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Is American exceptionalism finally at risk?

Written By | Feb 7, 2017

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2017 — America is unique in history. We are “exceptional.”

Ronald Reagan described America as a “city on a hill.” It’s been called a beacon of democracy and of liberty, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Now, it’s not so brave. Afraid of strangers, millions want to retreat behind walls, trading exceptionalism for a narrow nationalism. Those who would make America small and narrow do not understand what generations of Americans, Republicans, and Democrats, liberals, and conservatives, have meant when they said, “American exceptionalism.”

Donald Trump, MLK, and JFK: Embracing America’s experiment

America has never simply been another country. From the very beginning, its vision of Liberty attracted people of every ethnic background and religion. At the time of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote:

 “If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the Union of such a people was impracticable. But by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires and the parts are brought into cordial unison.”

In “Redburn,” Herman Melville spelled out a vision of America which is as true today as it was then:

“There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. Be he Englishman, German, Dane or Scot: the European who scoffs at an American … stands in danger of judgment. We are not a narrow tribe of men … No: our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.”

To make America simply another country, concerned only with its narrow self-interest, is to reverse our history. F. Scott Fitsgerald wrote:

“France was a land. England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of an idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country  boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”

Today, our country is the most powerful and most prosperous in the world. We defeated Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. There are still challenges to be confronted. ISIS threatens the West with terrorism, and it is important that it be defeated. But the promotion of fear by some in Washington is irrational.

In his first Inaugural Address, in the midst of the Great Depression, as democracy was collapsing in Europe, Franklin D. Roosevelt told the country, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  Now a new administration stirs fear with no basis for doing so.

Scholars of the subject say they can think of no previous president so enamored as Mr. Trump of scare tactics. Historian Robert Dallek says, “If he frightens people, it puts him in the driver’s seat. These are what I think can be described as demagogic tendencies.”

There is nothing conservative about what we are hearing from the White House. The catchphrase “America First” has antecedents in attempts to keep the U.S. out of the war against Nazism. Commentator Charles Krauthammer writes:

“Some claim that putting America first is a reassertion of American exceptionalism. On the contrary, it is the antithesis. It makes America no different from all the other countries that define themselves by a particularist blood-and-soil nationalism. What made America exceptional, unique in the world, was defining its own national interest beyond its narrow economic and security needs to encompass the safety and prosperity of a vast array of allies. A free world, markedly open trade and mutual defense was President Truman’s vision, shared by every president since. Until now. … For 70 years, we sustained an international system of open commerce and democratic alliances that has enabled America and the West to grow and thrive. Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.”

The people around presidential adviser Stephen Bannon and the “alt-right” have more in common with the right-wing racial nationalism of Marine Le Pen’s National  Front in France than anything in our own history. To what degree President Trump has embraced such views is unclear.

America First—the way it should be

But many traditional conservatives see all of this as a dramatic departure from American exceptionalism. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes:

“We are in the midst of a Great War of national identity. We thought we were in an ideological battle against radical Islam, but we are really fighting the national myths spread by Trump, Bannon, Putin, Le Pen and Farage. We can argue about immigration and trade and foreign policy, but nothing will be right until we restore and revive the meaning of America. Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about:  assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger … Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?”

In 1866, Lord Acton, the Brutish liberal leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from “the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon with the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West.”

America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany. Frenchmen have loved France. Swedes have loved Sweden. But America has been beloved not only by Americans, but by men and women throughout the world who have yearned for freedom. America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in the history of man.

Now that dream is being replaced with something far different. The Republican Party, which always embraced the idea of American exceptionalism, an idea to which Ronald Reagan and conservatives were particularly committed, now has a choice. Will it abandon its vision of America as exceptional and adopt the very ordinary nationalism which now is manifesting itself in the White House, or will it maintain its belief in an America which is, indeed, something new and positive in history?

All of us will be losers if the vision of America embraced by the Founding Fathers and generations of Americans is abandoned by those whose notion of America is narrow and completely ahistorical.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.