American Exceptionalism as Obama Nostalgia

American Exceptionalism as Obama Nostalgia January 11, 2018

Only a little over three years ago, David Bromwich, who teaches literature at Yale, complained about the way POTUSes, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, conceived of the United States as exceptional. One way to track such an understanding of American greatness is not to look for a person wearing a red baseball cap with the phrase, “Make America Great Again,” but to notice when a politician invokes the phrase, often mistakenly attributed to Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop, “city on a hill.” (Jesus first said it. You know that, right?) According to Bromwich in the fall of 2014:

… the phrase “American exceptionalism,” at once resonant and ambiguous, has stolen into popular usage in electoral politics, in the mainstream media, and in academic writing with a profligacy that is hard to account for. It sometimes seems that exceptionalism for Americans means everything from generosity to selfishness, localism to imperialism, indifference to “the opinions of mankind” to a readiness to incorporate the folkways of every culture. When President Obama told West Point graduates last May that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the context made it clear that he meant the United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was demonstrated by our possession of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” uniquely tasked with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow ourselves to “flout international norms” or be a law unto ourselves. The contradictory nature of these statements would have satisfied even Tocqueville’s taste for paradox.

Bromwich worried about the effects of exceptionalism on persons and nations. In the case of persons:

To make an exception of yourself is as immoral a proceeding for a nation as it is for an individual. When we say of a person (usually someone who has gone off the rails), “He thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” we mean that he is a danger to others and perhaps to himself. People who act on such a belief don’t as a rule examine themselves deeply or write a history of the self to justify their understanding that they are unique…. Such people are monsters. Many land in asylums, more in prisons.

In the case of nations:

All nations, by contrast, write their own histories as a matter of course. They preserve and exhibit a record of their doings; normally, of justified conduct, actions worthy of celebration. “Exceptional” nations, therefore, are compelled to engage in some fancy bookkeeping which exceptional individuals can avoid — at least until they are put on trial or subjected to interrogation under oath. The exceptional nation will claim that it is not responsible for its exceptional character. Its nature was given by God, or History, or Destiny.

But with Donald Trump in the White House, another literature professor, Abram Van Engen, from Washington University, exceptionalism no longer looks so bad. Why? Because the people who most often invoked the phrase, “city on a hill,” did so to criticize Trump. Van Engen explains how Trump’s phrase, “America First,” is inferior to “American exceptionalism”:

America First, by and large, dispenses with history. Trump tells us that once we were great and now we are not, but offers few details. Instead, he proposes a universal purpose for all the world’s nations: Every nation protects itself, advances its interests, and prospers its own.

For all the ways that words spin out of control when Trump uses them, he is actually very clear about national purpose. In his inaugural address, he announced, “At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” The United States here, as always, is just “a nation”—not “the indispensable nation” or the “nation of nations.” And, Trump continued, “It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” Thus, he said: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

The basic premise of “America First,” in other words, contradicts the main assumptions of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism has always said that because of its unique history the United States must model and spread democracy, religious liberty, freedom, free enterprise, diversity, human dignity, self-government, you name it. A thousand points of light. A candle, a beacon, a city on a hill.

Van Engen based his argument in part on a word search:

Trump never embraced American exceptionalism and never called America the “city on a hill.” Instead, that phrase was most often used against him. Using Google Alerts, a research assistant helped me read and track the published uses of this phrase in the 2016 campaign, sorting through over 1100 articles, letters, and blogs. Of those publications, nearly 250 directly opposed Donald Trump, while less than 50 supported him.

That usage was true regardless of party. We separated the findings into “right,” “left,” and “unclear.” Focusing only on the 350 cases that explicitly identified as conservative, 85 appearances of the phrase “city on a hill” came in anti-Trump articles, while only 48 supported him. By a margin of almost 2-to-1, conservatives used the slogan of American exceptionalism to oppose the candidacy of Donald Trump.

So we have two different professors of English, who make very different arguments about exceptionalism. I for one do not know how even Donald Trump in the White House can make anyone think America should be a model for and spread “democracy, religious liberty, freedom, free enterprise, diversity, human dignity, self-government, you name it. A thousand points of light.” That is an understanding as full of hubris as any version of America First. And for anyone who is watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Vietnam War (as I am), such a notion of American greatness looks flat out delusional.

I suppose the explanation is this: anything will work to oppose Donald Trump.


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