Personally, I have never fully bought into the American exceptionalism myth. Truth be told, throughout history, various nations have viewed themselves as exceptional and special: Great Britain, France, Russia, ancient Rome - the list goes on and on. That said, America has been unique in that its better angels have relied on concepts and ideals that more defined the nation than its ethnic make up or one prevailing culture. At least until now in the era of Donald Trump and his racist and religious extremist base. To Trump and his followers, it is all about skin color and one's ancestral origin. Those of white European ancestry count while everyone else does not. As a prior post noted, evangelical Christians are all on board with this limiting view of who are "real Americans" and "leaders" like James Dobson and Tony Perkins are preaching it to the hapless followers who can only see common humanity in those that look like them and hold the same archaic and exclusionary religious beliefs. Michael Gerson, a conservative who in my view, like many never Trumpers, was far too slow in condemning the racist trajectory that the Republican Party began to follow years ago now, laments what Trump's view of America means for the country and the future in a column in the Washington Post. Here are highlights:
The celebration of American independence is supposed to be a unifying national ritual. But we are a country with profound differences over the meaning of nationhood itself.People in more typical countries — such as Belgium, Japan and Russia — are attached primarily to a unique piece of earth, a unique language, a unique culture and (perhaps) a unique ethnicity. Their celebration of nationhood is the celebration of particularity. One may become a naturalized citizen of such a country, but it is less clear what it means to become Belgian, Japanese or Russian. If possible, it would require total immersion in national distinctiveness.
This is how the current U.S. president appears to view his native land. President Trump’s Fourth of July remarks did make reference to the abstract promises of the Declaration of Independence, but he mainly praised his nation as a place and a power. . . He talked about the nation’s military victories, but not much about the nation’s character. He seems to love America because it is his country and a powerful country, but not because it is a country with a calling.
Contrast this with the national story told by Ronald Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush. American ideals — while growing out of a specific culture — are transcendent and universal. . . . It wins a global competition of ideals because it accords most closely with the durable dreams of humanity for liberty and justice.
This differing emphasis has dramatic implications. If the United States is primarily a normal nation, united by a common culture, then it is diluted by outsiders and weakened by diversity. In this circumstance, cultural differences lead inexorably to conflict and disunity. A nation defined primarily by culture or ethnicity is a fortress to be defended.
“America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” said George W. Bush in his first inaugural address. “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.”
And if our main source of national unity is cultural, then the composition of America’s foreign-born population would matter greatly. According to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Trump expressed disdain for immigrants from countries such as Haiti and said, “We should have more people from places like Norway.” It is difficult to separate such statements from their racial context. In this view, a national culture largely shaped by white European migrants is better carried forward by white European migrants.
This conception of nationhood can descend quickly into dehumanization. If Hispanic migrants are defined as a threat to national security and national identity, then it becomes easier to separate crying children from their parents. It becomes easier to store migrants in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. And it becomes easier — following the tragic drowning of a father and daughter trying to cross the Rio Grande — to blame migrants for their own desperation.
A broader definition of American identity does not require the decriminalization of all border crossings, or the abolition of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. It does require the construction of a humane asylum system that treats oppressed and frightened people with respect. It forbids the dehumanization or cruel treatment of migrants under any circumstance. And it embodies the generosity of spirit on which American greatness depends.