The words of the framers of our Declaration of Independence held the promise of a grand, exceptional design: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Within that asseveration lies the first glimpse of what is meant by the phrase “American exceptionalism.” Those words in our Declaration of Independence also belie veracity. To the millions of black slaves already part of the fabric of the new nation, those words were a falsehood and cruelty. To the women of the nation, it was best to remember that “all men are created equal” really did exclude them from the equation. There were exceptions to our original exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism is a term that has been with us for some time but only recently taken on a different tone and meaning. Although its origins are debatable with a substantial group making a case that dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville, historians claim the Russian dictator and mass murderer of his own people, Joseph Stalin, first used the term in derogatory fashion, citing the “heresy of American exceptionalism” in 1929. Around the same time, the American Communist convention of 1930 referred to the “house of cards” of American exceptionalism: “The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism.”
Whatever the origins of this term, embedded in the debate and conversations around it is something far less glorious than that line in the Declaration of Independence. American exceptionalism has come to be a phrase tossed about in debates around who owns patriotism. The conversation around American exceptionalism has shown a propensity for ignoring America’s faults. Recognizing this fact and questioning our actions might allow us to move closer toward that uncommon grace we have attempted time and again.
But a wide swath of Americans in 2017 want no part of recognizing her faults or even acknowledgement of her history. In Colorado in 2017, according to a Peter Hessler article in The New Yorker, a group gathered to pray in celebration of the victory of Donald J. Trump, suggesting the path to “exceptionalism” was with a man who is openly racist, xenophobic, sexist, and corrupt: “At the Avalon, the crowd fell silent while a woman prayed: ‘Thank you for giving us a President who will, with your help, restore this nation to her former glory, the way you created her.’” Clearly for these Americans, exceptionalism meant something very different than the lines from the Declaration of Independence. The concept that God created America with only certain people in mind and would restore the nation to what? Slavery? No rights except for the wealthy? No right to vote for women? America was never a “white nation,” so that path was already blocked long before it moved forward as a nation. Inherent in the woman’s “prayer” is a deeply, racist, horrifically ugly part of America.
Exploitation of black slaves confutes the term American exceptionalism even at the very birth of our nation. Later exploitation of Italians and Irish, and later yet, Mexicans and Latin American immigrants continued to deepen the infected scar on the American character.
Lincoln offered promise of validity of the concept in his Gettysburg Address: “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Following Lincoln’s assassination, however, we were forced to reckon with Johnson, Reconstruction, and the slow burn of hatred of a defeated South, building those embers into their every institution, their monuments, the very fabric of their lives.
Our momentary unity after the attacks on 9/11/01 could be conceived of as a moment of American exceptionalism. But an unjust and cruel war in Iraq and the raiding of our national wealth by Wall Street, corporate CEOs, hedge funders, and bankers brought us to another factious low point.
Perhaps the closest we came to American exceptionalism was when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. An American black man stood on a podium and addressed the people, and it was not lost on any man, woman, or child that a nation grown up with the fabric of slavery had the hope of casting off some of its terrible burden with Obama’s ascent.
Yet American exceptionalism was never more perversely prominent than during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns when Republicans used it to disparage Barack Obama for, supposedly, not believing in it. Mitt Romney stated in 2012 at a campaign event, “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” “As we do.” Defining the we in this case is glaringly obvious.
Ironically, President Obama used the term American exceptionalism in his speeches and public conversations more than any president in American history. If he didn’t believe in the possibility of it, he was certainly masking that well when he stated on the evening of his first term as president, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…tonight is your answer.”
What followed Obama’s presidential victory was the unexceptional but determined efforts to suppress the votes of Democrats ever since by Republican officials: gerrymandering bizarre shapes to create colonies of Democratic voters inside a nation, sending Indiana State Police to confiscate 45,000 voter registrations, mostly of people of color, by then governor and now Vice President Pence, and Trump’s chosen leader to look into his fraudulent claims of Democrats’ voter fraud, Kris Kobach, the “King of Voter Suppression.
The Republican claim to the phrase is rooted more in fear than patriotism, according to scholar and writer Terrance McCoy: “Peel a few layers back and the rise of faith in American exceptionalism doesn’t evince superiority. It indicates fear.” Fear of the other, of foreigners has long been part of American life, but this xenophobia has risen to new heights under Trump and his administration.
Here we are, nine years after Obama rose to the highest office in our nation in a seeming freefall, mired in racist, hateful, puerile sound bites, and mind-boggling Tweets of the Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps the issue is not a fall from grace, but that the United States never achieved it. “An ethos of the extraordinary poses a practical problem,” wrote Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in her essay “Making Athens Great Again.” Goldstein pointed to the definition of ordinary, which is what the vast majority of us are. Like it or not, Goldstein’s statement is accurate. That is what ordinary means.
Whatever periods of shining light emerged from America have always been brief and, inversely, followed by darkness. Following the Great War, we tried to remain isolationist, ignoring the threats to the rest of humanity and failed to help ward off the even more catastrophic World War II. Even during WWII when America was looked upon as a savior by millions all around the world, we turned away boatloads of Jewish people fleeing certain death. Following WWII and our interlude of self-congratulation, we sunk into McCarthyism, hunting for communists under beds.
