American Exceptionalism

Wednesday, 1st February 2017

From Feb. 1, 2017

American exceptionalism always struck me (and, I have to say, most of the rest of the world) as a strange conceit. This article argues that, whatever it was, the nativism we see being established in law and practice by Trump will be the death knell of any illusion of that egotistical doctrine.

Those who believed in it imagined that the US was a city set on a hill, a country formed in a fundamentally different manner than all other countries, past or present, and that it was an example to the world. Whatever merit that idea might have had in the past, it is well and truly gone now. Everyone knows it, everyone sees it. Can you be an example to the world if everyone in the world is laughing at you, or terrified of your adolescent tantrums, or both? I don’t think so.

America was always unique, there’s no question of that. Exceptional? No. It was always embedded in the same forces that affected the rest of the world. This country never was morally better than others (and, it has demonstrated in the past few days, it very much has the capacity to be morally worse). There are those who will insist that “America First” is a moral doctrine, but it isn’t. Morality requires responsibility to others as well as to yourself. As a country, “America First” is on the same level as “Deutschland Uber Alles”, a slogan meant to rally the faithful and divide the us from the them. Nothing more than that.

The shred of exceptionalism America might have laid claim to was its Enlightenment roots, its liberal attempt to have a society which included everyone. That, of course, never really happened – that liberalism always ended up defining the good and right and true in terms of those who already had power. But it was an attempt, a dream. It was a Star Trek universe where people didn’t care about each others’ race, or even species.

That’s gone. Trump’s America is white America. There can be no doubt of that. White, straight, male, English-speaking, Christianist, individualist, Walmart-shopping, Duck Dynasty-watching, and all the rest. Is there anything wrong with any of that? No, not necessarily. What’s wrong with it is that it has become the standard, the Russian doll inside the country, the real beating heart of the American exceptional dream. It’s what Trump’s America thinks everyone ought to aspire to.

That’s what the other 95.69% of the world is laughing at. We’re 4.31% of the world in the US. And they are alternately horrified and laughing at us here. This nativism – as if it solves anything at all. As if a single job will come back, a single person will be made safer. But it’s never been about that, has it? It’s never been about producing an outcome that makes anyone’s life better. Trump supporters must know this by now. Even as they get the symbolic baubles they wanted, the kingly pronouncements from on high (didn’t they resent this when Obama did it? Well, apparently it’s not so bad after all), the question of whether any of this accomplishes anything will be spun into whatever propaganda is needed to prop up the child-king’s ego, and keep the faithful from rioting.

I’d rather not see the divides in this country as between two massive solitudes. Each side characterizes the other in those terms, a homogenous solitude, easily rejected by simple arguments. I’d like to think that there are still those among Trump voters who still hold to that liberal ideal, the one which thinks that there is a way of testing ideas to find the best ones. I’d like to think that. I see none of it at the moment, only total war. But what we see is what is reported, not what actually exists. Are those among Trumps supporters who have some small questions about whether a $40 billion dollar wall really will bring back jobs? Surely there are. Or put another way, could that $40 billion be put into support of those who have been marginalized in this country to generate far more than a wall ever could? Are there those who might start to wonder whether a better health care plan is really coming, or that perhaps the Republican-inspired plan that Obama put into place was actually a step in the right direction, and better than anything they would have otherwise? Are there those who think that maybe, just maybe, a policy of hate and fear towards everyone who doesn’t look, sound, and act like them actually diminishes our creative potential because it diminishes the different ideas that we can put on the table?

I want to think that there are those who can see that what is being offered by the clown show that we call a White House is bringing us nowhere near the exceptional state we always thought we were, and still want to be. I can assure Americans right now that no one in the world, and I mean absolutely no one, thinks that America is in any way exceptional. It is mired in history like everyone else. So, what would it take to be great again? There is nothing of that in what the White House has inflicted on the country in the past few weeks. We can tell a story to comfort ourselves, but it isn’t true. It has more in common with a fairy tale than reality. But it doesn’t have to be like this, and my best case scenario is that as people see that the so-called promise of this experiment becomes evident, that we will all keep looking for something better.

Worst case scenario? We don’t make it that far, America is isolated, war starts, and history resets.

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