How Trump Wants to Make America Exceptional Again

For his predecessors, American exceptionalism was rooted in the nation’s values and ideas. For this president, it means something very different.

President Trump signs his executive order on immigration on January 27. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

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.

So conservatives and liberals began to retell the story in different ways.

When Mitt Romney ran for president, he said that what made America exceptional was its mission to defend liberty. “We are exceptional because we are a nation founded on a precious idea that was birthed in the American Revolution,” Romney told students at the Citadel in 2011, “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.

When Newt Gingrich ran, he claimed that what made America special was its unfettered capitalism. “There is a determined group of radicals in the United States who outright oppose American Exceptionalism,” Gingrich wrote in his 2011 book, A Nation Like No Other, “these malcontents struggle to reduce American power and transform our political and economic systems into the kind of statist, socialist model that is now failing across Europe.” For both men, the threat to American exceptionalism was Barack Obama, who was imposing socialism domestically, abandoning America’s moral mission overseas, and thus turning the U.S. into Europe.

But even as Republicans slammed him for not believing in American exceptionalism, Obama was reimagining it himself. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he declared in his famous Philadelphia speech in March 2008. “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. For Obama, what made America exceptional was its ever-expanding circle of inclusion. By overcoming its history of bigotry, and building a society where people of different races, ethnicities and religions lived in harmony, America overcame the tribal hatreds that marred other lands and became a model for the world.

When Obama contrasted the U.S. with countries that couldn’t integrate people of different races, ethnicities, and faiths, he wasn’t only contrasting America with Syria, Congo, and Iraq. Like all American exceptionalists, he was contrasting America with Europe. “Our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength,” Obama lectured British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015. “There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case, and that’s probably the greatest danger that Europe faces.”

Donald Trump has turned that upside town. It is now clear that Trump and his top aides are telling their own, distinct, exceptionalist story. Like Obama’s, theirs starts with the cautionary tale of Europe as a continent that cannot integrate immigrants, and thus cannot keep itself safe. But while Obama said that what sets America apart is its inclusivity, Trump and his advisors say that what sets America apart is its sovereignty. By embracing the European Union, they argue, Europeans stopped valuing nationhood. And as a result, they admitted Muslims who are threatening the continent from within. “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world - a horrible mess!”

On Monday night on Fox News, White House aide Stephen Miller brought up Europe unprompted. “The most important thing to discuss right now,” he told Tucker Carlson, “is how do we keep this country from falling into the same trap as happened to parts of Europe to places like Germany, to places like France, where you have a permanent intergenerational problem of Islamic radicalism that becomes a routine feature of life in those countries, a new normal. How do we keep that from happening in America?”

Trump aides don’t explicitly answer their own question. Obama placed the primary blame for Europe’s failure on European governments and host societies. The implication was that Muslims, like any other group of immigrants, can become loyal, productive citizens if shown respect and offered opportunity. All America has to do is be open and tolerant.

Trump and his aides, by contrast, place the primary blame for non-integration on Europe’s Muslim immigrants themselves. And Miller suggests that if current trends continue, American Muslims will prove just as dangerous and unassimilable as their European counterparts. It’s a deeply pessimistic vision. Neither Trump nor any of his aides, as far as I know, has proposed policies to help American Muslims embrace opportunity and avoid radicalization. All they’ve done is try to reduce the number coming into the country. The implication is that what will make America exceptional is not its success in integrating Muslims but its success in keeping them out. Steve Bannon has all but said that. “If we didn’t hit the pause button today, is it already locked up that we’re going to be importing at least a couple of million Muslims whatever happens?” he asked a guest on his Breitbart show in December 2015.

This is what truly differentiates Trump’s exceptionalism story from its predecessors. For Lipset, Bell, Romney, Gingrich, and Obama, what made America exceptional were its people’s habits and ideas. For Trump, what makes America exceptional is the fact that its people are overwhelmingly Jewish and Christian. For Obama, what made America exceptional was its ability to foster a national identity that transcended tribe and sect. And for Trump? Making America exceptional again requires abandoning that as a dangerous dream.