Trump and American Exceptionalism
Since Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president on November 8, the liberal commentariat has been sounding the alarm on the fate of the international order: the Pax Americana is over. Four years after dismissing American decline as a myth, Robert Kagan now claims we’re nearing the “end of the 70-year-old U.S. world order.” Ian Buruma, writing in the New York Times Magazine, laments that those who voted for Trump and Brexit wish to “pull down the pillars” of liberal internationalism and retreat into isolation.
Such eulogies say less about Trump or his voters than about the limits of conventional wisdom. The president-elect denounced nation-building and demanded that U.S. allies pay more for protection, but so have many of his predecessors. And Trump never promised to retract the United States’ global power. To the contrary, he vowed to build up the military, go after Islamist terrorism, and counter Chinese aggression. An isolationist he is not.
But Trump has distinguished himself in one dramatic respect: He may be the first president to take office who explicitly rejects American exceptionalism.
“We shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us,” said John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, in 1630. The proclamation encapsulates American exceptionalism, or the belief (whether religious or secular) that the United States stands in the vanguard of history, chosen by providence to redeem mankind. Trump has already distinguished himself in one dramatic respect. He may be the first president to take office who explicitly rejects American exceptionalism….
Trump’s anti-exceptionalism does not mean he intends to diminish U.S. power. Although he has adopted the slogan “America First,” he scarcely resembles the original America Firsters, who opposed U.S. intervention in World War II. After all, they tended to be outspoken exceptionalists, convinced that the righteous New World had every reason to separate itself politically and militarily from Europe. For them, American exceptionalism furnished an argument against global intervention: if the United States was already destined to come out on top, why get entangled in the world’s squabbles? Trump rejects American exceptionalism mainly because he thinks it paralyzes the United States.
Trump, by contrast, believes the country hasn’t gotten its fair share, and his rhetoric suggests that he may wish to grab that share from others. But whatever actions he takes, his presidency is poised to trigger a national identity crisis. Americans are not accustomed to thinking that theirs is a country like any other, and if Trump continues to spurn exceptionalism, he will damage his government’s credibility domestically, opening up a legitimacy gap that each of the country’s political factions will scramble to fill.
The last time such a legitimacy gap appeared was in the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. Without explicitly renouncing American exceptionalism, Nixon and Kissinger adopted a realist approach that assumed all states behaved in the same manner and pursued comparable interests. This approach had its benefits: it allowed Nixon to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and open relations with communist China, two countries previously seen as implacable foes. But despite its successes, the approach inspired bipartisan criticism. On the right, neoconservatives agitated against the coddling of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. On the left, proponents of human rights laid out new universal principles for the United States to embody and promote. Both sides agreed that exceptionalism was fundamental to national identity—that the United States did have a right to lecture all the rest….