Although still looked to as his party’s beacon and policy visionary, Ronald Reagan facilitated a falsehood when he implied that we were long exceptional and had lost it: “Each of us has the power to create that reality for ourselves and for our country, both now and in the future. Here’s to our journey and to the future—Regaining American Exceptionalism!” Trump’s catch-phrase “Make America Great Again” is simply a poor plagiarism of Reagan’s mantra.
While he continues to be able to fool his “base,” Trump remains a politician with no knowledge of governing, a businessman whose businesses have failed and fallen into bankruptcies, only bailed out by his unscrupulous deals with foreign friends of Putin’s. Trump remains a petulant man with a deep-rooted need for approval from the very people who find him lacking in humanity and humility. His hatred of former President Obama and Hilary Clinton seems his only consistency. Ordinary men don’t care much for extraordinary ones.
What Trump has been unable to discern is that no matter how many rallies he holds with people profanely screaming at some scapegoat or imagined wrong, no matter how many lies he spits out in his reality tv show spilled out into the real world, no matter how many angry Tweets his fingers create and his confused brain commands “send,” he will remain one of the small men, an entirely ordinary man for whom the gift of inherited wealth lends him neither moral nor ethical weight.
For her examination of exceptionalism in The Atlantic, Newberger Goldstein goes all the way back to ancient Greek city states and Socrates who reminded his accusers and ultimately his executioners, “Personal fame, counts for nothing if your life isn’t, in itself, a life of virtue.”
Those words must have felt intensely bitter to the prosecutors who condemned him. It was Socrates’ great student Plato who first warned us, and Goldstein reminds us to, “take Socrates along as we return again and again to the Herculean effort of applying reason to our most fervently held assumptions.”
In plain sight of 320 million Americans and our European allies, American Exceptionalism looks today like an outdated, ridiculous concept after Donald J. Trump’s behaviors, words, and deeds and those of his administration. We can easily imagine any one of Trump’s ever-expanding team of lawyers, his crafty double-speak surrogates, those Iago’s-in-training, Kelly Ann Conway, Steve Bannon, and Steve Miller as prosecutors at a modern-day Socrates’ trial, bested and made fools of by reason and a moral Socrates, but, nevertheless, declaring victory, condemning the better human to death. Petty and monstrous men have won time and again in human history. Lifting reason and truth out of the depths of the new era foisted upon us, “fake news” and “alternative facts,” is an even more Herculean task than that experienced by the ancient Greeks.
A fragile and crumbling society fears questions. Socrates words offer that the, “the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.” The wise Athenian also warned his accusers, “it is a much harder thing to escape from wickedness than from death.”
We are not all Socrates nor Lincoln nor even Obama. We can, however, be ordinary citizens who question, who attempt to correct our wrongs and do what is right. The way in which the ordinary citizen—not the exceptional one—responds to our national crises is what will ultimately determine where the American experiment falls on the scale of exceptionalism.
Like Newberger Goldstein, we return to Socrates for this concept: American military strength counts for nothing if we have not questioned what that strength means in terms of other sacrifices; if we have not fought to preserve the promise for all in our Declaration of Independence.
Nancy Avery Dafoe
1. Terrance McCoy. “How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism.’” The Atlantic. 15 March 2012, accessed 16 July 2017.
2. Terrance McCoy. “How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism.’”
3. McCoy. “How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism.”
4. Peter Hessler. “How Trump is Transforming Rural America.” The New Yorker. 24 July 2017.
5. Abraham Lincoln. Gettysburg Address. Abraham Lincoln Online. 19 November 1863, accessed 16 July 2017. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.
6. Alan Rappeport. “Giuliani Comments Echo Old Republican Attacks on Obama. New York Times. First Draft. 20 February 2015.
7. Greg Jaffee. “Obama’s New Patriotism.” The Washington Post. 3 June 2015.
8. Vanessa Williams. ‘Group accuses Mike Pence of voter suppression after state police raid registration program in Indiana.” The Washington Post. 15 October 2016, accessed 16 July 2017.
9. Amrit Cheng. “Kris Kobach, the ‘King of Voter Suppression,’ Will Lead Trump’s Sham Voter Fraud Commission. Be Afraid, Very Afraid.” ACLU. 12 May 2017, accessed 17 July 2017. https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/kris-kobach-king-voter-suppression-will-lead-trumps-sham-voter-fraud-commission-be.
10. McCoy, “How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism.’”
11. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. “Making Athens Great Again.”
12. John Mariotti. “Regaining American Exceptionalism” — Memories of Reagan’s Shining City.” Forbes. Online. 17 October 2011, accessed 17 July 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/prospernow/2011/10/17/regaining-american-exceptionalism-memories-of-reagans-shining-city/#33b4e3b57d3e.
13. Newberger-Goldstein. “Making Athens Great Again.”
16. Socrates. Plato. Apology. Translated by F. J. Church. (New York: The Liberal Arts Press. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. revised edition, 1956).