Donald Trump is only the latest US political leader to buy into the dangerous and enduring myth of American exceptionalism, writes Henry McLeish.
Ordering the assassination of the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani says a great deal about President Trump’s unpredictability and his embrace of lawlessness and recklessness. Struggling with impeachment, angered by press criticism of his failure to deal with Iran, mocked by world leaders and conscious of his date with destiny on 5 November this year, Trump may just be playing global hard man for his base, regardless of the consequences for the international order and peace in the Middle East.
Pre-dating Trump, a powerful myth, which has been nurtured and eulogised through the centuries from the founding of the country in 1776, helps explain his country’s behaviour: ‘America exceptionalism’ is the elusive, unspoken driving force behind US actions at home and the aggravation, mistrust and mayhem abroad.
Exceptionalism, a condition of being unique, leads naturally to a sense of complete superiority. Unlike patriotism or even nationalism, exceptionalism has become a more powerful component of America’s DNA. In 2016 the Republican Party platform was based on the idea that, “our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership”. In similar vein, former US Vice-President Dick Cheney wrote a book called Exceptional: Why The World Needs a Powerful America.
Long before then, in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book Democracy in America: “The position of Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
American exceptionalism implies that a country can be allowed to be different from and perhaps better than others. More dramatically, the history of America is absorbed with the idea that it is “the last best hope for mankind” as Abraham Lincoln once claimed.
‘Shining city on the hill’
The roots of exceptionalism are deep and varied. History, revolution, religion, ideology and capitalism have combined to play their part in shaping a country unable to distinguish between myth and reality as America attempts to deal with a complex world of accelerating change.
Ronald Reagan and John F Kennedy both used the phrase “shining city on the hill” to capture American exceptionalism. Reagan said: “America is a shining city upon a hill where a beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” The source of this phrase is the parable of “salt and light” from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 14-16.
John Winthrop, an English puritan lawyer, was one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony and led the first large wave of immigrants from England in 1630. Winthrop’s writings and vision were a source of inspiration and referred to this new place in a new world as a “city on a hill” to inspire the Puritan pilgrims.
Built on the belief that Americans believe their history is unique as their country was the product of revolution and a break from a Britain steeped in “religious persecution and tyranny”, America, in the eyes of its founding fathers, was the first new nation.
Ideology also became important as liberty, individual responsibility, representative democracy and laissez faire capitalism shaped the new America and reinforced, at the start of the 19th century, the idea that a new civilisation was being created.
The idea of the US having a unique role to transform the world was inevitably linked to a common expression of superiority and a shared aspiration of political beliefs. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said: “Americans have the duty to ensure government, of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from this Earth.”
A Christian renaissance
Religion, as ever, has played its part in the formation of American exceptionalism. Given their beliefs about the suppression of liberty and religious faith in 16th-century England and the opportunity to expand the frontiers of religious observance in America, powerful ideas began to gain traction and some Protestants believed that their new country would facilitate the return of Jesus Christ and a new Christian millennium!
Reinforcing this sense of uniqueness is the idea of an economy built on free-market principles. The debates of the founding fathers also contributed to the theory that “the peaceful capitalism of the US constituted an exception to the general economy laws governing national historic developments”. The significance of this is hard to overlook. Exceptionalism means the ability to work to different standards and to ignore whatever is detrimental to America.
These ideas – of freedom and liberty, a Christian renaissance, the American frontiersman, the ‘virgin land’ ethos and the free market – promised an escape from the decay “that befell earlier republics”. Powerful sentiments and home-spun philosophy have been crucial in creating a sense of exceptionalism that has been nurtured, shaped and deepened over centuries and which shows no signs of accommodating a different and more relevant view of the world. The US acts and behaves as it wishes because there is an overwhelming sense of moral superiority that condemns other countries to remain passive recipients of whatever is passed down to them. A unique America lives by its own rules and beliefs.
Of course, none of this makes any sense in the world we live in. It matters to America. however, because below the threshold of collective consciousness, exceptionalism acts as a subliminal process affecting the collective mind without people being aware of it.
Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian politician and author, in American Exceptionalism and Human Rights”, argues that the US is not exceptional and is not entitled by virtue or history to play a superior role in the world. He asks whether the US stands within the order of international law or outside it and whether America still plays by the rules it helped to create.
He identifies three alternative interpretations of US exceptionalism. First, exemptionalism – supporting treaties if Americans are exempt from them. Second, double standards – by criticising others for not heeding the findings of international bodies but ignoring what these bodies say of the US. Third, legal isolationism – the tendency of American judges to ignore other jurisdictions.
Trump is not alone in the myths and fantasies he promotes. Instead he is the latest US President to buy into exceptionalism in order to preserve a dishonest but plausible narrative about America’s role in the world.
In his poem To a Louse, Robert Burns said: “O wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us.”
Approaching the anniversary of the birth of the bard, will our fellow Scot in the White House even understand these wise words?