Exceptionalism by any other name
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Over the course of his campaign and young presidency Donald Trump has made a slew of racist, sexist, and jingoistic comments. 

The integration of such comments into daily public discourse, not to mention the hate crimes that increasingly accompany them, are alarming. Equally if not more worrisome than President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE’s unabashed prejudice, however, is his language of tolerance.


Consider Donald Trump’s two most important speeches to date as president, one delivered at his inauguration and the other presented in late February to a joint session of congress. Reactions to the inauguration speech focused on the alarmism of “American carnage” and the geopolitical policy implications of “America first,” as if they were two separate things.


In fact, they’re linked by the imagery of tolerance: “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.’”

President Trump reduces the utopian unity described in Psalm 133 to American patriotism. He preaches this patriotism in the religious and nationalist terms of his supporters from the right and alt-right. From the president’s perspective, the remedy for prejudice at home is American exceptionalism, not to say intolerance, abroad.

In his first speech to a joint session of congress, President Trump temporarily smoothed some of the xenophobic edges from his inaugural language. He nevertheless continued to invoke the vocabulary of tolerance to express an exclusionary vision of patriotic unity that has already become a hallmark of his administration. 

By suggesting that the United States has become a “sanctuary for extremists,” for instance, President Trump did not only subtly attack self-described sanctuary cities. He also undercut the very concept of a sanctuary as a holy place of refuge.

According to a logic that suffuses President Trump’s foreign policy and homeland security agenda, refugees are always potential extremists, the sanctuary always a potential foothold for terrorists. Iconic religious images of solidarity and shelter are for President Trump symbols of exclusion and violence.

The statutory corollary to President Trump’s disquieting version of religious tolerance is his two executive orders on immigration, the first from late January and the second from last week. 

A key section of the first order prioritizes “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality.” 

At first glance, it’s hard to disagree with this noble aim. Yet among several issues currently before the federal courts is whether this particular clause represents intent to privilege Christian and Jewish refugees from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, all Muslim-majority countries. It’s necessary to define minority religion in order to protect it, of course. 

Yet the persecution or exclusion of minority religious groups requires a definition, too. The language of tolerance can serve both ends.

President Trump’s second executive order on immigration replaces the first order’s section on minority religion with defensive griping. Despite former New York city mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s admission that the crafty legalese of the first order emerged only by purging previous drafts’ overt anti-Islamic sentiment, the new order insists that the old order was intended to protect religious minorities seeking access to various American refugee programs. 

President Trump and his team are evidently concerned that the judicial branch might not recognize such generous motivations, however. So they have sought to buttress their claim to tolerance by fiat. The point here is that the language of tolerance is becoming unmoored from its association in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with civil rights and other socially inclusive causes.

President Trump employs the language of tolerance, and in particular religious tolerance, as a tool of exclusion. It’s a form of aggression more refined but also more insidious than soundbite bigotry. It undermines tolerance as an ideal while underscoring its etymological and historical roots as a form of persecution. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, the sort of tolerance articulated by President Trump evokes the tolerance expertly theorized by sixteenth-century Spanish inquisitors, whose learned guidebooks advised tolerating only strictly defined minorities, and only after the failure of more aggressive means. 

From this perspective, to tolerate is reluctantly to bear minorities in our midst until they assimilate to the majority or leave altogether. 

Tolerance is once again a last resort.

You might consider this account either too cynical or not cynical enough: Surely President Trump cannot so quickly sully tolerance as a goal. Nor has the United States’ international aid and interventions or homegrown civil rights activism been as broadminded as their respective claims to tolerance might suggest. Both these criticisms fail to acknowledge the power of pretense.

President Trump’s version of tolerance is uniquely worrisome not because it seeks to hide an intolerant agenda, but rather because it makes so little effort to do so. Shorn even of its veneer of idealism, tolerance as an ideal will cease to inspire. Such a state of affairs will surely make many progressive critics of American foreign policy and civil rights causes nostalgic for those days before the loss of pretense, however troubling the gap between that pretense and reality may have been.

Rather than chasing tolerance’s elusive essence or fretting about some dystopian reality where tolerance—or any other ideal, for that matter—comes to mean its opposite, let’s counter President Trump’s language of tolerance with a different brand of instrumentalism. 

Let’s pretend that inclusive ideals exist, so that we may one day achieve them.

Seth Kimmel is a historian of inquisitorial Spain currently working as an assistant professor in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University. His first book, “Parables of Coercion: Conversion and Knowledge at the End of Islamic Spain (University of Chicago Press, 2015),”  studies the history of forced conversion in sixteenth century Spain, as well as debate about its legacy and meaning for us today.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.