The election of Donald J. Trump has meant many things to different people. For his supporters, the election is a vindication of the forgotten working classes who have suffered under the regime of globalization and international trade deals. It is a revolt of heartland America against the cultural dominance of the coastal elites.
For his detractors, the election has vindicated racism, xenophobia and bigotry. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was seen as a thinly veiled metaphor for white supremacy. For still others, like myself, it represents the end of American exceptionalism. What do I mean by this?
The idea of America as an exceptional country goes back to John Winthrop’s famous speech “A Model of Christian Charity” in which he explained that the purpose of the Puritan experiment in the New World was to establish “a city upon a hill.” The eyes of the world would be upon the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop’s vision — most famously revived by Ronald Reagan — became the basis for our idea of America as an exceptional nation with a unique mission.
The language of exceptionalism has strong biblical roots. It goes back to the book of Exodus where God tells the Israelites that they will be to him like “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Winthrop’s phrase has its source in the parable of light and salt from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his listeners, “You are a light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
The image of America as an exceptional nation was expressed in secular language by our first president. In a letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote: It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their natural right, for happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Is it conceivable — remotely conceivable — to imagine our new president making such a statement to the millions of peoples — especially immigrants — whom he has threatened with official registration, imprisonment and expulsion?
To be sure, the language of American exceptionalism has not been embraced by all. Scholars have been reluctant to join the chorus as the phrase can smack of chauvinism, implicitly declaring our superiority over other peoples. Doctrines of exceptionalism, along with other secular concepts like manifest destiny, seem to belong to a distant and benighted past. To the extent that America remains exceptional, every nation is exception in its own way. This might be called exceptionalism for a democratic age.
In the past few years, the language of exceptionalism has become a kind of litmus test for those who have adopted it with the idea of taking an aggressive role in world affairs. America is deemed the “indispensable nation.” President Obama was thought insufficiently patriotic when he said that America was exceptional in the same way that the British or the Greeks think of themselves as exceptional. Exceptionalism, it appears, is in the eyes of the beholder.
The Trump presidency marks a decisive turn from the language of American exceptionalism. The campaign was not an attempt to uplift and inspire but to cast blame and spread suspicion. The small unobtrusive word “Again” in his campaign slogan said it all. Its purpose was to pit “us” against “them.” It was a call “to take our country back.” Back from who or what went largely unsaid, although the innuendo of betrayal was evident throughout the campaign.
The appeal of Trump has more in common with European traditions of ethno-nationalism — nationalisms of blood and soil — than with the American traditions of natural rights and the city on the hill. It has evoked powerful nationalist instincts and irredentist inclinations. The appeal to a once great America that has been betrayed by a corrupt ruling class has been a major trope of populist demagoguery. It is above all an appeal to white identity politics, a kind of postmodernism of the right.
It is obviously too early to say what Trumpism — if indeed it is an “ism” — represents except that it has awakened the sleeping demons of nativism xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The campaign was a raw and ugly struggle for power in which the winner had more in common with populist figures like Chavez, Putin and Berlusconi than with the legacies of Lincoln, Roosevelt or Reagan.
American exceptionalism has always been an exceptionalism of ideas. As a nation, we were conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, something that cannot be said for the nations of the Old World. But the hope for America is not based on explicit divine promises. It is entirely a test of character and an act of national will.
American national identity has never been an idolatry of power, but has always been animated with a sense of biblical humility. As Lincoln reminded us at the end of our greatest national crisis: “As was said 3000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are truth and righteous altogether.’”
There is another biblical image that I am afraid comes much closer to the mood of the American electorate. In I Samuel, the Israelites grow tired of the high demands of living up to the original Mosaic covenant. They have witnessed the abuse of power and approach the prophet Samuel to demand to be ruled by a king. The demand to live as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” has proved too high. The desire to become a nation “like all the nations” proves to be alluring.
Samuel in turns gives fair warning to the people of what a king will mean. He enumerates the evils that assimilation to the ways of the nations will bring, but the people are not convinced and still cry out for a king, at which point God tells Samuel: “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me.” Saul, the first king, is duly appointed and the people get what they voted for.
Are we living at a similar moment? Sad.
Steven B. Smith is a professor in political science at Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .