Finally, Sanders eschews the flag-waving, “We’re number one”-style nationalism that also supposedly sets the United States apart. He does not wear the stars and stripes on his lapel, and his supporters would groan if he did. He’s patriotic but not nationalistic. Unlike even Barack Obama, he doesn’t go around saying America is the greatest country in the world. Originally, commentators thought this might sink him. “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now,” declared George Stephanopoulos early in the campaign. “He wants America to look more like Scandinavia.” But for Sanders, that’s no insult. He happily admits that America isn’t always best. “That’s right. That’s right,” he told Stephanopoulos. “And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong, when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do?
Here again, Sanders can successfully challenge American exceptionalism because America’s young are challenging it. Fewer than one in three Millennials, compared with almost three in four Americans over the age of 75, say the United States is the greatest country in world. Americans over the age of 50 are far more likely than Germans, Brits, and Spaniards their own age to say, “Our culture is superior to others.” Americans under the age of 30, by contrast, are actually less likely than their Western European counterparts to say so. Young Americans are embracing Bernie for the same reason they’ve embraced soccer. And for the same reason they’d likely embrace the metric system. Unlike many of their elders, they simply don’t believe that because America has always done something differently than the rest of the world, that makes it right.
All of which helps explain why those elders are more likely to vote Republican. Within the GOP field, it’s a virtual given that part of what makes America great is its distinctiveness. Marco Rubio warns (and warns and warns) that, “Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” His response to Sanders is: “If you want to live in a socialist country, move. I want to live in America.”
But Trump’s defense of American separateness is the most extreme. His entire campaign is built around the idea that foreign influences are infecting the United States. He wants to build a wall to keep out undocumented Mexicans. He wants to temporarily bar entry by Muslims. He has accused President Obama of not being born in the United States and suggested that Ted Cruz may not being eligible to be president because he was born in Canada. “The U.S.,” he declared upon announcing his presidential campaign, “has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”
Trump’s supporters like the fact that he’s rich, blunt, and hasn’t spent his life in politics. But his pledges to keep the rest of the world at bay are core to his appeal. In New Hampshire, Trump lost to John Kasich by 12 points among voters who oppose banning Muslims from entering the United States. But among voters who favor the ban, Trump beat him by 33 points. Trump and Kasich tied among voters who believe undocumented immigrants should have a path to legalization. But among voters who want to deport the undocumented, Trump won by 43 points.