The promise that headlines this post is a quote from President Trump’s victory speech. It was a throw-away line — I doubt he had any sense as to how massive a promise it really was. But I want to talk about what that promise could mean, if someone were serious in making it.
I first heard the line recently, on an episode of Studio 360 on political art. In a segment with John McNaughton, while discussing his painting, “The Forgotten Man”, they ran a clip from Trump’s speech, as follows:
Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
Kurt Anderson, the host of Studio 360, pointed out that the ‘forgotten man’ was an idea popularized by FDR in the Great Depression. Andersen was implying Trump did not know where it came from, that he or his speechwriters probably picked it up due to the popularity of McNaughton’s painting on social media.
Here’s the thing: ‘forgotten’ is not key word in the quote. That would be ‘potential’. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. Let that soak for a moment.
What could Trump possibly mean? A crude read is simply that Americans will get richer — will earn more money, and enjoy the trappings that more money brings. This lines up well with the rough populism at the core of his economic platform.
But taken literally, his words translate to something much deeper: perfect justice for America. That is a staggering promise for any candidate to make, even more so for Donald Trump.
To see how ‘full potential’ gets us there, you have to appreciate a concept implicit in that phrase: being. It’s an awkward gerund, but it means pretty much what it says: what we are and how much we can be. Trump promised us our full potential being.
Social scientists often use a way of thinking about problems called the ‘ladder of abstraction’. It’s the idea that if you can’t solve a problem, you move to a more abstract version of it. Economics do this all the time: “All things being equal…”. Jim Rosenau used to tell his students to ask, “Of what is this an instance…”. Being, in this sense, is a pretty high rung on the ladder.
In that abstract sense, our lives are negotiations of potential being. In practical terms, we express this in our desire for a good job, for high social status, nice house, those sorts of things. Almost all of what we want is ‘more being’, a rung or two up.
In the same abstract sense, most of what we consider injury or harm is a reduction of being. This is obviously and completely true if someone kills us — we have no being left. But it is also true when we are spurned as suitors, denied the promotion at work, or even when we feel we are not doing as well as our neighbors.
We can lump all of these together as forms of violence. Violence is anchored on the one end by death, of course, but it is a spectrum whose other end is fairly fuzzy. We can — and do — spend a lot of time arguing about what counts as violence on that other end. But it’s always a spectrum of harm — the end isn’t the opposite of violence, just the least thinkable amount of violence.
Abstracting violence to ‘reduction of being’ gives us a nice way to understand the opposite of violence. Using the concept of being, we can define justice as a state in which every person enjoys their fullest being. Justice is the most being we can claim, completely free of violence.The opposite of violence is justice.
So what Donald Trump promised was nothing less than perfect justice: the end of the American carceral state, the disarming of the military, and renewed commitment to the principles of liberty, equality, and justice… right? right? please?
No. He most definitely did not promise that. Because even if Trump were sincere in his promise of our potential being, at a deeper level his estimate of the potential being of every American is far too… conservative. He is, in practical terms, a giant bigot.
Just like we can talk about violence in terms of being, we can talk about bigotry in similar terms. Bigotry is a refusal of being. When a racist says something like, “blacks have lower IQs than whites”, we can abstract that to “blacks have less potential being than whites”. When a sexist says “women should know their place”, we can abstract that to “women’s potential being is incompatible with men’s being”.
And Donald Trump says things like that all the time. It’s clear he has deep prejudices against all sorts of people, in that he sees their lives as less worthy, less meaningful, less being than his own. It’s probably the case that he sees lots of his supporters in the same way, and doesn’t mind lying to them as such.
On the other hand, those of us who share a commitment to equality instead think that black people have the same potential being as anyone else, and that women’s fullest being is not incompatible with men’s. In fact, we might say we hold the view that our laws must assume all people are created with equal potential being. It’s awkward, right? So we can say “all people are created equal”, and get in the right neighborhood.
In terms of being, our commitment to equality and justice is therefore one and the same — inseparable and indistinguishable. They are two sides of the same marble.
Donald Trump promised us perfect justice — but he didn’t mean it. Only by working together for a more perfectly just society can we get anywhere close to our full potential.