American Exceptionalism and America First

American Exceptionalism and America First Abram van Engen – Strategic-Culture

In 2016, Donald Trump won the White House with a policy of “America First,” which he quickly made the official position of his administration. Such language can sometimes seem like American exceptionalism, offering an updated version of President Reagan’s “city on a hill,” but it actually offers a radically different vision of the nation’s place and purpose in the world.

American exceptionalism asserts a unique history and destiny for this nation. It is usually based on a story with divine overtones, a narrative which arcs toward freedom and justice. In this story, God in his providence founded the United States to lead the world into civil and religious liberty. American exceptionalism, in other words, is first and foremost collective history.

America First, in contrast, has little interest in history. Instead, it offers a national philosophy. It claims that all countries are essentially alike, including the United States, and all share the same fundamental goal: to win.

Both forms of rhetoric have their own particular hazards. The idea that our country has a distinct history and unique purpose has always implied both a higher morality to guide us and a sense of God’s election. And a belief in special election, for nations at least, can be quite dangerous. John O’Sullivan, who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” declared that the United States would “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world … has America been chosen.”

That mission, expressed in Manifest Destiny, involved a brutal confiscation of land, an unwillingness or inability to recognize the civilization, culture, or contributions of other peoples, and an extension of American interests frequently dressed up in the guise of being good for all the world. If we call or consider our nation the special messenger of God, we are not likely to be found listening to, or learning from, others.

The hazards of America First, in contrast, come not from a sense of divine election, but from a worldview based in the utter absence of any higher moral good. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest, where winners make losers and losers have no claim to sympathy. The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind.

Today, nothing captures the rhetoric of American exceptionalism better than the phrase “city on a hill,” a phrase Donald Trump never uses. President Reagan used this expression the most, and the end of his career summarized what it meant to him. In his 1989 “Farewell Address,” he called on Americans to study history, for “if we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” Then he closed by reflecting on John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, who was “an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man.” According to Reagan, he founded America as a “shining city upon a hill,” and many years later, “she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Such statements demonstrate how American exceptionalism works. It ties a sense of what America stands for to a claim about how America began. It tells a story which gives a purpose.

Yet the stories and purposes can be quite flexible, as others have often noted. “It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began,” Barack Obama asserted in 2006. “As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.”

For Obama, that improbable idea meant progress toward a more perfect union. “This union may never be perfect,” he claimed, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” Obama’s American exceptionalism told a story of ever-greater inclusion, diversity, dignity and opportunity: It was not “still a beacon,” but always instead becoming a beacon through history.

In its different forms, American exceptionalism gained strength through the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. By 2012, it had become part of the Republican Party’s platform, which officially embraced “the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.” Four years later, Hillary Clinton agreed, explaining that “we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.” By 2016, it seemed as though we had reached a bipartisan rhetorical consensus on the exceptionalism of the United States.

Enter Donald Trump.

America First, by and large, dispenses with history. Trump tells us that once we were great and now we are not, but offers few details. Instead, he proposes a universal purpose for all the world’s nations: Every nation protects itself, advances its interests, and prospers its own.

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