Last year, Donald J. Trump triumphed over 15 Republican primary opponents and a Democratic candidate with an impressive résumé largely on the strength of a simple four-word message: “Make America Great Again.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Trump’s slogan worked even though President Obama offered the rejoinder, “America is already great,” and Hillary Clinton made the counterpoint that “America is great because America is good.”
Since Trump’s victory nearly a year ago, the major American media has often reprised the Obama-Clinton messaging that America is already great as though Trump, the most unabashedly jingoistic president since perhaps Ronald Reagan, needs reminding.
Yet in Trump’s Washington, where the bipartisan foreign policy consensus is wrongly perceived to be under attack, the Establishment has been circling the wagons in order to fend off what is viewed as Trump’s frontal assault on the core tenets of American exceptionalism.
Soon after the election, political and media elites, particularly those within Democratic Party circles, began to express their dismay at Trump’s seeming disregard for what, to their way of thinking, America represents to the rest of the world.
Two months into the Trump presidency, a former Obama State Department official whose specialty is described by the most amorphous and flexible of constructions, “human rights,” took to the pages of The Atlantic magazineto inform readersthat since the November election “the global club of autocrats has been crowing about Trump” because he, like they, takes a dim a view of “democracy, human rights, and transparency.”
Autocrats, declared Tom Malinkowski, now a Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey, were said to be delighted by Trump’s election because, “they’ve heard him echo their propaganda that America is too crooked and corrupt to preach moral standards to others.”
“This,” wrote Malinkowski, “makes me sad.”
Likewise, Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice also hasexpressed alarmthat the administration has been busy “jettisoning American values and abdicating United States leadership of the world.”
Rice believes that “The network of alliances that distinguishes America from other powers and has kept our nation safe and strong for decades is now in jeopardy. We will see the cost when next we need the world to rally to our side.”
Fears for American Hegemony
A number of liberal journalists have been quick to join the fretting. At The Intercept, a foreign affairs analyst worried that Trump is letting American global hegemony slip away.
Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the White House.
“Througha network of nearly 800 military bases located in70 countries around the globe, in addition to an array of trade deals and alliances,” wrote Murtaza Hussain, “theU.S. has cementedits influence for decades acrossboth Europe and Asia. American leaders helpedimpose a set of rules and normsthat promotedfree trade, democratic governance — in theory, if not always in practice — and a prohibitiononchanging borders militarily, using a mixture of force and suasion to sustain the systems that keep its hegemonyintact.”
Over at Slate, Yascha Mounk,opined that, with regard to Russia, “Trump likes Putin because he admires his strong (read: autocratic) leadership. And he sees him as an ally because he shares Putin’s disdain for the liberal order, preferring a world in which strong powers do what they like in their spheres of influence without having to worry about obeying — much less enforcing — international norms or human rights.”
Similarly, when The New Republic’s Jeet Heer recently delved into the realm of U.S.-Russia relations,he warned readersthat “The problem is not just the nature of Putin’s autocratic government, which uses social conservatism and nationalism to hold together a nation frayed by massive economic inequality. … The problem is that Russia’s foreign policy threatens to export many of the Putin regime’s worst features, particularly xenophobia and homophobia.”
For Heer the proper response to Putin’s foreign policy is obvious: “Fighting Trumpism in America is not enough. Leftists have to be ready to battle it in all its forms, at home and abroad.”
In other words, it’s time now to undertake yet another global crusade against Russia.
By this point it should be clear that what these worthies are doing is conflating a vision of a liberal, tolerant America with American hegemony; their concerns always come back to their quite unfounded worry that Trump is in the process of repudiating the unipolar fantasy that they themselves buy into and seek to perpetuate.
Among many other problems, the hubristic nature of American Exceptionalist ideology feeds delusions of innocence, which serve to prevent a critical rethinking of America’s recent, mainly catastrophic adventures abroad. We can see how this tendency manifests itself in the mainstream media.
At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as “shock and awe.”
In July, The New York Times published a piece that whitewashed the motives behind the decision by George W. Bush’s White House to invade Iraq. “When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein,” wrote reporter Tim Arango, “it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East.”
This is now par for the course. The media critic Adam Johnson hasrightly pointed outthat “nominally down-the-middle reporters are allowed to mind-read U.S. policy makers’ motives so long as they conclude that those motives were noble and in good faith. Never are reporters allowed to ascribe sinister motives to U.S. officials—this is only permissible when covering America’s enemies.”
Similarly, the illegal American intervention in the Syrian war was portrayed as “self-defense” when U.S. forces shot down a Syrian fighter jet over Raqqa in June. “The Syrian regime and others in the regime need to understand,”saidWhite House spokesman Sean Spicer (who has now since mercifully resigned), “that we will retain the right of self-defense, of coalition forces aligned against ISIS.”
Time was, during the early years of the First Cold War, that public intellectuals often looked askance at America’s belief in its innate virtue. Within a decade of the allied victory in the Second World War, during which time American power and prestige was at its zenith, prominent Anglo-American thinkers, including Graham Greene, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr were already casting a gimlet eye on the pretenses of the “American Century.”
Where are the contrarian voices such as these calling for restraint and reflection now that we are in the throes of a Second Cold War? They are almost utterly absent from mainstream American political discourse.
A Bipartisan Pretense
Part of the reason Trump won, of course, is that he plays and feeds into the very same pretenses thatthe both the Establishment and the public does — though in cruder form. There is only a difference in degree, not in kind, between “Make America Great Again” and “America Is Already Great” since both are premised on the same line of reasoning: America, due to its providential founding, cannot be and is not a normal country: it is exceptional, a “shining city on a hill.”
President Trump speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, 2017. (Screenshot from Whitehouse.gov)
The idea that Trump himself hasn’t embraced and internalized the core tenets of American exceptionalism is laughable – and even some neoconservatives, like Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, have begun to notice. Lake, observing Trump’s September speech to the United Nations General Assembly,cracked, “For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought I was listening to a Weekly Standard editorial meeting.”
Yet there’s an insoluble problem that remains for the adherents of the myth of American exceptionalism: the presumption that the rest of the world buys into the myth which largely rests upon a willful misunderstanding of the past, and blinds us to available alternatives, such as realism.
Some on the Left see little cause for concern. America, by their lights,shouldintervene all over the world on a values crusade. Leftist journals likeDissentandJacobinhave endeavored to excuse the Trotskyite impulse to political violence. In this way neoconservatism, the American variant of Trotskyism, is not dead yet, it remains a zombie ideology that haunts the country.
Forget anti-imperialism, some Leftists say, it’s Trumpian nationalism that is the real problem. And there are indeed elements of Trumpian nationalism that are troubling. But is the answer a crusadeto impose, in the felicitous phrasing of neocon propagandist Max Boot, “the rule of law, property rights and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be?”
In the end, the ideology of American Exceptionalism feeds delusions of American Innocence and prepares the ground for military intervention the world over.Is that really the right way to oppose Donald Trump?
James W. Cardenserved as an adviser on Russia policy at the US State Department. Currently a contributing writer at The Nation magazine, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, The American Conservative and The National Interest.