American Exceptionalism Is More Than Just Rhetoric

The 2016 GOP platform opens by endorsing “American Exceptionalism” the subject of its first three principles. The text’s first two lines read “We believe in American exceptionalism. We believe the United States of America is unlike any other nation on earth.” The platform then goes on to explain the source of that exceptionalism, America’s “historic role—first as refuge, then as defender, and now as exemplar of liberty for the world to see.” Exceptionalism receives pride of place, as the first principle the GOP announces in this document. Some readers might see these observations as meaningless platitudes or shameless self-flattery, but in fact the idea of exceptionalism has a troubling history. 

Looking into the historic meaning of American Exceptionalism reveals that the Grand Old Party has chosen to throw down this particular gantlet advisedly. 

American exceptionalism originally meant that the U.S. had a God-given duty to impose its government and “way of life” on lands not already under its control.  Whereas other nations behaving in an aggressive fashion might be labeled imperialist and might be open to criticism for their aggression, the United States, proponents of exceptionalism asserted, brought only benefit to the lands and peoples they seized.  Indeed the seizure of territories claimed by various European powers or other American governments or native peoples was not referred to as seizures at all but rather by the more benign term “expansion.”  Expansion implies an almost natural process—imagine a balloon expanding. Using that term suggests that the United States was meant to fill up the continent.  The U.S. had, in fact, a “Manifest Destiny” to do so. These ideas posited that progress, Protestant religion, and American institutions were all uniformly desirable to all peoples and that these peoples would welcome an expanding United States that brought them such obvious benefits. Those who opposed this intrusion (and saw it as aggression) were dismissed as backward, irreligious, and anti-democratic. American exceptionalists assumed the inevitability of U.S. expansion (as well as its desirability).

 After invoking exceptionalism the platform then asserts American uniqueness, which seems to say that only we are exceptional. Claims of national uniqueness are vague but apparently reassuring.  Certainly the U.S. is both like other nations in some ways and unlike them in the ways all nations differ. The United States shares with others various attributes. So, like the U.S. that expanded asserting its exceptional nature, other countries also span from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the North American continent. Then, too, all nations have their own peculiar attributes, related to their history, their government, the composition of their population, and the like. If American uniqueness is meant to gloss American exceptionalism (as would seem, given its placement between two points having to do with that topic) then it suggests that we are special, in our exceptionalism, in the superiority of our institutions. Other nations with designs on the territory or resources of others (say Putin’s Russia) don’t get to make these claims of uniquely desirable institutions.

The GOP wraps up its discussion of exceptionalism by noting its historic roots (as a refuge for and a defender of liberty) before going on to say what the U.S. is currently prepared to do for the rest of the world. Now, according to the party, the U.S. is merely an exemplar or example. In the past we offered refuge (including to the many immigrants who came to this country, among them most ancestors of the party faithful) or fought in defense of liberty (struggling to ensure it for others in for instance WWII). Now all we have to offer is the opportunity for the world to watch us being exceptional. 

With all eyes on Trump entering in a cloud of smoke machine fog like some rock god, the world is no doubt watching. Their foundational document declares them only interested in serving as an example, or perhaps more aptly putting on a show.  They are finished with offering refuge (build that wall). They are done defending liberty for others (“all lives matter” as a cover for inaction when their fellow citizens need their liberties defended). What, then, is the take away from this Republican Convention?  If we want to return to an era of unabashed American Exceptionalism, the Republicans would be happy to lead us there.