How not to make America great

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis says that on many levels, Donald Trump's views would tarnish America's standing around the world
  • Trump has shown hostility to key things that make America great -- including diversity and the free press

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Donald Trump has come into sharp focus since becoming his party's presumptive nominee for president. That's why it was the right time Thursday for Hillary Clinton to offer a withering assessment of her Republican opponent's qualifications on foreign policy. But don't take her criticism at face value. We all have enough information now to make our own judgment.

For a time it seemed as if Trump's bombastic, aggressive style was crafted to reach a specific segment of the electorate. But nothing has changed since he won enough votes for the nomination. Now we know it was not an act. This is the real Trump.
This is the Trump who promises to "Make America Great Again."
    So, yes, let's. Let us follow Trump's advice, find what it is that has made America a special place in the world and try to build on it. Let's set aside the discussion of whether America is great today -- or not -- and follow Trump's uncontroversial exhortation.
    The next president's job is, indeed, to improve the country, to make it better, stronger, more true to its essence; to make the United States not only more respected, but also more admired around the world.
    The question is whether Trump is the right person to make that happen.
    Unfortunately for him, for the country, and for the world, Trump has already started eroding everything that makes the United States special.
    When Chinese students occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989, demanding democratic reforms, they built a makeshift replica of the Statue of Liberty. Their "Goddess of Democracy," crushed by Chinese tanks exactly 27 years ago, encapsulated the magnetic appeal of America, of its founding ideals, and of the remarkable execution of those ideals by the American people.
    If the United States wants to strengthen its position on the global stage, it must stand as closely as it can to the vision that has drawn millions from around the globe not only to make their lives in the United States, but to try to take some of the best of America and replicate it in their own countries.
    The United States has never been perfect; it has often strayed from its principles. But the founding goals have served as a beacon, a point in the distance to aim for, a guide for course correction as the people seek to forge of a nation where all individuals, regardless of their religion, national origin, sex, or other characteristics not of their own choosing are treated with dignity, with a fundamental equality.
    Trump has turned that cherished American ideal on its head. Every difference between individuals is a new way to mock, to rile the crowd, to attack.
    America's founders knew, and the American people have understood over the centuries, that this unlikely country succeeded partly because it placed limits on the power of single individuals -- even, especially -- presidents.
    The system has succeeded because the people and their leaders have felt reverence for an independent judiciary and a free press. Trump's personal attacks on the judge hearing the case against Trump University are an affront against that principle. His characteristically underhanded mention of the judge's ethnicity is an alarming hint of Trump's penchant for exploiting and inciting divisions among Americans.
    Trump's attacks against Mexicans, Muslims, Asians and others not only hollow out the country's image around the world, they divide the people, they make America weaker, they fray the fabric of society; they promote more prejudice.
    Is it any wonder that Trump's campaign has attracted the support of racists and anti-Semites, bringing out into the open threats and insults against minorities in a tone reminiscent of the 1930s?
    Trump's combative words threaten to turn the fabled melting pot that helped make America a strong and dynamic nation into a poisoned brew of hatreds, resentments and mistrust.
    Another key reason America became great is that its people know that a free and unintimidated press is an indispensable protection, a watchdog against abuses by the powerful. The country's leaders have understood that no matter how much they dislike the scrutiny, they must answer the people's questions, and the people's questions are asked by journalists.
    Anyone who has seen Trump's disparagement and harassment of journalists should worry about how a President Trump would deal with the press.
    Attacking the media has become an easy way to garner voters from some sectors. But those who take pleasure in seeing a "strong" candidate "tell it like it is," to reporters should think twice. I have attended press conferences in authoritarian countries where the local media do little more than praise their rulers. It is a sickening, frightening spectacle, but it seems to be the only behavior Trump deems acceptable from journalists.
    Trump likes to explain his rough, crass talk as a sign of forthrightness. "I'm a very honest person," he keeps saying. But professional fact-checkers have found that Trump is a serial liar. Politifact analyzed statements going back to 2007 by this year's candidates and other officeholders, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and even Bill Clinton. Of those statements, it found Trump's statements "Mostly false and worse" an incredible 76% of the time. (Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders lied 28% of the time, according to the analysis, slightly more than Obama.) No politician tells the truth 100% of the time, but Trump's numbers are eye-popping. Is that what U.S. voters want as they choose a new president, role model, American representative to the world? Will that help make America great?
    America's great presidents, the ones who have made history, have been able to inspire people at home and abroad by becoming champions of America's fundamental ideals.
    To make America great, the next president must stand with the country's allies, not retreat from the global stage. Think about the presidents who did a great job. Think about how they did it. They married America's power with its lofty ideals. They earned not only respect but also admiration for the country. So far Trump is achieving precisely the opposite.
    The best presidents made the United States a country where the pursuit of happiness is an attainable goal, and they showed the world that there is something in America worth emulating.
    That something, the secret recipe that made America great, doesn't look anything like the formula Trump is selling. The slogan is good, but the product will not deliver what it promises. It's false advertising.