No stopping us: American Progress by John Gast (1872). Picture: Corbis/Corbis via Getty

With Donald Trump in the White House, the myth of American exceptionalism is dying

For good and ill, the US has always believed it is an exceptional nation. Not any more
September 13, 2017

Every nation congratulates itself on something—its art, its food, its history, its magnificent landscapes, its strong men, its beautiful women, even its sense of irony. Here in the United States, we have always been convinced that God likes us best. Our prosperity, our technology, our military might, are not by-products of our natural resources, or of the two oceans shielding the country from invasion, but evidence of divine favour. America is the golden land where a poor boy can dream big, work hard, buy himself a pair of bootstraps, and then haul himself up by them.

America isn’t just lucky, America is exceptional. We are convinced—a conviction that is often dangerous—that we are special. Even chosen. A nation founded on Enlightenment principles of liberty and equality. As such, in most of its renderings, exceptionalism implies generosity, too: the US is charged with the responsibility of sharing its exceptional fortune. America is the “Mother of Exiles”—raising her beacon to light the way for the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free. Paraphrasing the Apostle Luke (we have often told our story in paraphrased scripture) President John F Kennedy put it thus: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

That’s the theory. But with Donald Trump in the White House, American exceptionalism is disintegrating. The US finds itself struggling with its place in the world—and its sense of self. Trump’s America isn’t the open, confident country of the imagination, but a scared place, victimised by other countries that have abused its goodwill and ripped it off. While every American president looks away from the oppression in useful autocracies, such as Saudi Arabia, Trump appoints to his cabinet men who openly embrace their dictatorial ways. “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there,” marvelled Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, visiting the Kingdom with his boss. “Not one guy with a bad placard.”

Those American values, once proudly proclaimed as exceptional, are paraded no longer. Instead of dividing the moral universe into heroes of liberty and equal opportunity, and villains who would threaten these things, Trump insisted that there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and Confederate flag-wavers who rampaged through Charlottesville, Virginia. As for those resisting this resurgent fascism, he replied with a shrug of the shoulders that there “was blame on all sides.”

Indeed, one of Trump’s favourite slogans, “America First,” echoes the isolationist America First Committee, formed in 1940 after the fall of France and around the time Hitler’s bombs were ravaging London. The Committee, made up of business leaders and pacifists, but also anti-Semites, aimed to keep the US out of the European war. Now, in its Trumpist iteration, “America First” demands a rejection of globalism, immigration and international institutions. Trump seems to be largely ignorant of, and indifferent to, what happens in the rest of the world—unless he perceives a slight or a threat. The “America First” worldview presumes not American-inspired moral progress, but a zero-sum game: if China and India make money, America must be losing money. The Paris Climate Accords are nothing but a way to “redistribute wealth out of the United States.” Admitting such interdependence is a sign of weakness, the sign of a nation of “losers.” Multilateralism is an affront to nationalism. Diplomacy is for pussies.

The Dissenters who colonised New England in the 17th century saw their enterprise in mystical terms. In 1630, John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, exhorted settlers in terms that have coloured the way America has seen itself ever since—to “consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Favoured by providence, America would be a refutation of Europe, with its aristocracies, ancient feuds and religious oppression. Never mind that these tough Protestants also imported witch hunts and ugly denominational arguments to their new world. The belief in America as a chosen land—Anglo-Saxon, without a state church, a successor to Greece and Rome without the decadence—was supremely flattering to all concerned. Naturally enough, a consensus for exceptionalism emerged.

But there was and never would be, agreement on what the doctrine really implied—how, exactly, would America set its splendid example? And what were the ramifications of that for the way America itself lived? We’ve been debating these issues since the first Continental Congress in 1774, most especially the racial dimension. How can a nation call itself exceptional and tolerate slavery or systematic discrimination? The Declaration of Independence proclaimed “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” yet that equality and those rights did not fully extend to people of African descent until 1965. America was built on racial injustice: slavery for nearly 250 years and Jim Crow laws for another century. There were always abolitionists who charged that slavery violated America’s divine charter. But when Democrats such as Andrew Jackson spoke of “extending the area of freedom,” they really meant expanding the plantation economy.

If black people did not fit the narrative of exceptionalism, no more did “red” people. Our European forbears were happy to take de Tocqueville’s assessment that they had arrived at a virtually empty continent that was “awaiting” them. But the continent was not empty. Colonisers slaughtered those who lived in the “wilderness” with weapons and European pathogens to which the first people had no immunity. “Manifest Destiny”—a close cousin of exceptionalism—justified expanding the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In John Gast’s much-reproduced 1872 painting American Progress, a giant white woman dressed (scantily) as a classical goddess, representing America, strides westward across the prairie, scaring Indians and stringing telegraph wire.

