Sunday, January 07, 2018

Trump Is Making Us Rethink American Exceptionalism

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As earlier post have indicated, I am NOT a fan of the myth of "American exceptionalism" that is so popular with "conservative" politicians and right wing Christians.  The concept to me displays (i) great hubris, and (ii) a lack of knowledge of accurate history.  Worse yet, it can provide a smoke screen that blinds far too many to America's many deficiencies.  Now, in the age of Trump, the fact that America is not immune to rampant societal ills - often maintained by those preach American exceptionalism the most - and that ugly forces that have haunted other parts of the world are also at play in America.  Indeed, with Trump in the White House, if America is "exceptional," it is found in the moral bankruptcy of the Trump base and today's Republican Party.  A piece in Politico looks at how the concept of America exceptionalism is a myth.  Here are excerpts:
Americans have always thought their country was exceptional. They thought it even as early as 1630, when John Winthrop delivered a now-famous sermon in which he called the Puritan community a “city on a hill”—long before there even was an American country.
In more recent years, the idea of American exceptionalism has become tainted by politics—a rhetorical cudgel that politicians, particularly conservatives, wield to bludgeon their opponents. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, Republican leaders expressed concern that, in Newt Gingrich’s words, there was “a determined group of radicals in the United States who outright oppose American Exceptionalism.”
When most conservative politicians invoke the term “exceptionalism” they use it as shorthand for raw national chauvinism—the assertion that the United States is not just different, but better. Trump has replaced it, at least temporarily, with an angrier tag line that conveys the same sense of national power and entitlement—America First, itself a term ripped from history and freighted with dark meaning. When America is first, it owes little to everyone else. It’s a more Trumpian way of saying what other politicians often mean.
When they use the term “exceptional” to connote pure superiority, though, politicians generally betray a facile grasp of history. In its original formation, American exceptionalism was a much more complicated theory. It conveyed the idea that the United States was immune from social, political and economic forces that governed other countries—specifically, that it was invulnerable to communism and fascism, and to violent political convulsions of the sort that jolted Europe throughout the long 19th and 20th centuries. It also implied that Americans bore a providential obligation to be exemplars of virtue in a sinful world.
While some political scientists continued to explore potential variants of American exceptionalism, most historians concluded that the idea was meaningless and the very conversation itself stale.  Then came Trump.
His election and the conditions that accompanied it—a growing rejection of science and evidentiary fact, extreme political tribalism, the rise of conservative nationalist movements around the world, a popular reaction to immigration and free trade—may offer final and conclusive proof that there is nothing at all exceptional about the United States. We are fully susceptible to the same forces, good and ill, that drive politics around the globe.
But before we sound a death knell for the idea, it would help to remember what it actually means.  Ironically, the phrase that so many conservatives traditionally claimed as their own first entered the popular lexicon in 1929, when Joseph Stalin censored what he called the “heresy of American exceptionalism.”
If the phrase was new, the underlying sentiment—that America was somehow different, or special—was not. Since the earliest days of colonial settlement, the Puritan settler John Winthrop conceived of America as a “city on a hill,” a distinct place with a heaven-sent obligation to build a new and pure world. In the aftermath of the War for Independence, many citizens agreed with William Findley, a farmer from western Pennsylvania who would later serve in Congress, that Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.”
Though exceptionalism claimed deep roots in American tradition, the concept truly came into its own in the 1950s, as a generation of historians, writing in the wake of World War II, sought to make sense of why their country, alone, had escaped the violent disruptions that beset Europe over the previous 150 years: revolution, regicide, class uprising, total war and genocide. None of it had happened in the United States, these historians noted. They conveniently glossed over the violently repressive regimes of chattel slavery, Redemption, war on Indian nations, and Jim Crow, which, of course, most historians writing in these years blithely did.
The idea of American exceptionalism fell into intellectual disrepute by the early 1970s. After a decade of political turbulence over civil rights and Vietnam—police violence against peaceful black protesters, urban riots, political assassinations, pitched anti-war protests, acts of political terrorism by left-wing extremists—it seemed hardly certain that the country was any less fractured and unstable than its European cousins. Exceptionalism no longer seemed like a sure thing.
It wasn’t just external events that inspired a reconsideration. As successive generations of scholars grew interested in such phenomena as transnational immigration and borderlands conflict—not just between Mexico and the U.S., but between nation states far and wide—the clearer it has become that American history is inextricable from global events.
In short, many historians today argue that it was always folly to assume that invisible forces drove all of global history, but greater folly, still, to assert that those forces were somehow inoperable within America’s ever-changing borders and among its perpetually evolving citizenry.
If you still need convincing, look no further than recent events. It’s become axiomatic that Trump’s victory was of a piece with populist insurgencies as far and wide as France and the Netherlands, Britain and Greece. Driven by backlash against open borders, free trade and common markets, they share an angry ethno-nationalism, a rejection of elite institutions and actors, and a wispy nostalgia for an imaginary past. These movements reject sexual and cultural pluralism and, in some cases, claim a common patron in Moscow.
Nor is it clear that America’s democratic norms and institutions are fundamentally any more rock solid than those of, say, Poland, Hungary or Venezuela. As bad as? No. But any more unassailable? To observe Republican legislators in North Carolina attempt to abrogate the results of a gubernatorial election—to say nothing of Senators Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who have all but abandoned the legislative committee process in their feverish effort to cram the courts with conservative judges and pass deeply unpopular class legislation by cover of night—one can’t help but worry that the United States has slipped into what sociologist Larry Diamond calls a “democratic recession.”
As was the case one hundred years ago, America today is very much part—if not at the center—of history. It isn’t immune to the same currents of immigration, free trade, population aging and technological change that are upending political and economic systems around the globe. To believe that we’re “exceptional,” in the way that historians understand the term, is to reject reality for national theology.

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