In the past month, both President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden have been using the same word and idea—transition—but with completely different meaning and intent.
Earlier this month, Trump declared that “Transition to Greatness” is a phrase we’re going to hear a lot about because he’s decided it’s the perfect reelection slogan. (I’ll turn to Biden in a minute.)
As the former chief media adviser to three presidential campaigns (two for George W. Bush, one for John McCain), I pay attention to these things. And I am among the many who give credit to Trump for coining—or, at least, repurposing—the Reaganesque phrase “Make America Great Again.” As a campaign theme it was ideal for Trump in 2016. Simple but clear. Loaded with meaning. Fundamentally, his message to voters was: Due to reasons mostly beyond your control (immigration, technology, globalization), America has left you behind. I’ll take you back to a country you recognize, a country in which you’ll prosper.
Like it or not, Trump’s sound bite conveyed that he had a compelling reason for running—something Hillary Clinton failed to come up with, even after thinking about it far longer than Trump, and having run, and lost, once before. Her slogan “Stronger Together” didn’t express why she was in the hunt—or who she was campaigning as. Political analysts Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes said as much when slamming her 2016 announcement speech in their book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign: “There was no overarching narrative explaining her candidacy…. Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”
Recent history is filled with presidential campaign themes about the future. Bill Clinton declared he would “Build a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Barack Obama promised, during the middle of an economic meltdown, that he’d provide the “Change We Need” for the challenges ahead. But Trump ran for president during a unique era, one in which more voters liked the idea of moving backward—toward a familiar and comforting past.
It was no surprise, then, when Trump announced that his reelection-campaign theme would be “Keep America Great.” On brand. Direct but sort of meta. He was saying that he’d made America great. And he’d keep it that way. And to underscore the point, the campaign mantra became “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”
So, count me among the perplexed that Trump, who clearly considers himself a marketing genius, suddenly announced on May 8 that he was changing his theme to “Transition to Greatness.” He described his decision this way: “It’s a great term. Just came out at this meeting. That’s right. It came out by accident. 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.”
I believe that any bipartisan parsing of the statement would conclude that its basic meaning is: We are not currently great. But we are going to get there at some point. We are on a general trajectory toward greatness. The implication is that we are not currently great, even though Trump promised us we would be. Moreover, even though Trump had promised to keep America great, he was now saying we’re not even going to do that because we aren’t, in fact, great yet. Instead, he is saying: We’re going to transition to all the greatness he’d been promising during the last election. We just have to wait for it. It’s a bit like Trump’s coronavirus policy: We’re fine…Let me be clear: We’re not fine, but we’re going be fine very soon…Oops, hang with me on this, it’s gonna be quite a while till we’re fine.