America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

America, the Exceptional?

Is the idea of American exceptionalism even recognizable anymore?

Steve Lagerfeld

The Statue of Liberty (detail), 1962, by Andy Warhol (1928–1987); private collection; © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

The war over American exceptionalism is over. The idea has been battered beyond recognition by more than a decade in the gladiator ring of American politics. Now it is just a club wielded by combatants unaware that the fight has ended. The term has so many meanings that it has no meaning. One economist has even predicted that the world’s waning belief in America’s exceptionalism will help trigger a collapse of the dollar.

American exceptionalism is an honorable idea that deserves to be put on a stretcher and carried back to the intellectual world where it was born and where it may still live a long and productive life. That is where it enjoyed a relatively quiet existence until the first rumblings of war erupted around the beginning of this century. In 2008, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, injected exceptionalism into the presidential campaign. “We are an exceptional nation,” she declared, and “an exceptional country,” at one point assuring an audience that “you are all exceptional Americans.”11xRoger Cohen, “Palin’s American Exception,” New York Times, September 25, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/25/opinion/25Cohen.html. After that, conservative critics used the term to attack President Barack Obama’s policies of more expansive government at home and a diminished role abroad, and even to question his patriotism. “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program,” wrote Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, two National Review editors, in the pages of that magazine in 2010.22xRamesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, “An Exceptional Debate,” National Review, February 18, 2010, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2010/03/08/exceptional-debate/. Newt Gingrich and other political figures joined the fray with books that equated exceptionalism with American greatness. Obama kept things going by coyly delivering only qualified endorsements of the holy words. “American exceptionalism” became a phrase conservatives wore on their sleeves to complement their flag lapel pins.

At least they did until the presidential campaign of 2016, when the two sides pulled something of a switcheroo. Hillary Clinton did not merely embrace exceptionalism; she doubled down on it, calling it the “core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way.”33xSteve Benen, “The Debate over ‘American Exceptionalism’ Is Turned on Its Head,” Maddow Blog, August 31, 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/the-debate-over-american-exceptionalism-turned-its-head. Meanwhile, the man who had suddenly seized control of the Republican Party had washed his hands of the whole idea (which, like many of the other combatants, he probably did not really understand). “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,” Donald Trump said in 2015.44xNicole Javorsky, “Trump’s Defenders Say He’s an American Exceptionalist. Not Long Ago, He Claimed the Opposite,” Mother Jones, July 17, 2019, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/07/trumps-defenders-say-hes-an-american-exceptionalist-not-long-ago-he-claimed-the-opposite/.

It was not a sudden burst of diplomatic discretion that inspired the future president. Trump wants an America that shakes off lofty ideals and international entanglements and gets down in the ring to duke it out bare-knuckled with other countries for the world’s treasures. His unexceptional America is in that respect no different from any other country. Winning will make it great again. Yet the president, who is nothing if not flexible in matters of principle, may be in the process of pulling one of his own patented switcheroos. In accepting the Republican nomination this summer, he uttered the E word once, and the bullet-pointed second term agenda he touted included a call to “teach American exceptionalism,” albeit with no explanation of what that might mean.

Meanwhile, the national conservative movement led by people such as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and political theorist and biblical scholar Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, has been building an intellectual foundation for Trump’s rough-hewn proclamations. Rejecting liberalism as the basis of both nationhood and the international order, the conservative nationalists call for a citizenship based on communal solidarity and “the national state, community, family, and religious tradition”55xYoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2018), 32, ch. 4 (e-book). rather than individualistic commitments to a common creed. Hunker down and care for your own, in other words. They believe that the liberal international order, with its insistence on the universal values of liberty and equality, inevitably ends in imperialism and war.

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