From June 2016:

What’s Exceptional about American Exceptionalism?

Aaron MacLean at the Washington Free Beacon draws our attention via Twitter to a Mother Jones article quoting Donald Trump on the topic of American exceptionalism. We are happy to offer our thoughts in response, and we do so sincerely and respectfully.

First, Trump said:

I don’t like the term [American exceptionalism]. I’ll be honest with you. People say, “Oh he’s not patriotic.” Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, “Why are you exceptional. We’re doing a lot better than you.”…

Because essentially we’re saying we’re more outstanding than you. “By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you.” I don’t like the term. I never liked it. When I see these politicians get up [and say], “the American exceptionalism”—we’re dying. We owe 18 trillion in debt. I’d like to make us exceptional. And I’d like to talk later instead of now….

We may have a chance to say it in the not-too-distant future. But even then, I wouldn’t say it because when I take back the jobs, and when I take back all that money and we get all our stuff, I’m not going to rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. But I never liked that term….

Truth be told, this is one of the most refreshing statements on American exceptionalism that I have heard uttered by a politician in a long time. Conservatives, especially, have come to take for granted chants of “American exceptionalism” as a campaign rallying cry–as something merely to be celebrated rather than an achievement that must continually be renewed. This is one of the underlying problems I see with American conservatism today.

On this point, Prof. Harvey Mansfield offered perhaps the best discussion of American exceptionalism in a 2011 essay in the New Criterion:

The wisdom of the American Founders does not come to us in authoritative phrases such as “Confucius says” or in what we have unfortunately come to call our “values,” but mostly in the form of a Constitution….

Publius announces on the first page [of the Federalist] that the new American Constitution proposes to make an experiment for mankind to see whether a republic can actually be “good government” in practice as well as imagination. America will be exceptional rather than unique: exceptional in being the first to make a republic work, to prove its point by its success, thus to lead the way—rather than unique because of its values or circumstances….

[Anti Federalists] had no care for the weaknesses of republics, amply revealed in the sorry history of republics, which features instability, inaction, and surrender to tyranny.  Recent experience in the Revolution and afterward had produced a situation called by Publius “almost the last stage of national humiliation” (Federalist 15)….

The utopian theories behind the [Anti-Federalist] tradition that The Federalist disparaged were republican theories far distant from the realities of politics and human nature. It insisted, rather, that republicanism be held to the standard of “good government,” meaning government that works, one that provides the energy and stability that are requirements of all government, and one that cannot be wished away with the assumption that republicanism is good in itself….

The Constitution, therefore, is not a guarantee of good government; it is not a machine that runs itself. Each generation has the responsibility to make it a success, and the wisdom of the Founders is more a challenge to choose freely and well than a solution we have merely to accept.

Of course, for Mansfield as well as for us, the ideas and principles of the American founding and Constitution are critical aspects of American exceptionalism and American nationhood more generally. We certainly agree with that position and have written about it elsewhere.

But, it must be added, merely celebrating our principles or history does not in and of itself make America exceptional, no more than the many failed republics from the past and the present. Too many conservatives seem to have forgotten that merely pronouncing ourselves exceptional does not make us exceptional. As Obama said, every country does that. In fact, the recent shift in defining American exceptionalism as a fact rather than an aspiration–and the seeming obsession with discussing it–suggests a fundamental and probably appropriate insecurity.

In contrast, by speaking of American exceptionalism as an aspiration to be realized, Trump is on firmer ground. And the aspiration is realized not when we tell the world that we are exceptional but when we are acknowledged by others–perhaps silently, perhaps grudgingly–to be exceptional. That is accomplished not by principles alone but also by demonstrating success–greatness, if you will–through those principles.

Now, admittedly, Trump does not mention those principles (at least in the above quotation) and it is fair to question whether he has any grasp of them at all. That is as much a concern for us as for the many #NeverTrump conservatives who have made that point. As we have said before, we would have designed a more perfect candidate if that were an option.

Yet Trump’s critique of the frankly complacent, conventional conservative version of American exceptionalism cannot be ignored. Indeed, Trump’s version of American exceptionalism, imperfect though it may be, seems much more suited to the present moment than another Independence Day speech.

As Trump says, other countries, if not necessarily eating our lunch, seem to have less and less to find admirable in us. For all our talk about vibrant Constitutional democracy, our legislature abdicates more and more of its responsibilities every year. Our laws are increasingly made by unelected bureaucrats and judges, or, more recently, established by executive ukase. A sizeable portion of our political class seems to think the presidency ought to be swapped back and forth between two or three families every few years. Meanwhile, wages have been stagnant for 30 years; productivity is declining; inequality is extreme while social mobility has fallen; cultural cohesion is shattered; the number of single parent families is through the roof; our education system seems to perform worse and worse every year; drug addiction is up; life expectancy is down; the prisons are swelling, and on and on and on.

So conservatives want us to talk about the wonderful exceptionalism of our democracy? Great. Hugo Chavez did that, too. There’s really nothing exceptional in talking about the greatness of your own system, especially when it is in decline.

Most of the world laughs at the stupidity of both our foreign and economic policy. You want someone to go lecture them about our exceptionalism? The most exceptional thing about this country right now is its inability to win wars despite massive military superiority.

Trump is where he is precisely because he recognized the laziness of TrueConservatism’s™ version of American exceptionalism. His opponents lost because they were too wrapped up in their ideology to see it.

Trump was not afraid to call Iraq a failure because it is (we can have an academic debate about the reasons for that, but, to coin a phrase, what difference, at this point, does it make?). He did not pretend that all our economic problems were simply the result of Obamacare and tax rates. This is not the place for a complete policy discussion, but we discuss these issues at greater length here and elsewhere.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Trump has any solutions to these problems. There are plenty of reasons for skepticism on that score.  But admitting the problem is the first step toward solving it, and Trump’s opponents–and too many conservative pundits and intellectuals–could not even do that. Getting over our complacent version of American exceptionalism is a good start.

So go ahead and criticize Trump for a poor grasp of Constitutional principles. Criticize him for an apparent lack of policy depth or for saying inflammatory or stupid things all too frequently.

But refusing to mouth platitudes about American exceptionalism? That’s the best thing any presidential candidate has done in years.