Even today, the fading fortunes of American exceptionalism are inextricably bound up with race and racism. Many celebrated the election of Barack Obama as proof that America had overcome its ugly past by putting a black man in the White House—additional proof of exceptionalism to the true believers. These included even George W Bush, who hailed the election of a liberal political opponent as an “inspiring” case of a “journey [that] represents a triumph of the American story,” “a testament to… optimism and faith in the enduring promise of our nation.” In truth, the arrival of a black president came as a profound shock to a body politic that was, perhaps, exceptionally unprepared for this challenge to 400 years of white hegemony. Some, including Trump, regarded Obama as a crypto-Marxist bent on destroying the country. The overwhelmingly white Tea Party raged against everything Obama did, while Trump dishonestly accused him of being born in Kenya. In loudly doubting Obama’s citizenship, Trump rejected something intrinsic to American exceptionalism: the principle that any American, from any background, could achieve any goal.

*** Meanwhile, other more familiar arguments about the meaning of the American example have rumbled on. Democrats still tend to see exceptionalism as an ideal to strive for: we’ve come far, but we’ve got an awful lot higher to climb. Republicans feel it’s a state of being, like grace. The Left thinks America can perfect itself through work, while the Right argues faith alone sets us apart—faith and the world’s most powerful military. During the 2016 election, progressives charged that conservatives didn’t understand that diversity makes America exceptional; conservatives retorted that progressives undermined American exceptionalism with their criticisms. They attacked Obama for “apologising” for America, not understanding America, not loving America.

Yet while Obama remained in office, the exceptionalist story could at least rely on an eloquent spokesman. Celebrating his election in 2008, he had said: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” As he reached for the top, this son of a Kansan and a Kenyan had previously held himself up as proof of the nation’s unique genius: “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” And yet Obama surely understood that he was indulging myths.

America is, after all, hardly the only country in which the children of immigrants can succeed. Disraeli got to No 10 despite Italian Jewish grandparents; Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father fled to France from Hungary, reached the Elysée. Obama applied a few thoughtful reality checks in 2010: “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In the same speech, he offered a more qualified, more plausible variant: “I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”

In that stripped-down form, exceptionalism might sound less arrogant, but everything in the history and rhetoric of this idea pushes against such stripping down. Winthrop’s original “city on a hill” was itself derived from Matthew 5:14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” America’s great faith in itself has never been hidden, and successive presidents have put their own spin on Winthrop’s phrase. As president-elect, John F Kennedy said: “our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.” Ronald Reagan ornamented the phrase, adding the word shining: “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers.”

Lurking inside Winthrop’s city on a hill (Reagan’s too) is not merely an ideal government but the New Jerusalem. The English Puritans felt a calling to build the New Jerusalem in the “New World” where they would establish a new covenant with God. While the decadent Roman Church would keep looking to the old Jerusalem, and the English Church would never finish the job of reforming itself, the Puritans would go to the wilderness and create a virtuous state, not quite a new heaven and a new earth, as Saint John’s Revelation promises, but the next best thing.

Like Protestantism, American exceptionalism cleaves to a sense of righteousness based on sacred texts. First it was the Bible, now it’s the Constitution. It is not only the originalists who regard the document as something like a new gospel; Americans of many persuasions pore over its words, seeking enlightenment in the same way the Puritans pored over the Geneva Bible. The American sense that we are a nation like no other depends on a heavily-curated version of the past, in which the Constitution had no antecedents, but instead was born fully formed out of James Madison’s brain like Athena from the head of Zeus. In this reading there was no 1628 Petition of Right, or 1689 Bill of Rights. The Common Law never existed. And as for slavery, the engine that drove the American economy for 200 years is merely an unfortunate detour on the road to liberty and justice. The whole idea, in other words, is inherently blind to inconvenient truths.

The meanings and obligations of America’s “mission” have always been contested. From the 19th century and on into the 20th, the nation struggled to balance the impulse to secure liberty and justice at home, by avoiding what the first president called “foreign entanglements,” with the duty to foster or even impose democratic ideals abroad.

Until the First World War—and beyond—opinion would vacillate. But in 1941, the national sensibility shifted more decisively. Ten months before Pearl Harbor, Henry Luce of Time magazine urged the US to enter the war against fascism. This was to be an “American Century” and it was America’s duty to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” That robust, interventionist kind of exceptionalism remained dominant until the bloody misadventure of Vietnam, which many came to see the same way as Muhammad Ali: “going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation, simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

The US was fighting the communist threat across the globe, but many felt we had enough problems at home. Others kept the faith. Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the 1980s persuaded one strain of opinion that American righteousness had finally revealed its real force, and should now be applied with less hesitation. The neo-con tendency was originally a marginal voice in Washington, but think tanks such as the Project for the New American Century became influential when Bush, arrived at the White House, and more especially after 9/11. We fought two ruinous foreign wars ostensibly to defeat terrorism, but also to sell Americanism abroad. Yet as Baghdad burned, New Orleans flooded and high finance was laid low, America came to seem less like a chosen nation, than a country whose luck had run out.

The neo-cons pushed exceptionalism harder than ever before, and it failed—it failed Americans, it failed its allies, and it failed those whose countries the US wrecked in the name of “freedom.” Obama then offered an alternative vision to some, but never—as we have seen—to all, because of the old race poison. In 2016, America’s simmering cultural and economic resentments cleared the way for someone indifferent to America’s leadership role.

*** Trump has never been keen on exceptionalism. He told a Texas Tea Party group in 2015: “Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, ‘Why are you exceptional? We’re doing a lot better than you.’ I never liked the term. And perhaps that’s because I don’t have a very big ego and I don’t need terms like that.” He went on to prophesy doom: “We’re dying. We owe $18 trillion in debt.”

It sounds like Trump thinks exceptionalism is boastful, even rude. Perhaps he has a point: after all, where has American exceptionalism got us? The US has assumed that it was all right to invade Iraq, to dethrone Saddam Hussein and destroy his terrible weapons—which he didn’t have—because, Hey! We’re America. We claimed the right to overthrow governments in Chile or Congo because Washington smelled socialism. With Trump, exceptionalism is no longer a governing philosophy, though it’s unclear he even understands the term, any more than he understands that he can’t “negotiate down” the national debt. As a candidate, Trump promised to end the US policy of “intervention and chaos,” pledging to bring American soldiers home. In August, he announced the US would send more troops to Afghanistan. He made clear he didn’t see this as part of some moral purpose. “We’re not nation-building,” Trump said. “We’re just killing terrorists.”

Some of his rhetoric, to be sure, draws on exceptionalists of the past: during the First World War, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst said America should ignore foreign conflicts until its defence “has been made ABSOLUTELY secure. After that we can think of other nations’ troubles. But till then, America First!” Trump’s other great slogan, “Make America Great Again” was purloined from Reagan’s 1980 campaign, an earlier moment of reactionary nostalgia. But whereas Reagan added sunshine to the rhetorical mix (“Morning in America”), with Trump there is no optimism about progress of any moral sort. If better times are to come, it will only be by beating others, not by inspiring them. Trump’s America has no transcendence: you’re either a “winner” or a “loser.” A nation’s status is entirely to do with money. And maybe bombs. Nobody cares about moral leadership. Mainstream Republicans saw the threat to their exceptionalist faith before the election; Mitt Romney warned that, with Trump, “America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”

Exceptionalism was always a flawed, hubristic idea. Nevertheless, it has sometimes inspired Americans to action: the Civil Rights Movement, intervention in humanitarian crises, the welcoming of refugees (see p41), and, this year, standing up to neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, on the grounds that America is supposed to be a nation for all.

Trump’s decision to turn his back on exceptionalism may well have helped him to capture the votes of most white men and about half of white women. These are the Americans who are angry that their privileges are not what they used to be, who were frightened by those others—people on the coasts, in the cities, people with brown or black skin who speak languages other than English, people who worship at mosques or temples or not at all, who don’t care if two people of the same sex get married, but do care that the seas and temperatures are rising. For them, a woman following a black man into power did not represent progress; it represented another attack on their America.

Abandoning the pretence that the US should take care of other nations—or even give a damn what they thought—was Trump’s central promise. Egged on by Steve Bannon, campaign CEO and grand dragon of America Firstism, Trump demands not that the United States lead the free world, but that it stops other nations laughing at it or “taking advantage” of it. Now Bannon has flounced off back to Breitbart, his alt-right website. But Trump hasn’t altered his attitude. We won’t build a city on a hill, we’ll build up our military, build barriers to immigration, and build a wall. We’ll no longer traffic in ideals; we’ll tell the globe, “you’re on your own.” Trump’s America is not divinely-favoured or confident in its blessings, but beset by monsters of its own imagining.

We Americans will still chant “USA! USA!” and “We’re Number One!” but fewer of us will believe it, and even fewer will indulge the fantasy that the rest of the world will, in some mysterious fashion, be inspired by our example. That delusion died in the havoc that cleared the way for Trump. Perhaps we are better off without the grandiosity of exceptionalism. The values we once claimed for ourselves—of justice, generosity, and shining a beacon to the wretched of the earth—may not have made America unique. They did, however, lend us a certain decency.