(This essay was originally published as “American Exceptionalism seems to be in retreat,” by the Newport Daily News on June 10, 2017.)
With his recent statement of intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord on climate change, separating us exceptionally from the other 195 states which signed it, President Trump has promoted the project, started in the campaign season, of turning America from an exceptional nation, leading the free world, to an ordinary, unexceptional country, single-mindedly chasing its own, narrowly defined interests.
I cannot remember exactly when I began to think of my country as exceptional. Perhaps it was listening to the World War II stories told by my many aunts and uncles or watching the many TV shows on that war like “Victory at Sea” and “Combat.” Perhaps it was listening to Dion belt out my exact emotions with “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love.” Perhaps it was experiencing that mystical age of the Kennedy Camelot. Certainly by the time I graduated West Point, all paid for by the American taxpayer, I was fully grateful to the American system which I considered exceptional.
The idea of American Exceptionalism—that America has a special place and role in the world—has its roots deep in the history of Western civilization. Our founding fathers carefully studied ancient democratic Athens and ancient republican Rome as models. The great Athenian statesman, Pericles, said that his city-state’s “distinguishing excellence” was that “in the hour of action we show the greatest courage.” He held high Athens as “the school of Greece.” Though not always succeeding, America—no matter who the president–has sought since World War II to be the “school of the free world.”
Early Christianity provided one of its founding metaphors, drawn from Matthew, Chapter 5, Verse 14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” The early colonial leader John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as President Ronald Reagan, both spoke of America as a “city upon a hill.”
In 1783 George Washington emphasized the unique character and role of our new nation in saying “the Citizens of America …are to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” Thomas Jefferson stated in his letter of 1811 to William Duane: “The last hope of human liberty in this world rests with us.”
Part of Abraham Lincoln’s objection to slavery was anchored in his belief that America was to be a model for all. The warehouse of the largest slave traders in the country, a mere seven blocks from the Capitol, was a terrible embarrassment, he argued. “We were proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world by thus fostering Human Slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of Human Freedom.”
The idea of American Exceptionalism has never been partisan. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was part of President George Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” a valiant if misguided attempt to push the bounds of democracy beyond its earlier victories in eastern Europe in the 1980s. President Barack Obama mentioned the concept in his farewell speech in January: “So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional—not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.”
At times President Trump has shown his ability to merit the mantle of the American presidency: his plans for mending our infrastructure, his concern for those thrown into unemployment by the faceless forces of globalization, his nudging of allies to carry their fair share of the burden. However, by his proposed ban of Muslim immigrants from selected countries, he has erased the words of Emma Lazarus from the Statute of Liberty. With his erratic tweeting, he has shown disregard for the necessary machinery of democracy and has promoted a democracy of chaos and distraction. By slashing the budget of the Department of State and increasing that of the Department of Defense, and by his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—in a public speech—placing interests over universal rights, Trump has magnified the idea of might makes right at the expense of the idea of might for right. By his labeling of the media as the “enemy of the people,” he has taken a page—however unwittingly—out of the totalitarian handbook of the 20th century. By not revealing his income tax returns, he has shown contempt for a vigilant, free-thinking citizenry. And by his coarse words and actions, he has promoted the vulgarization of American society.
The torch of freedom is leaving America. Perhaps it is going north to Canada, as The Economist has suggested; perhaps to Japan or Germany, as G. John Ikenberry in Foreign Affairs has suggested.
Thomas Jefferson’s concern of 1811 is apt today: “The eyes of the virtuous, all over the earth, are turned with anxiety on us, as the only depositories of the sacred fire of liberty, and that our falling into anarchy would decide forever the destinies of mankind, and seal the political heresy that man is incapable of self-government.”
The exceptional irony is that this is happening under a president so focused on American greatness.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News, RI.