Daniel Drezner argues in The Washington Post that Donald “Trump’s brand of nativism could be the death knell for American exceptionalism.” I disagree. American exceptionalism is not a set of enduring national characteristics that a president can undermine. American exceptionalism is a story that America’s leaders tell about what makes America different from Europe. As realities on both continents change, and different American leaders emerge, those leaders change the story. So Trump isn’t ending American exceptionalism. He’s redefining it in ironic and disturbing ways.
“American exceptionalism” began as a way to explain why working-class Americans found communism less appealing than did their European counterparts. For the American communist leader Jay Lovestone, who coined the phrase, it was an excuse for his frustrating lack of success. For post-war sociologists like Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset, it was a source of national strength. The American poor didn’t seethe with class resentment and turn to revolutionary ideologies because upward mobility gave them the chance to rise.
But when the cold war ended, and European communism largely died, not having a strong communist movement no longer made America exceptional. Moreover, in an era of accelerating income equality, American leaders began to acknowledge that when it came to upward mobility, the United States wasn’t actually exceptional at all.