American exceptionalism is a somewhat flexible idea that has at its core the belief that the United States is a nation unlike any other nation, that its past and its politics are unique and perhaps even divinely endowed, and that the forces of history that shape other countries do not shape the United States. This year's presidential race presents an interesting convergence of three different strands of this idea, each of them centered on Donald Trump, and all of them revealed in the pages of what we might call establishment publications.
The first strand is Trump's candidacy itself, his vow to "make America great again," and his apparent belief that international law need not apply to the United States. A second strand can be seen in the assertions by many observers that there is no way that voters would send Trump to the White House, that Americans are too smart to do something so foolhardy. The third strand is less optimistic about voter wisdom and argues that should Donald Trump be elected, America will have succumbed to the allure of authoritarianism like other countries have before it. Thus, it emphasizes the importance of preventing Trump from being elected in order to preserve a kind of purity of national history.
Let's look at each in turn.
Trump's supporters view his assertion of the once and future greatness of the United States as both refreshingly honest and inspirational. This despite the arguments of Tom Englehardt in the Guardian that Trump does not believe in American exceptionalism and, in fact believes in "the opposite: that, at present, America is anything but exceptional, indispensible, or great." Implicit in that observation, however, is the idea that while things might not be "great" right now, the current situation is an aberration easily reversed.
The position of many of Trump's supporters is that American exceptionalism is a national birthright and will be ours again once he is in the White House. After all, as Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, Trump's "entire campaign is built around the idea that foreign influences are infecting the United States." Once the country disentangles itself from foreign obligations and builds a wall to protect its borders, its rightful exceptionalism will reemerge.
Trump's strand of American exceptionalism, then, takes the form of a jeremiad. It is based around the belief that although the United States has historically been the most glorious country ever known, it has lost its way. Only Trump can bring the country back to its rightful state of greatness. Indeed, as Hilde Restad notes in a blog post for the London School of Economics, for Trump and his supporters, "if you want America to be great again, definitely vote for Trump."
Millions of American have heeded that message and have flocked to the polls to show their support for Trump and his triumphalist promises. Meanwhile, millions of other Americans have looked at the rise of Trump with something like bemusement, leading us to a second strand of American exceptionalism. For those who think the United States is immune from the temptations of embracing authoritarian leaders, it was clear from the very moment Trump announced his candidacy that his campaign would crash and burn. There is no way he could be taken seriously, right? American voters would see through his charade and send him on his way, right?
As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times back in December: "When campaigns enter that final month, voters tend to gravitate toward the person who seems most orderly. As the primary season advances, voters' tolerance for risk declines. They focus on the potential downsides of each contender and wonder, Could this person make things even worse? When this mental shift happens, I suspect Trump will slide. All the traits that seem charming will suddenly seem risky."
Even as Trump started racking up his primary wins, the expectation was that, somehow, the GOP would find a way to deny him the nomination. Now that Trump has secured the delegate count necessary to be the Republican nominee, many of those same Americans who didn't think he would get this far now assume that there is no way he could be elected in November. Surely the American voters will see through him, right? We Americans are far too smart and principled to put a demagogue in the White House, aren't we? This sort of thing might happen in other countries, but it can't happen here, can it?
Well, maybe it can and many of those who now stand aghast at the very real prospect of a Trump presidency frame their distress through the third strand of American exceptionalism. Take, for instance, Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker. Gopnik looks at the histories of other countries that have had authoritarian leaders and tells his readers that such countries "don't really recover" even after the leader is gone because those countries now know that their "institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak." If Trump were to be President, Gopnik writes, "there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over."
In a slightly different vein, Andrew Sullivan points out that all democracies fail at some point and that the United States might be nearing that point. (That the United States will not maintain its core democratic values in perpetuity reveals one lie at the heart of American exceptionalism. This country, too, will fade away at some point.) In a somber essay in New York magazine, Sullivan shares Gopnik's concerns about America's future and calls for Republican Party elites to work with Democrats and the "never Trump" conservatives to prevent him from winning in November "in order to save their party and their country."
I don't expect that Trump will win in November but I sure think he could. I certainly don't believe that some misty American exceptionalism will forever protect us like a magic charm from demagogues or tyrants. Indeed, if there is one thing that this election is revealing to us, it's that the powerful belief in American exceptionalism is just as likely to lead to a Trump presidency as it is to prevent one.