The Inverted Politics of American Exceptionalism

Hillary Clinton champions a concept the Republican Party has embraced and Donald Trump has disavowed.

Bryan Woolston / Reuters

Hillary Clinton is making a case for American exceptionalism. “The United States is an exceptional nation,” she said on Wednesday at the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati. “It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on Earth, it’s also the strength of our values.” Clinton added: “Our power comes with a responsibility to lead.”

The Democratic presidential nominee believes talking up her commitment to American engagement abroad will help her secure the White House. Focusing on foreign policy allows Clinton to showcase her experience as a former secretary of state and emphasize how high the stakes are in the election. Elect Trump, her campaign argues, and America hands over its nuclear codes to a man with poor judgement and a history of erratic behavior. Yet what is most remarkable about Clinton’s embrace of American exceptionalism is how it highlights the inverted politics of foreign policy in the 2016 presidential race.

Republicans and Democrats have championed American exceptionalism—the concept that the United States is uniquely qualified to act as a world leader. But the GOP has more forcefully made that case, often framed as a moral imperative, in recent years. The 2012 Republican Party platform outlined a commitment to “American exceptionalism,” defining it as “the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.” Now, however, Clinton is going out of her way to embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, while Trump has disavowed it. “I don’t like the term, I’ll be honest with you,” Trump once said. “I don’t think it’s a very nice term, we’re exceptional, you’re not …  I never liked the term.”

The distinction between the two candidates is another indicator of how Trump’s candidacy has caused the Republican party to cede a message it once featured prominently as a way to appeal to voters, only to see that message loudly taken up by the Democrats.

Republican lament over that phenomenon was prominent during the Democratic and Republican conventions. “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc—they’re trying to take all our stuff,” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review tweeted during the Democratic National Convention. Watching Clinton promote American exceptionalism while their own standard-bearer shuns the concept must be uncomfortable for many Republicans, if not downright painful.

The way Trump describes it, America is under siege from immigrants and refugees. The United States has been taken advantage of by its so-called allies, and lost what made it great somewhere along the way. For Trump, America can be great again, or put another way, the country can reclaim what makes it exceptional, by putting up defensive walls and re-evaluating the extent of foreign entanglement.

For Clinton, America is already great, and as a result of that exceptional quality, the country must not shirk leadership on the world stage. “When we say America is exceptional,” she said on Wednesday, “ it means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.” Clinton assured the audience that the U.S. should deploy troops only as a last resort, but warned that “we can’t lose our military edge.”

Trump makes it difficult for the GOP to credibly assert a commitment to American exceptionalism. His candidacy also makes it harder for Republicans to attack Democrats for not believing in the concept. That has been a common conservative criticism of President Obama, but it won’t likely be a convincing attack of Clinton.

Now, exceptionalism is an idea Clinton can use against Trump. “My opponent in this race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world,” Clinton said on Wednesday. Her remarks took place the same day Trump is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico. Clinton had a response to that too, saying you “can’t make up for a year of insults by dropping in our neighbors for a few hours and flying home again.”

Clinton’s eagerness to talk about American exceptionalism draws attention to the extent to which she too represents a departure from the foreign policy vision of many Democrats. The former secretary of state is famously more hawkish than Obama, who has shown himself to be wary of what he deems unnecessary or counterproductive foreign entanglements. Clinton voted in favor of the Iraq War after all, while Obama spoke out in opposition.

For all the differences between Clinton and Obama, Obama has also signaled a belief in American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said in 2009. Rather than describing exceptionalism as a distinct quality that elevates the U.S. to a position of superiority, though, Obama made it sound like a nationalist inclination common to many countries.

Still, even if Obama and Clinton view exceptionalism differently, that distinction is not as pronounced as Trump’s outright rejection of the concept relative to his party’s embrace of it. “It’s fair to say that Trump is more of an outlier even within his party than Clinton is within hers on foreign policy,” said Elizabeth Saunders, a political science professor at George Washington University.

In the end, there is no equivalence between Trump and Clinton. There are foreign policy splits in the Republican and Democratic Party, “but both parties have a fairly strong internationalist core,” Saunders said. That stands in contrast to Trump’s apparent tendency toward isolation.

Precisely because Trump is more of an outlier, Clinton may be given a free pass by voters as she seeks to outline how she would alter the terms of America’s engagement with the rest of the world. If you’re afraid Trump might start a nuclear war, you probably won’t be as concerned that Clinton is more inclined to interventionism than many Democrats. But that doesn’t mean Clinton’s foreign policy ideas, and track record, aren’t just as deserving of scrutiny, and it doesn’t mean they couldn’t be dangerous in their own right. “While Donald Trump’s rhetoric is being scrutinized and analyzed, Hillary Clinton’s actual record of support for war, war, and more war, has been sanitized,” Cindy Sheehan recently wrote in an op-ed titled “I Led the Anti-War Movement Against George W. Bush 11 Years Ago. Hillary Clinton Is Hardly Better” published in the Independent Journal Review.

Clinton has been courting Republican foreign-policy heavyweights, and winning endorsements from members of the GOP foreign-policy establishment. On Wednesday, she made a clear pitch to Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike, framing the election not as a choice between different political ideologies, but rather a decision about who will keep the country safe.

Clinton would undoubtedly attempt to garner Republican support regardless of her opponent. But Trump’s high-profile deviations from GOP norms make it easier for her to appeal to GOP voters, while Trump’s tendency to strike fear into the heart of liberals makes it easier for her to take Democratic votes for granted. Clinton and Trump may have approaches to foreign policy that alienate many within their own parties. But they are the standard-bearers. It’s up to voters to decide if the extent to which they diverge from the mainstream is worthy of withholding a vote.