Donald Trump and the Death of American Exceptionalism

The United States of America is an exceptional country in many ways. Our stability is unparalleled, being one of the few countries in the world that has never had a coup, or regressed into dictatorship, and with remarkably few incidents of uprisings and revolts. We are also one of the few countries without an ethnic component to our sense of national identity, complimented by a long history of vast immigrant inflows. As leader of the free world, the United States has also done much to promote and protect human rights around the world. We have been champions of freedom, globalization, and democracy. This is what makes America exceptional. Other countries hold these ideals, but it is to the United States that the world looks to act as their guarantor. But with President Trump, America has become less exceptional and more of a “standard” country.

Donald Trump is exceptional, in the American context. He is an exception to what is traditionally expected of an American President. He views every issue as a zero-sum game, with winning necessitating that there are those who lose. His attacks on the press stem from his inability to accept criticism; to do so is tantamount to surrender. He cannot just win over political rivals; he must vanquish and humiliate them. This scorched earth political style leaves little room for compromise or respect for his opposition. He needs people to support him, rather than correct him, when he is wrong. As such, appointments to important positions are based more on personal loyalty than competence. Alongside this is his never ending campaign tour, hosting rallies and fostering a personality cult around him. These qualities make Donald Trump exceptional in American history, but quite common in a global context.

We take for granted in America that our leaders have generally put national interest ahead of self-interest. This is the norm in most of the world. Most of the people in the world live in a country dominated by pervasive corruption, politicians with personal armies, intimidation of opponents, and suppression of individual liberty. Donald Trump is closer to this world than any other past President. He even openly admires these kinds of leaders and political styles. To be fair though, Donald Trump is far from the kind of person many of his opponents make him out to be. He is not a fascist, not a looming demagogue seeking dictatorial powers, and not the next Hitler or Stalin. He is neither as competent nor evil as these men. Donald Trump is simply an average politician, with counterparts all across the globe. He is more interested in advancing his personal and his party’s power, rather than an overarching vision. His view of America’s role in the world is limited to base security concerns, with no greater sense of purpose guiding his foreign policy.

Donald Trump is a remarkably unexceptional politician, self-satisfying and firm in the belief that the ends justify the means. This makes him exceptional in American history. America is exceptional, and it is so because of our long history of leaders who have put the country ahead of themselves. When past presidents were criticized they invited those critics to help them craft better policies. They have striven to heal social ills, rather than stoke them for political gain. They measured American greatness by our compassion, unity, and steadfast defense of our values, and not just by our trade balance and statistics. They recognized that America is exceptional, not because we top lists of various economic metrics, but because it is an idea; a never-ending pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for all. Donald Trump sees America as a collection of spreadsheets and balance books, and in this way is not exceptional at all.