Donald Trump is obsessed with winning big.
“We’re going to win so much. And I say it and I mean it. We’re going to win so much,” Trump said in a stump speech that had all the swagger of a drunken stupor.
“We’re going to win at every single level. We’re going to win so much you’re going to beg me. You’re going to say, ‘Mr. President, we’re so tired of winning we can’t take it anymore. Please, don’t win anymore. Mr. President, please have one or two losses.’ And I’ll say, ‘No I won’t do that. I won’t do that because we are going to make America so great again,’” Trump said. “The American dream is dead but we’re going to make it bigger and better and strong than ever before.”
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Bigness. The impulse to maximalism seemingly—strangely—underscores everything Trump says and wants to do.
Take the infamous wall he wants to build between America and Mexico. It’s been criticized for everything from its costs to environmental feasibility, but, for Trump, its potential weakness lies elsewhere: at 1,933 miles long, it would fall short of the 13,171-mile Great Wall of China. Trump’s solution to this dimensional inferiority? His wall will be one foot higher than China’s.
As the campaign has gone on, the wall has gotten higher. After being told at last month’s CNN debate that a former Mexican president had categorically declared that his country would never pay for it, Trump, in an apparent fit of anger, announced that the wall would now be ten feet taller.
Then there’s Trump on the military. Speaking last September on the deck of the decommissioned USS Iowa, a battleship that served in World War II, Trump said, “We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it.” Now perhaps a large military would be called for in light of a potential for armed conflict with Russia or China, but Trump has neither in his sights. He’s a Putin fan and is fond of the Chinese—because, among other things, their bridges are bigger than ours.
With Russia and China out of his sights, that leaves terrorist threats. “Nobody’s going to mess with us,” Trump said, touting his plans for the military. Presumably the thinking is that the small guys won’t pick on you if you’re big enough, which is exactly how terrorism works.
Trump’s obsession with bigness rears its mammoth head in some unexpected places. Field and Stream magazine asked Trump if he supported transferring the vast expanses of federally-owned lands in the West to the states—a classic stance of federalism-friendly conservatism.
Trump is not a big fan of the idea: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land,” Trump told the magazine.
Trump even makes a big deal over the small stuff. He’s proposed a $100 million ballroom in the White House so that visiting VIPs don’t suffer the indignity of meeting in a tent outdoors. He’s bragged that his private luxury jet—nicknamed “Trump Force One”—is bigger than the real thing. (Turns out, it isn’t.) “Huge” has become such a pervasive refrain in Trump-speak that his own particular way of saying it—yuge—has become something of a political neologism.
This is nothing new for Trump. He has made a career of building and buying skyscrapers. From the beginning, Trump has been chasing that universal, yet elusive, goal of all skyscraper owners: title to the tallest. As NPR put it in a report, “Back in the 1970s, The Donald wanted to build the biggest shopping mall on the East Coast, and New York City’s tallest building—150 stories.”
Trump would later bow out of the project due to financial troubles, but his quest for architectural greatness seemingly knew no bounds, as Bloomberg Business well summarizes it:
The 1980s was a steroidal decade. Trump bought an airline, a vast Palm Beach estate called Mar-a-Lago, and a yacht so big it inspired a song by the band Queen. He proposed the world’s tallest building and was considered for a job to build a City of God for Hare Krishnas in New Jersey, according to a news report at the time. He became an Atlantic City tycoon instead, calling his Trump Taj Mahal the world’s most expensive casino ever built.
In the mid-1990s, Trump bought the 70-story Bank of Manhattan Trust building, which fittingly once was in the running to be the world’s tallest building, before being eclipsed in short order by the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. In 2001, when he unveiled plans for a tower in Chicago, Trump declared it would be the tallest in the world, but its height was reportedly later docked out of security concerns.
We should call this obsession with bigness what it really is: the “idolatry of gigantism,” to use the memorable phrase of E.F. Schumacher, the twentieth century economist whose personalistic-focused studies of economics led him to Catholic social thought, and, from there, into the Church.
The theological locus for this critique is the biblical account of the building of the Tower of Babel, whose top would reach heaven, as Genesis 11:4 recounts. Against such manmade monstrosity, Genesis offers us the portrait of the true way to reach heaven: Jacob’s ladder, as envisioned by the patriarch in a dream in Genesis 28. The path to heaven would be a divinely fashioned one, not the construction of human efforts. And it is through humility, not hubris, that one could make such an ascent, as St. Augustine notes in the City of God.
The dignity of the small seems to be an enduring motif in Scripture. Genesis tells of the creation of the entire universe, but it was from seeming smallness of a garden that the first man was called to greatness. It was not to city dwellers but to a nomad, Abraham, that descendants as numberless as the stars and the sands were promised. And it was not an empire, but a nation of slaves that God chose as his people.
This brings us to the supreme paradox of the Christian faith: the Incarnation itself, in which the infinite Creator God fully assumed the nature of one of his finite creatures. It is a truth that is radically reinforced for us in the Eucharist. And it is a mystery that has shaped Christian spirituality. The great medieval mystic Nicholas of Cusa held that God was not only the absolute maximum being but also the minimum. St. Ignatius of Loyola declared that, “Not to be constrained by the greatest, but to be contained in the smallest is divine.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux had her “little way” to God.
America arguably has been at its greatest when it nurtured the small within the large. The genius of the American Founders was their ability to harmonize the best elements of the larger political units of history with those of the smaller units, thus avoiding the weaknesses of each. The American system of federalism—which left many matters to the states yet fully integrated them into one sovereign nation—evaded both the crushing centralization that inevitably seems to creep up large centralized states and the crippling chaos of smaller ones.
One American historian, William Morey, neatly summed it up in an article for the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1895:
The tendency toward the formation of large states, which had shown itself in the previous periods of the world’s history, had either failed through an excessive spirit of local independence; or else where it had succeeded it had almost uniformly been attended by the decay of local freedom and autonomy. In ancient times the city-states of Greece had been followed by the all-embracing imperialism of Rome; in more modern times the petty sovereignties of feudal Europe had been absorbed by the autocratic monarchies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Some 40 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the work of Alexis de Tocqueville shows how the principles inherent in federalism had become deeply ingrained in American society. He noted that individuals alone would be unable to resist the encroaching tyranny. Because equality of conditions had leveled American society, it lacked a powerful aristocratic class to oppose excessive centralization. Instead, American individuals had combined together to form voluntary associations. Writing in Democracy in America, Tocqueville warned that,
If each citizen did not learn, in proportion as he individually becomes more feeble and consequently more incapable of preserving his freedom single-handed, to combine with his fellow citizens for the purpose of defending it, it is clear that tyranny would unavoidably increase together with equality. (2.2.5.)
Just as the powers of the states balanced out the power of the federal government, so also the voluntary associations were a counterweight to government power in general. One could extend this notion even further: precisely because they remained voluntary associations, they did not overwhelm the rights and prerogatives of the many individuals who constituted them. Just as the free associations curtailed the government so also the freedom of the individuals within them ensured they did not become a form of private despotism. This was the greatness of American democracy: at every level of society, the larger things supported, and, in turn, were checked by the smaller ones.
One magnificent expression of the American spirit is the Statue of Liberty. Giant though it was, it was meant to be a beacon of hope to the humble and meek, as Emma Lazarus’ poem recognizes:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The “brazen giant of Greek fame” to which the poem refers is indicated in its title: “The New Colossus.” That was Colossus of Rhodes, erected by that city to memorialize its victory over the Macedonians in 305 BC. The Statue of Liberty actually stands higher than the colossus. But its bigness is not a boast. Its message is not conquest but compassion. Its commanding height is not a warning to would-be invaders but a welcome to the weary.
The contrast with Trump’s distorted vision of immigration could not be starker. Now, it is true that inside his monstrous wall Trump has said he would install a “big, beautiful door” to let in all the legal immigrants. But it’s not an open-door invitation. In addition to limiting migrant families based on merit, Trump said he would temporarily ban all Muslims entering the United States as a response to domestic terrorism.
Putting aside, for a moment, substantive questions about policy, does Trump’s rhetoric of crass gigantism matter?
It most certainly does. Style and substance are never completely separate but always exist in symbiosis with each other. The obsession with bigness, the constant braggadocio and belittling of others, the pursuit of sheer material greatness—all come with their accompanying vices of intemperance, pride, lack of empathy, and avarice. It absolutely matters.
None of this, therefore, necessarily impeaches specific policies. Securing the border, rebuilding the military, and retaining the federal lands are all policy goals that have their sensible exponents. It is, rather, Trump’s ideology of gigantism with which he approaches these issues that should be of no small concern to American voters, particularly Catholics.
(Photo credit: Wikicommons)