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Let’s talk about American exceptionalism

The Republican convention has been a festival of Trump-fuelled American exceptionalism. Problem is, he doesn’t believe in it—nor should he.


 
California delegates react during the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

California delegates react during the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

You know that thing Americans do when they get all high on patriotism?

An escalating chant of USA! USA! USA! erupts. It’s fun at first, but quickly becomes disconcerting. You side-eye them, and things feel dark real fast, and soon no one’s laughing.

You know what I mean.

The unnerving national self-importance from which this chest-thumping grows has a genuine academic term: American exceptionalism. This is the belief that the United States and its people are inherently special, superior to all other nations, and uniquely endowed with a responsibility to promote liberty, democracy and freedom around the world. It’s a concept closely associated with the American Dream—the conviction that any person can, with determination and elbow grease, move beyond the circumstance of their birth, their family, and their status to realize their greatest potential.

If you’ve been following the Republican National Convention this week, you’ll notice American exceptionalism is alive and well. In fact, according to the rhetoric in Cleveland, it is itself living the American dream—a struggling, hard-working ideology, they say, that’s just trying to get itself back on track and transcend the oppression of an eight-year administration that believes the United States is just another nation.

As conservative radio-host Laura Ingraham gushed: “We never give up. We rise to every challenge. We fight and we win. We’re Americans!”

“Your starting point is not your destiny,” preached House Speaker Paul Ryan just the evening before.

And on Thursday evening, onto the stage will step the embodiment of American exceptionalism: Donald Trump. If we are to believe his disciples, he will return the United States to its God-given path, will never apologize for his nation, and will bring respect back to the greatest country on Earth.

“Today, our allies no longer trust us. Our adversaries no longer fear us, and our enemies are plotting against us […] Donald will never apologize for American greatness. He will promote it,” evangelized Texas Rep. Michael McCaul.

But will he? Donald Trump has said he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. In fact, his comment on the topic proves that he may in fact just be disappointed the United States isn’t currently at the top of its game.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump again downplayed exceptionalist sentiment: “I don’t think we have a right to lecture,” he said. But the internal focus doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe America still has special responsibilities to evangelize to the world, just that they need to be set aside momentarily: “We are going to take care of this country first,” he said, “before we worry about everyone else in the world.”

If he truly doesn’t believe in American might and right, however, he might want to let his supporters know. Because they sure think he does.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, centre, watches with Donald Trump, Jr., left, and Ivanka Trump as his son Eric Trump addresses the delegates during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Wednesday, July 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, centre, watches with Donald Trump, Jr., left, and Ivanka Trump as his son Eric Trump addresses the delegates during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Wednesday, July 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

And they’re brandishing a classic American political idiom to express it. “President Reagan once reminded us that America was a shining city upon a hill. A beacon of hope to the world. But after eight years of weak leadership, our city on a hill is now a city under siege,” warned McCaul on that first evening in Cleveland.

This hill-top city is a beloved Republican metaphor for America, and has been commonly articulated throughout the convention. Likely first uttered by early puritans, but popularized by former president Ronald Reagan, the phrase is lifted from the Sermon on the Mount, and not only places America in a well-defensible location, but grants it divine approval. (Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” And 17th-century early-Americans said, “Yeah, that sounds like us.”)

In truth, Obama himself has used the phrase. Though heavily associated with conservative ideology, exceptionalist rhetoric is not under sole ownership of those who politically lean right. Certain facets of the paradigm are accepted and even championed by liberal Americans.

But at this Republican convention is where we get to see how party members and cheerleaders have translated and bolstered Trump’s slogan: Make America Great Again. And two strong interpretations, dripping in text-book exceptionalism, have emerged. The rallying cry is not only an acknowledgement that America has not lived up to its potential for the last eight years, it is also a proclamation and call to action to make America great again in the world.

This kind of thinking, however, isn’t just innocent cheerleading. One of the convention themes was a call to Make America First Again—and whether this should be interpreted as a need for America to look inward and stabilize its position on that lonesome hill, or an urge to have the country to push to the very front of the line, the ideology fosters extreme thinking.

