Trump Needs His MAGA Followers to Believe America Is Screwed

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It’s been years since I was involved in a good old-fashioned Twitter (X) spat. So imagine my surprise when I became embroiled in one on Holy Wednesday. This wasn’t just some rando troll, either.

My interlocutor was none other than Richard Grenell, former ambassador to Germany and former acting director of the United States National Intelligence—a man that Donald Trump, Jr. calls a “top contender for secretary of state” in a second Trump administration. The impetus for his ire was a video of me interviewing The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols, over which I tweeted the following words: “It's a GREAT time to be alive. So why are so many Americans depressed and convinced that things have never been worse ?!?”

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Grenell, who has over a million X followers, responded by cryptically citing “3 wars,” “An open border,” “An open attack on political enemies,” as the accomplishments of the sinister “The Biden Regime.”

I have casually known Grenell for almost a decade, and I can’t recall him ever publicly criticizing me. So I was curious: Why did this particular tweet spark this pushback at this particular time? After all, Grenell is an important, and presumably busy, guy. What is more, the notion that modern Americans are too gloomy is, by now, a trite observation. The Harvard University professor Steven Pinker has been making this same argument for years. Why did this particular tweet hit a nerve?

And then it hit me: Donald Trump needs to advance the notion that things have never been worse. Indeed, this is the fundamental premise of his re-election bid.

Coincidentally, The Washington Post ran a profile of Grenell just after our spat in which he’s described as “a rapid-response, war room director, perpetually exalting Trump and trolling his political foes on social media and in interviews.” I’d say they nailed it; that is precisely the role he played when it came to tamping down my troublesome “narrative” that says America is already great (and doing better all the time).

Vibes aside, there is ample evidence that America is not a shithole, and that we are not, in fact, experiencing “American carnage.” But to admit that things are actually going pretty well in America is perceived as an existential threat in the MAGA messaging world. You’ve heard the expression “talking down the economy.” Well, the 2024 version is talking down the country.

Again, when I say it’s a great time to be alive, this is not inherently political. As Vox’s Kenny Torella has noted, “We’re living longer, richer lives with better access to clean water, education, electricity, and basic human rights than ever before.”

These things are the product of modernity and civilization. Presidents don’t have much to do with them. As Barack Obama might have put it, Joe Biden didn’t build that.

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On the other hand, Biden has been minding the store during a time of some positive developments—developments that he isn’t (yet) getting much credit for. One of these developments is a pretty good economy. An even bigger positive development is the falling crime rate.

According to the FBI, violent crime spiked in 2020 (when Trump was still president). Since then, the violent crime rate has fallen sharply. As crime analyst Jeff Asher writes, “…2023 featured one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the United States in more than 50 years.”

Of course, nobody on Team Trump wants to talk about positive developments. MAGA needs to push doom-and-gloom to win. And absent any tangible problems, they’ll invent some.

Case in point: the forever wars that Grenell apparently thinks we are fighting. Now, I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam syndrome hangover, and (much more vividly) the disastrous days of the Iraq War. But as I noted, factually, America is not currently in three wars.

The MAGA line, which Grenell dutifully delivered, is that by lifting U.N. sanctions on Iran Biden is responsible for Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and by waiving sanctions on a Russian company overseeing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline Biden invited Russia’s attack on Ukraine. (Note: I’m still not sure what Grenell’s third war is, but in response to one of my tweets, he invoked Lebanon and Yemen.)

Regardless, Grenell’s implication seems to be that the U.S. is involved in multiple wars today, and that we were in zero wars on Trump’s watch. His rather loose definition of what constitutes a war (i.e., the Yemen war and U.S. drone strikes in many countries) is, shall we say, convenient.

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But this is all a distraction. MAGA (Make America Great Again) isn’t just a message on a red hat, it’s a mantra. And to acknowledge the ways America is currently great (and improving!) is to admit that the country does not, in fact, need a fulminating strongman like Trump to save us from the ashes of our once proud homeland.

As I have learned, saying something like “It’s great to be alive and in America right now” constitutes fighting words. That’s because Donald Trump needs his MAGA followers to believe America is screwed. The danger, of course, is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Beatings will continue until morale falls even lower.

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