For decades, political science has treated American politics as distinct from the domestic politics of the rest of the world. A key reason behind this division was the idea of American exceptionalism: the notion, stretching back to Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Louis Hartz, that American political institutions were forged in a different kiln than other countries. America’s constitutional checks on the power of the state, its ideological rejection of a socialist party, its embrace of the free market, and its relative isolation from national security threats for long segments of its history ostensibly created a different kind of politics. In many ways, the post-Cold War era was all about the difficulties the United States faced in exporting its own political values to the rest of the world.
There have always been critics of the concept of American exceptionalism. Foreigners on the receiving end of some of America’s less savory overseas interventions would scoff at the idea. Critics of the national security state such as Glenn Greenwald or Noam Chomsky would argue that American hypocrisy on matters such as surveillance and the selective focus of U.S. human rights criticisms obviates the idea of American exceptionalism.
Supporters of the idea cannot entirely dismiss these criticisms, but they could always offer two counterarguments. The first was that while the United States has, at times, acted like a garden-variety great power, it has been less likely to do so than, say, Russia or China. The second is that the ideals that animate American exceptionalism have an independent power of their own. The aspirational goals of America might be utopian. But since all human beings aspire to something, it’s good to have clear and compelling vision to offer the word. A large part of Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power” rests on the idea that the American Dream appeals to the rest of the world — even if the grubby reality of it looks different.
The power of American exceptionalism in the United States has been pretty strong in this century. Barack Obama caught all kinds of hell from conservatives when they argued that he did not believe in American exceptionalism (he did).
So here’s a simple question: Does Donald Trump believe in American exceptionalism?
Trump’s supporters and explainers would say yes, but with a twist. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead argues that Trump is a Jacksonian, and Jacksonians believe in a certain brand of American exceptionalism:
Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. The role of the U.S. government, Jacksonians believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home — and to do that while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique.
This fully accords with Trump’s own inaugural address, when he said, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”
Not intervening or promoting American values abroad, fostering American liberty at home … if you squint hard you can almost see an emergent grand strategy at play, one that would thrill critics of America’s interventionism in this century, ranging from Greenwald to John Mearsheimer.
There’s just three problems with this new spin on an old idea.
The first is that no president can snap his fingers and extricate himself from intervening in the rest of the world. Indeed, Trump’s first overseas military action looks like it ended badly. Unlike Obama or any other prior president, Trump can’t fall back on American ideals to explain away policy miscues. For other countries, Trump’s transactional diplomacy will be the image they care about, not the nostalgic 1950s America that Trump wants to revive at home.
The second is that, as Spoiler Alerts has previously noted, Trump’s actions as president do not seem to be fostering American liberty at all. Building walls, raising tariffs, and squabbling with neighbors accomplishes none of these goals. Restricting green-card holders at airports does not accomplish these goals. It’s probably safe to say that anything Steve Bannon likes does little to foster American liberty. Mead can talk all he wants about how Jacksonians want to foster freedom at home. In actuality, Trump’s policies seem designed to empower nativism, which is an idea that is rather different and far uglier than liberty. For Trump’s forgotten white men, it’s a renaissance. For the idea that anyone can become an American, it’s horrific.
The third is that, ironically, Trump’s victory at the polls falsifies the very idea of American exceptionalism. Whatever American exceptionalism was, it was not a powerful enough force to stop the transnational tides sweeping over the rest of the globe’s democracies. The United States under Trump now looks like other post-2008 democracies in Europe, Latin America, and the rest of the world: deeply affected by globalization, hostile to immigration, and receptive to populist nationalism. A Trump administration will not be leading the charge on democracy, free trade, or human rights promotion. Trump’s America looks just like a normal nation-state.
To be fair, opinion polls show that most Americans are still pretty friendly to the ideals that animated American exceptionalism. Trump represents the popular skepticism that some Americans feel about the policies that have been pursued in the cause of American exceptionalism.
But that’s not how the rest of the world will look at the United States for the near future. As Colin Kahl and Hal Brands note in Foreign Policy, Trump’s grand strategy will erode some of the core institutions of the liberal international order:
Trump’s threats to abandon U.S. allies might lead to greater European defense spending in the short term, it will radically undercut the organic solidarity and cohesion that make NATO so exceptional, and lead Washington’s European partners to consider whether the United States is a dependable partner after all.
Beyond governments, the rest of the world’s populations not living in Russia or Israel will look less kindly on America. The United States will now be the target of academic boycotts, which is merely a harbinger of how America will be losing the global war for talent. Which appears to be what Trump’s advisers want anyway.
Donald Trump campaigned to make America great again. Unfortunately, his presidency suggests that he will make America like every other country. We’re about to find out just how much that will harm American interests.