There are three tenets that comprise the notion of American exceptionalism. The first is that the history of America’s founding (as a bastion of freedom and acceptance for all, regardless of their political or religious leanings) imbues the United States with different DNA than that of every other country in the world.
The second is that America’s purpose is to serve as a force for positive change in the world. And the third is that the first two tenets combined serve as incontrovertible proof that the United States is naturally superior to other nations.
I have no objection to the first tenet: America was indeed founded on unique principles, and as far as the origins of most nations in the world are concerned, these principles are the exception rather than the rule. And until somewhat recently, the argument could be made that while the United States was certainly not immune to missteps, its overall contribution to the global community was a net positive.
But if these three tenets are the supporting evidence behind the theory of American exceptionalism, then it’s safe to say that American exceptionalism is a thing of the past.
It is tempting to lay the burden for the death of American exceptionalism at the feet of President Trump. Since assuming office, Trump has, at various points, flouted two of the three tenets of American exceptionalism. It is impossible for the United States to serve as a force for positive change in the world when its leader has largely expressed disinterest in the affairs of any country that A) is not America, or B) does not play host to a Trump property. By extension, the United States can no longer place itself in a class by itself; a country cannot be considered superior to others when its approach to geopolitical affairs is to ignore them. You cannot win if you do not participate.
Trump’s actions as President notwithstanding, his very ascendance to the highest elected office in the land appears to negate any claim by the United States to global superiority. Simply put, exceptional countries do not elect individuals like Donald Trump to lead them.
That said, to blame the death of American exceptionalism solely on President Trump is to ignore that, for decades, the United States’ self-appointed role as the Sheriff of Planet Earth has occasionally chafed allies and enemies alike. Ironically enough, our government’s actions in pursuit of this ideal have weakened our claim to this argument. The hubris that spurred us to proclaim ourselves the greatest country in the world has been our undoing; if we’re being honest, American exceptionalism as a concept was damaged during the Vietnam War and mortally wounded by the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11th. Donald Trump merely put it out of its misery.
America appears to have trouble taking care of its own citizens, to say nothing of its allies around the globe. The United States has a higher murder rate than roughly half the countries in the world; Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun than citizens of other comparable (in terms of income) nations; the United States ranks 6th in the world in assaults per capita, as well as 28th in poverty. On top of that, America is the only first-world country that does not provide universal health care. In fact, not only do we fail to provide universal health care to our citizens, we’re actively working to make health care as inaccessible and financially burdensome as possible to those who need it most.
Donald Trump played to this very idea on the campaign trail: America’s global standing is diminished, and its track record of helping its own citizens is dismal. On that, Trump, his base, and I can agree. Where our paths diverge, however, is on the second part: that Trump alone can fix it.
The irony is, Trump cannot fix it precisely because Trump is the physical embodiment of what we as Americans tend to value most: wealth, power, willful ignorance of the world around us, and a propensity for bullying those who disagree with us into submission. Donald Trump is too American to fix what’s wrong with America, both domestically and internationally.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
Our allies have historically deferred to America’s leadership in global politics — in some cases, to an excessive degree. Since Trump’s inauguration, however, world leaders have begun to alter their approach to geopolitical affairs. Leaders like German chancellor Angela Merkel realize that the United States can no longer be trusted to act in the best interests of the world; as a result, our allies are taking more ownership of global events.
This is almost certainly an unintended consequence of Trump’s actions. Trump supporters might point to the President’s speeches about NATO and the United Nations as proof that Trump’s plan all along has been to encourage our allies to become more self-sufficient, but the manner in which he has done it — through his erratic Twitter habits, unwarranted attacks on other world leaders, and generally boorish behavior — does not denote any semblance of coherent thought on Trump’s part.
Regardless of the path Trump has taken to arrive at it, the result has been the same: America has officially shed its reputation as a reliable ally. But perhaps the (hopefully temporary) dimming of the American beacon of hope will allow the country to regroup, to focus on improving the lives of those who live within its borders, and recapturing the spirit of nationalism — not nativism — that, once upon a time, helped make it great. In doing so, America may finally earn what it has long taken for granted: its status as the greatest country in the world.