Yes We Can: Victory and the American Psyche

As anyone who has seen one of President Donald Trump’s rallies can attest, the president loves to talk about winning. “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning,” Trump said in a typical remark.

Critics of the president often disregard such statements as childish and meaningless. Yet this criticism ignores the fact that Trump’s remarks strike a chord with a wide audience.

Americans have a unique obsession with complete and total victory, either against an external force, an internal problem or something more abstract. This fascination extends past party lines and affects everything from domestic programs to foreign policy. Only by understanding the underlying cultural traits that Trump taps into can Americans curb their own worst impulses and fully realize their potential.

American fascination with victory has deep roots. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 1800s, he wrote that the United States “directs its every action [toward] … indefinite perfectibility.” De Tocqueville perceived an early form of the American obsession with utter and complete triumph in every conceivable goal. This obsession stems from a potent cultural brew of exceptionalism, individualism and a deeply-rooted belief in the benefits of hard work and meritocracy.

The American obsession with winning has manifested in many forms, from strict parents who expect their child to rise above the rest of their classmates to the stubborn refusal of the U.S. government to admit defeat in Vietnam during the 1970s.

But the obsession also has tangible effects on the nation’s psychology. A recent Gallup poll revealed that America is the seventh most stressed country in the world. The reasons for America’s poor showing are complex, but psychiatrists have identified stress in the competitive workplace and frustration at an inability to achieve personal goals as major causes. Such levels of stress, especially when considering America’s relative affluence and stability, suggest that Americans may be suffering from a case of unrealistically high expectations.

The American drive to win is also visible in areas of national policy, particularly in the most competitive of all national pursuits: war. America has historically benefited from a strong determination to win military conflicts. Ironically, the chief failures of the U.S. military occurred because of the American will to win. When the military refused to concede in Vietnam and instead escalated a logistically unwinnable war, it turned minor setbacks into crushing defeat. More recently, efforts to secure victory in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to lengthy conflicts in those regions, leading the U.S. to become increasingly isolated from its allies because of its more ambitious agenda.

The drive for victory further appears in domestic policy. American leaders have a fairly unique tendency to describe social programs as uncompromising conflicts, such as in the wars on poverty, crime and drugs. Yet while the goals of these “wars” are often noble, the very nature of government-instituted social programs guarantees that complete success is impossible. When faced with the impossibility of the promised total victory, politicians must either admit defeat and end the program, creating mass disillusionment, (like that which occurred after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty) or double down on the programs, instituting increasingly extreme measures in an attempt to attain the terms of victory originally promised. The latter choice is politically easier, yet far more destructive than the former. The wars on drugs and crime stand as lingering examples of what can happen when officials drag on failing policy in attempts to escape the stigma of defeat.

The reader might be tempted to think that America should try to abandon its competitive drive, but this would be unrealistic. Despite what Trump says, Americans will never grow tired of winning. Instead of trying to change our cultural DNA, Americans should try to emphasize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

The desire to succeed can drive Americans to achieve great things. The Space Race and the American effort in World War II stand out as examples of competitive spirit. The key is to ensure that Americans curb their fear of failure and direct their desire for victory into worthwhile endeavors.