Exceptionalism has been a feature of the self-perception of America from the very start. It traditionally denotes a conviction that American values are supreme and of universal validity. General Lafayette and Alexis de Tocqueville of Democracy in America fame were foreign validators of America’s claim to unique status.
The United States being, in essence, God’s chosen people was understood to come with an obligation to proselyte in favour of American values. American values were of universal validity and should therefore reign universally. The United States should be a force for good in the world. This was the world view of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy: ‘ Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself’. The national interest was to promote American values and it went with that territory that the United States should be altruistic, should favour the common welfare of nations and humankind. As Henry Luce proclaimed in his 1941 essay ‘The American Century’ the United States had to be ‘the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive’. Exceptionalism brought duty to serve others!
Exceptionalism can be a double-edged sword, however. Exceptionalism can transmute into the idea that the rules are there for all the others, but not for the ‘chosen’ nation, an idea lived forcefully by the administration of George W. Bush. And exceptionalism can be understood as everything good accruing to the exceptional nation without regard to the interests of the community of nations; a perspective gaining terrible validity though the efforts of Senator Jesse Helms and the reviewed ‘America First’ doctrine of the 1980ies. This, of course, is altruism turned on its head, yet the rhetoric reverberates strongly to this day with no politician being able to propose any foreign policy measure without explaining the very direct and narrow advantages of the action for the nation. In fact, even acknowledged unexceptional nations have adopted the ‘our nation first’ creed, as so cruelly demonstrated by the response of the European nations to the refugee crisis. The original high ideals of exceptionalism have been turned into a call to egotism and parochialism.
Notwithstanding English exceptionalism and the tragedy of Brexit, nowhere is the danger of present-day exceptionalism clearer than in muddled and befuddled populism of Donald Trump. Trump exceptionalism leads to the stupidest isolationism. The Mexican wall idea, the proposed ban on entry of Muslims, the insistence that allies replace US foreign leadership are all mind-boggling examples of altruistic exceptionalism having been turned into an alter ego of egotism and narrow-mindedness. Every president the United States has had until now would take exception to Trump’s exceptionalism, from Wilson to Reagan over Kennedy and Nixon. Let us hope that an overwhelming majority of voters will join them, and that the United States will appreciate ever more clearly that being a leader requires moral leadership above all. Being exceptionally good is the national interest!