Do Republicans Still Think America Is Exceptional?

For years, the GOP has lambasted the left for not valuing American exceptionalism. But the real challenge to American exceptionalism has been brewing on the right.

Evan Vucci / AP

Maybe Donald Trump is lucky that Ted Cruz knifed him on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. Otherwise, the big story would be Trump’s new interview with The New York Times.

Trump’s most astonishing policy statement is his declaration that America would only defend the Baltic states from Russian attack if he concluded that they “have fulfilled their obligations to us.” Given that Trump has spent his entire campaign insisting that America’s allies are not fulfilling their obligations to us, that’s pretty close to saying Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are on their own.

It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of Trump’s remarks. NATO, the military alliance that underpins the post-World War II order, rests on the principle that if one member is attacked, the others will come to its aid. Saying that the United States may or may not abide by that principle is the military equivalent of saying that the United States may or may not default on its national debt (which Trump has also said). Were Trump elected, these comments alone would reshape the geopolitics of Eastern Europe, as regional leaders began cozying up to Russia out of fear that the United States wouldn’t defend them. (Especially in the wake of Brexit, which has already weakened NATO.)

Trump’s comments mark a massive shift within the GOP. Since the 1940s, solidarity with the Baltic states has been a passion of the American right. Throughout the Cold War, conservatives railed against Franklin Roosevelt’s abandonment of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to Soviet domination at the 1945 Yalta Conference. In 2012, Mitt Romney traveled to Poland to emphasize the Republican argument that President Obama had sold out Eastern Europe in an attempt to curry favor with Vladimir Putin. Think about that for a second. Obama, who this year agreed to deploy NATO battalions to the Baltic states, is still widely derided inside the GOP as insufficiently committed their security. Yet the Republican presidential nominee has now implied that America shouldn’t defend them at all.

But if Trump’s comments about the Baltics constituted his sharpest policy deviation, his comments about Turkey were his most astonishing ideologically. Asked about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s massive crackdown on dissent in the wake of a failed coup, Trump asked, “How are we going to lecture when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?” He added that, “When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.”

To grasp how extraordinary those sentences are, it’s worth remembering that Republicans have spent the last seven years accusing Obama of not believing in “American exceptionalism.” Over and over, GOP politicians and conservative pundits have suggested that the core problem with Obama’s foreign policy—the reason he’s presiding over America’s global retreat—is that he doesn’t believe America is any better than other countries. In 2010, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a widely discussed National Review cover story arguing that Obama’s lack of faith in American superiority threatened “America’s civilizational self-confidence.” In 2011, Newt Gingrich wrote an entire book about the Obama administration’s assault on American exceptionalism. In 2011, in a major foreign-policy address at the Citadel, Romney declared:

I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world. Not exceptional, as the president has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States. But we are exceptional because we are a nation founded on a precious idea …We are a people who, in the language of our Declaration of Independence, hold certain truths to be self-evident: Namely, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. It is our belief in the universality of these unalienable rights that leads us to our exceptional role on the world stage, that of a great champion of human dignity and human freedom.

In truth, Obama never repudiated the idea that “we are exceptional because we are a nation founded on a precious idea.” In the very 2009 interview Romney cited, in which Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he also said: “We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”

But Trump has now said exactly what Republicans have falsely accused Obama of believing: that the United States is no better than other countries and therefore has no right to champion freedom or democracy overseas. “How are we going to lecture,” Trump told the Times, “when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?”

On its face, the formulation is curious. If Americans are shooting police, that doesn’t explain why the United States lacks standing to criticize Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But Trump’s answer offers an insight into his own views about civil liberties. The Times asked him about Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech, which the Turkish leader has justified as necessary to preserve law and order. In response, Trump—who has proposed limiting press freedom in the United States—said that America lacks standing to criticize because it lacks law and order. It’s hard not to conclude that Trump won’t criticize Erdogan’s authoritarianism because he thinks America could use a little more authoritarianism itself.

It’s ironic. For the better part of a decade, conservatives have warned that Obama doesn’t believe America is an exceptionally virtuous nation. He doesn’t believe America has the right to preach to other countries. He thinks the only reason for Americans to love America is because it’s theirs. All the while, the real challenge to American exceptionalism has been brewing on the right. Trump often vows to stop letting other governments rip off the United States. But, as the Times interview shows, he has little interest in convincing authoritarian governments to expand freedom. Instead of making them more like America, he’d rather make America more like them.