After all, this view of American exceptionalism can be isolating. Putting America first means putting every other nation last, and being at the top of the hill means being alone. This sentiment inspires blinkered, binary thinking that sets America on its own, detached and embracing of this hyperbole. The convention has only stoked it; on the convention’s opening night, former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell cautioned the audience: “The world outside our borders is a dark place. A scary place. America is the light.”

Retired U.S. Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Retired U.S. Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Like a drug, the high of American exceptionalism obfuscates the real light of reality. As believers proclaim blessings on the greatest country on Earth—to go forth and be that inherent world leader—those of us on the outside watch with skepticism. The country has a slew of problems: In the last two weeks alone, there have been 21 mass shootings in the U.S., resulting in 23 deaths. These names are added to a list of over 33,000 gun deaths the country witnesses each year. The country incarcerates its people at the highest rate in the world (note: depending on the type of statistic, sometimes Seychelles comes out on top). The Centre for Research on Globalization claims, “Going to war in Afghanistan is less dangerous than living in Chicago.”

What about the idea that in the land of opportunity anyone can succeed? It may be more myth than reality: A recent analysis of mobility trends concluded that when compared with 24 similar nations, the United States ranks on the lower end, 16th, in intergenerational economic mobility—the impact parents’ income has on the financial success of their children. Canada, Japan, Germany, Spain, France, and even Pakistan are a handful of the countries that compare more favourably.

Consider also the rampant crushing debt (from the federal level to the personal), extreme health care costs (incurring medical debt for over 40 million Americans), and on top of this, income inequality in America has been growing for about 30 years.

If the America we see today is the only promise found in a dark world, it’s less a brilliant radiant light, and more of an unsteady flicker. But America isn’t going to see its true self at all unless it actually looks in the mirror.

 


 

Let’s talk about American exceptionalism

  1. There are about 200 countries in the world.

    The US is just one of them. No worse, no better.

  2. Trump is the first candidate in like basically forever (like say since before Teddy Roosevelt) who isn’t an American exceptionalist. American exceptionalism has come to mean American empire over the rest of the world. Trump has no interest in empire.

    He is America First. Rebuild the Republic, and forget about the damn American Empire. The idea of American exceptionalism, which is basically a national religion (and hence unconstitutional) has led to the pursuit of Empire, and has thus made American somewhat unexceptional. Empires always decline because they are unsustainable.

    The pursuit of empire always ends in woe. Which is why Trump wants to rebuild America, and thus, ironically make it exceptional again.

    What makes Canada so great is that we have never pursued empire. We haven’t been contaminated with the exceptionalist virus, that leads to inevitable ruin and decline.

    So Trump is okay with NATO, as long as everyone in NATO pulls its own weight. He is for trade that does not sell out US manufacturing and US manufacturing jobs. etc.

    • The US is the shortest lived empire in history. They haven’t won anything since WWII and that was only after everyone else had done the heavy lifting.

      If they retreat behind walls, they’ll hit the ground even sooner.

  3. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill can not be hidden.”

    He also said of the same disciples when he prayed to the Father, “I do not pray that you should take them out of the world… They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

    And again, Jesus told Pilate this: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

    So, dear Reaganites, the shining city spoken of is NOT of this world. To arrange one’s affairs accordingly, one could begin with the unexceptional fact of being exceptional, simply because everyone is exceptional in their own way. (Jesus said, “To him who overcomes… I will give him… a new name… which no one knows except him who receives it.” Note “EXCEPT.”)

    Best wishes to y’all, Somewhere Out There.

  4. Says article:
    “An escalating chant of USA! USA! USA! erupts. It’s fun at first, but quickly becomes disconcerting. You side-eye them, and things feel dark real fast, and soon no one’s laughing.”

    Maybe it’s a TLA (three letter acronym) thing. The NDP do it as well. In either case, it’s a tad creepy.

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