As the nation prepares to celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the Continental Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence, American exceptionalism has taken quite a beating. While there was a swaggering time in our history when the bold, visionary morality embodied in the succinct, well-crafted sentences of the document’s preamble (“We hold these truths to be self evident …”) helped to shape and then reinforce generations of belief that America was unique in the world, that prideful mindset has lately fallen by the intellectual wayside.
In recent years, revisionist historians, sardonic politicians and even crooning poets have come around to carping that a deeply flawed America with its history of ill-conceived wars, of slavery and endemic racism, as well as its tacit barriers preventing social and economic mobility, is nothing special. Further, the jingoistic belief that “God is on our side” is not simply a conceit but a cruel, blood-thirsty, wrong-headed one.
Nowadays the resigned verdict — a complacent view from the depths of the dustbin of History — is: We ain’t different. This country has been pushed helplessly to and fro by the pounding waves of History, as much sinned against as sinning, same as other nations on the globe.
And in Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE, the opponents of American exceptionalism have found a new, gruff champion. Consider this fast-building exchange of ideas: First comes President Obama, trying to come to resolute terms back in 2013 with the Syrian crisis. “When, with modest effort and risk,” he argued, “we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act. … That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.” Then Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a quick rebuttal in a 2013 New York Times op-ed: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Which left Donald Trump, the presidency then just a still inchoate ambition, to have the last word: He declared Putin’s op-ed “a masterpiece.” “You think of the term (American exceptionalism) as being beautiful, but all of a sudden you say, what if you’re Germany or Japan or any of 100 different countries? You are not going to like that term … It is very insulting.”
And once elected to the presidency, commander-in-chief Trump offered a flat, no-nonsense rejection of any attempt to make a case for his country’s implicit moral superiority. The conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly dangled the challenge in a one-on-one interview with the president that “Putin’s a killer.” To which the president shrugged, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
After more than a year in office, the president has further developed and refined this realpolitik. It is decidedly not one of a benevolent, far-reaching American exceptionalism as envisioned by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration that we celebrate this July 4. It is not the “Empire of Liberty,” an exemplary catalyst for nations, that Jefferson saw as the country’s role in a hope-fostered future. It is not the beacon Jefferson saw brightly shining when he completed his presidency in 1809: “This solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth … .”
No, American exceptionalism, the purposeful and uplifting beliefs in liberty, equality and opportunity crystallized in the Declaration, have been replaced. The president, to cite his own bombastic diatribes, champions a different sort of national identity — one he calls “America First.” And if anyone is naïve enough to believe the term is ahistorical, that the words simply popped sui generis into the president’s fertile mind, that it is not a phrase redolent with a nasty, angry prejudice, then I guess they also believe that Melania’s coat was just a coat, and that words are mere decorations, not messages.
So, 242 years after the Declaration of Independence brought American exceptionalism into being as a way of not just looking at the world but also as a way of living in it, is the concept dead? Did a president who has measured out his term in office by gleefully upending previously, deeply held national beliefs and practices deliver another stunning death blow? Has the much promised Wall already been built — locking us in, rather than keeping others out? Has America become a nasty, brutish land divided into irreparable partisan camps, battle lines indelibly drawn?
I think not.
There is reason to believe that Jefferson’s beacon is still glowing across the fruited plains, its redeeming light reaching from sea to shining sea. That the generosity of spirit that is so uniquely American, that the sense of right-heartedness and compassion that is intrinsic to the Declaration of Independence “shall not,” as Lincoln vowed, “perish from the earth.”
Look, for telling and encouraging example, at what happened when a calculating president gambled that he could separate children from their parents, lock them in cages and then have his representatives tell the American people that concentration camps were as benign as summer camps. The nation would, the administration had expected, go along with another Big Lie, would once again kowtow to the president’s fatuous rationale that “vermin” had to pay a price to Make America Great Again.
But this time Americans had enough. A line had been crossed. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, shared the indignant realization that America — that what made this country exceptional, the glittering ideals that our Founding Fathers had passed on to us, our proud inheritance — had been besmirched. The country came together to speak up forcefully to power. And this time the president caved.
And now, as we near Independence Day, I think it is instructive to call to mind an insight Karl Popper had that is at the core of American exceptionalism. “You can choose whatever name you like for the two types of government,” he suggested. “I personally call the type of government which can be removed without violence ‘democracy,’ and the other ‘tyranny.’ ”
It is a distinction — and a warning — the president should also bear in mind on this Fourth of July.
Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former reporter for The Village Voice and The New York Times, and the best-selling author of more than a dozen nonfiction books, including the best-sellers "Gangland," "Wanted," "The Gold of Exodus," "The Brigade," "American Lightning" and "Dark Invasion." His most recent is “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies” (HarperCollins).