For good and ill, the US has always believed it is an exceptional nation. Not any moreby Diane Roberts / September 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”