It’s common knowledge that Donald Trump was not the first presidential candidate to use the slogan, “Make America great again”, though he was probably the first to print it on a baseball cap. Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on the cosmetically more inclusive call-to-arms, “Let’s make America great again”.
Yet while we could ponder the change in tone provided by a single word, and while it is clear that Reagan possessed an actorly charm that Trump decidedly lacks, the two men were very similar in their attitudes to what really makes America great.
For America was indeed great, once upon a time. It had the Great Plains, on which vast herds of buffalo roamed in majesty (until they were slaughtered in their millions from passing railway trains). It had great rivers like the Colorado and the Shenandoah (until the water was drawn off to service tacky resorts and casinos, or pumped full of agri-industry toxins). And, for now at least, it has the Great Basin, a hugely diverse and geographically varied area that spans Nevada, Oregon and Utah, running into California, Idaho and Wyoming.
This extraordinarily beautiful if at times severe landscape not only contains a number of natural monuments and parks, it is also home to some of the longest-living organisms on the planet (some Great Basin bristlecone pines live for more than 4,000 years).
Anyone looking for greatness, then, need look no further: partly as a result of its forbidding terrain and remoteness, the Great Basin has retained much of its primal wildness, and so, its grandeur. Yet, just as Reagan was blind to the greatness of America’s redwood forests (in 1966, when he was running for governor of California, he remarked, “A tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”), so Trump is unable to see how important the Great Basin is to the fabric not only of the American landscape but of the nation’s identity.
This summer, after the California wildfires, the Denver Post reported that the Trump administration wants to create “strips of land known as ‘fuel breaks’ on about 1,000 square miles of land” in the Great Basin, even though there is little evidence that the measure would be effective in preventing fires from spreading, and would almost certainly compromise a number of irreplaceable habitats. At the same time, plans to allow fracking over the West are being extended all the time. Only expensive rearguard actions in the courts have slowed, though not yet stopped, the Trump juggernaut. Meanwhile, the US dwindles, becoming ever pettier and ever less great.
Another historical signal of American greatness is that, for a time, the US was a world-leader in protecting its wild land. Now, with these dangerous encroachments on America’s most beautiful landscapes, along with new moves to “modernise” the Endangered Species Act, precious habitats could be ruined for ever by fracking and logging companies, while a dizzying range of America’s most beautiful flora and fauna is about to be exposed to further and more deadly threats. It may be a cliché, but it is also true that with greatness comes great responsibility. We shall be judged by our descendants, and those who received – and squandered – the most will be the most harshly judged. That, too, is a cliché – but it is no less true for that.
Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace