Even if you don’t like Donald Trump you have to admit that “Make America Great Again” was a fabulous campaign slogan.
It recalled a happier time (without actually naming it), it exhorted us to action of some sort and it sounded reassuringly patriotic. It was vague enough to appeal to optimists generally, while leaving plenty of room for bitter and resentful voters to conclude that we were finally going back to the days when they ran the world.
But “Transition to Greatness”? What does that even mean?
That oddly awkward phrase was rolled out by President Trump on May 8, then tweeted and intoned by him ad nauseam in the days that followed. “That’s a phrase you’re going to hear a lot,” Trump said.
If you don’t think the new slogan sounds like the work of slick political professionals, well, you’re probably right. In a meeting last week with Republican lawmakers, the president bragged he’d just made the phrase up on the spot, which strikes me as entirely believable.
“It’s a great term. Just came out at this meeting. That’s right. It came out by accident,” he said, as if the phrase were some delightful but involuntary bodily function. “It was a statement and it came out and you can’t get a better one. 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. Transition to Greatness.”
Now, I hate to defend Madison Avenue’s ad copywriters, but phrases that pop out by accident are not necessarily the ones that sell the most product. Especially when they pop out of Trump.
I’m not saying it’s the dumbest presidential slogan ever. That dubious honor probably would have to go to New York Gov. Al Smith, who ran in 1928 against the “dry” candidates who favored Prohibition. One Smith campaign button, according to an article in the Guardian, sported the slogan “Vote for Al Smith and make your wet dreams come true.”
There’s also a long history of really awful puns. “We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52” was both dumb and vaguely threatening.
I probably don’t need to tell you which candidate used “Grant us another term.”
And here’s what Kansas Gov. Alf Landon used while running for president in 1936: “Let’s make it a Landon-slide.”
Modern-day slogans are often just as bad. For example, the Biden campaign has somehow become attached to “No Malarkey,” which sounds like code language for: “I am 77 years old and entirely out of touch with the world around me.” Or there was Jeb Bush’s “All in for Jeb,” which sounds like an invitation to a pool party.
Still, I found no other candidate whose slogan included the word “transition.”
Is there a more boring, bureaucratic, weaselly word? The only time the word “transition” is interesting is when it refers to someone who is changing genders or to someone dying.
Besides, doesn’t “Transitioning to Greatness” really mean:
“I have failed to make America great in my first four years, but there’s an election ahead so I am using the word ‘transition’ to imply that we’re making progress, because, even though I generally don’t mind lying, no one will buy that I’ve actually succeeded in making the country great — or that I’ll be able to anytime soon.”
That’s a lot of unhelpful messages to be sending in three simple words.
To make matters worse, Trump has already conceded that this promised transition will not be complete until — you guessed it — after Election Day. “We’re transitioning to greatness and the greatness is going to be in the fourth quarter but it’s really going to be next year,” he said.
For a million reasons, “Make America Great Again” was an infinitely superior slogan. But it turns out it wasn’t even his. It didn’t even come out of Trump by accident. It came out of Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he used the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” And it came out of Bill Clinton in his presidential announcement in 1992.
That didn’t stop Trump from trademarking it and then accusing Ted Cruz of trying to steal it from him in 2016. “I came up with it about a year ago, and I kept using it and everybody’s now using it,” Trump said at the time. “They’re all loving it.”
He won’t have that problem with “Transition to Greatness.”