cent said the same thing about Trump. Favourable opinion of the U.S. has slid from 64 per cent to 49 per cent. Only in Russia and Israel is Trump seen as better than Obama … [and] … Trump said he’d put China in its place. No longer, he vowed, would China undermine America’s leadership. But the opposite is happening: China is embracing the challenge to fight climate change, campaigning for open trade relations, and listening to, not insulting, the rest of the world. China’s not perfect, but Trump’s America is making China’s imperfections seem modest and shrinking. And in response, American opinion of China has improved 7 points in the last year, according to Pew.

Bruce Anderson concludes that “His ballot question was about American greatness—and he’s causing a deeper reflection about what greatness is and isn’t. His core supporters remain delighted with his pugnacious style, but his approval rating is the worst of any president at this stage of their first term. He’s reminding people of the value of steady, thoughtful leadership, of accountability and the role of a free media, of the limits on America’s power to change the world and the value of working with other countries on common problems.

I think we saw American greatness in the 20th century …

… and I’ll forgive those who don’t know who Ralph Bunche or George Kennan were or why they were giants on the international stage and “great” Americans … but I think it has faded and all we see, now, is an occasional faint echo.

It may be that, as Mr Anderson says the polls suggest, President Trump has “made Americans, and many in the world at large, consider the values they hold dear.” If that’s true then it is long overdue … America has, in my opinion, been in (relative) decline since 1960. (By the way I think Britain was in (equally relative) decline from 1835.) America remains a great and, in many respects, even a noble global power but Donald Trump is a symptom of something deep and dark in the American body politic ~ in American society, indeed ~ not a cure.

One thought on “Greatness”

  1. 1835? 1832 saw the First Reform Act. 1839 saw the conversion of Peelite Conservatives into Gladstonian Liberals.

    And as to Trump appealing to something deeper and darker. Perhaps deeper. Perhaps a sense of the ploughman been equal in common sense to any graduate of any seminary. A sense of the self-evident.

    You cannot lead where you will not be followed. Texas is not Beijing and Ayrshire is not Paris. The Americans of Trump’s America are the heirs of the kirk and the meeting house and not the Cathedral.

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