To reach the essence of Melania Trump's new command to the children of America, "Be Best," we must begin with a plane crash that happened on October 31, 1994, at 3:59 pm. The plane, operated by American Eagle, was flying from Indianapolis International Airport to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago—a distance of only 164 miles. It had the flight number 4184. Its crew and passengers were shaken this way and that by a gusty rainstorm. Soon after the pilot was cleared for descent, it totally rolled. But the pilot mastered the twin-engine commuter plane, turned on autopilot, and continued descending through the very low clouds. Then there was another roll. This one went out of control and the plane nose-dived into an Indiana soybean field. The crash killed all 68 people on board. One of the dead was a young professor named Bill Readings (NYT identified him as William Reading). He taught literary criticism at the Université de Montréal and had just finished a book, The University in Ruins, that would be published exactly three years after the crash. In this book, we will find the theory that best explains the brilliance of Melania Trump's new slogan, "Be Best."
The theory is this: Between the 1970s and '80s, universities in the West abandoned the word "culture." It was too loaded, and basically meant books or art or music produced by white men, almost all of whom were dead. Students in the '60s rebelled against this Eurocentric instruction, and demanded a broadening of culture. This became cultural studies. But what was the university doing if it wasn't making its students cultured subjects in the older, national, bildung sense? Cultural studies were all over the place: gays, blacks, women, and everything in between. The solution? The command: "strive for excellence."
As Bill Readings pointed out, this new command was not loaded or problematic like the word culture. The university form of culture had this as its content: the books and paintings and music by dead white men (or the Western Canon). Excellence, on the other hand, had only a form. Anyone could strive for excellence: black, gay, woman, man, young, old, you name it. And, best of all, no one was offended by excellence. How could they? It meant nothing.
Soon, all universities were commanding their students and employees to strive for something that sounded like something. Readings also connected this terminological shift with the rising power of multi-national corporations. They had consumers all over the world and, for the sake of protecting profits in these diverse markets, supported greater cultural sensitivity. These corporations adopted the new command with great enthusiasm. Drop this thorny talk about Shakespeare, they said, and just focus on being the best you you can be. The CEO, the managers, the workers, the part-time employees—all must strive for excellence.
And now for Melania Trump's Be Best. It is the logical step after excellence has been exhausted. The thing to keep in mind is that the latter command was closely tied with the new economy, the resurgence of neo-classical economics, globalization, financialization, the decline of unions, and the increasing precariousness of work. We call these developments neoliberalism. Though it's still very much with us today, it lost much of its legitimacy after the crash of 2008. The void left by that crisis was eventually filled by Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US. Both are mirages of a return to the moment of culture, the moment of dead white men, the golden age of white middle-class prosperity. But there could never be a return to the economic content of that moment: progressive taxes, rising wages, white male job security. And so with Trump, we have a presidency that has no form and no content.
This is the brilliance of Be Best. It, too, has no form or content. Excellence is at least a form, though it really means nothing. Be Best is nothing and says nothing. Indeed, the slogan is so empty, it appears to be missing words. Only a slogan of this kind could issue so perfectly from the vacuum that has become the White House.