At a press conference in Strasbourg, France in March of 2009, a reporter asked President Obama if he subscribed “to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world.” The President famously answered, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
This equivocal answer became an important flashpoint in the Obama-era culture wars, with Republicans charging that the remarks illustrated the president’s indifference to core American values. The third chapter of Sarah Palin’s 2010 book was entitled, “America the Exceptional.” Previewing a central theme of his general election campaign, Mitt Romney in 2011 said, “We have a president right now who thinks America’s just another nation. America is an exceptional nation.” Newt Gingrich, speaking 2012, was more blunt: “If you are for American exceptionalism, you’re with us. If you’re for European socialism and Saul Alinsky radicalism, you’re with Barack Obama.”
Four years later, the GOP nominated a figure who rose to prominence on the Right by indulging in the darkest version of “he’s-not-one-of-us” innuendo during the president’s first term. And yet Donald Trump has also publicly doubted that America has any unique moral standing or global role. “I don’t like the term. I’ll be honest with you,” Trump said when asked about “American exceptionalism” in 2015. He has reinforced this view with dire warnings of American decline and attacks on the internationalist project.
Most of Trump’s backers on the Right have sought to downplay their candidate’s wholehearted endorsement of American unexceptionalism, partly because many of them are on record launching scalding criticisms of President Obama for merely flirting with the idea. Indeed, the preamble of the 2016 GOP platform states, “We believe America is exceptional because of our historic role—first as refuge, then as defender, and now as exemplar of liberty for the world to see.”
But for Peter Thiel—the PayPal co-founder, Gawker destroyer, and idiosyncratic right-winger—the pretentious candidate’s unpretentious view of America’s role in the world is central to his promise. Thiel, who spoke at Trump’s convention in Cleveland and has donated at least a million dollars to his campaign, made waves earlier this week with a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., outlining in detail his case for a Trump presidency. At the heart of his argument was the idea that America is not, in fact, distinctive:
Very unusually for a presidential candidate, [Donald Trump] has questioned the core concept of American exceptionalism. He doesn’t think the force of optimism alone can change reality without hard work. Just as much as it is about making America great, Trump’s agenda is about making America a normal country. A normal country doesn’t have a half-trillion dollar trade deficit. A normal country doesn’t fight five simultaneous undeclared wars. In a normal country, the government actually does its job.
Thiel returned to this theme in the question-and-answer section when he was asked about Trump’s immigration policy. “There’s an immigration bubble where we say, ‘it’s all good, you shouldn’t ask questions.’ I personally would like [an immigration policy] like Canada or Australia,” he said, gesturing to the fact that other developed Anglo countries generally admit fewer low-skilled immigrants than the United States. “I think those countries have much better policies than our country. We could become a more normal country and learn from countries that are doing it better than we are.”
The billionaire entrepreneur is not necessarily a bellwether for the future of GOP. But win or lose, Donald Trump’s takeover of the party is likely to trigger a civil war over Republican identity. The idea of American exceptionalism—which is closely related to topics like trade, immigration and military commitment—will take center stage. And Thiel’s powerfully-argued right-wing case against it highlights one path the party could take.
Several demographic changes are pulling the GOP in an anti-exceptionalist direction. More than ever since before the Reagan era, the party’s core constituency—working class whites—is downwardly-mobile, pessimistic and anxious about its social status. As Reihan Salam has noted: “What Donald Trump intuitively understands, and what all too many Republicans do not, is that for much of the GOP rank-and-file, 2016 is not 1984. Instead, the 21st century has felt like a disaster.” This population has proven itself skeptical of politicians who say America needs to make its special global mission a particularly high priority.
Moreover, the Republican Party must now appeal to an increasingly secular electorate. American exceptionalism, in all of its iterations, from Manifest Destiny through the Cold War, has always been inflected with a religious, missionary impulse. The idea of a “Shining City on a Hill” (from Matthew 5:14) loses much of its power without a public commitment to the transcendent.
But American unexceptionalism is not just an anti-ideology that might have a special appeal to secular or pessimistic voters. It is also a coherent ideology of its own, with particular values and assumptions. If America is a “normal country,” then perhaps it shouldn’t build immigration policy around the idea that it is the “first universal nation”—perhaps increasing ethnic diversity will lead to tribalism and distrust. If America is a “normal country,” then perhaps it has no special responsibility to keep order on the world stage—perhaps 19th-century style great power competition and spheres of influence are an adequate alternative. And if America is a “normal country,” then perhaps there is nothing special about its vision for democratic government and human rights. As the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote, “the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by the superiority in applying organized violence.”
In the 2000s, the Left relentlessly attacked the Bush administration for embracing what they said was a chauvinistic and narrow-minded version of American exceptionalism as it sought to spread democracy by force of arms. What gives America, more than other nations, the right to deploy its power in this way, they asked? And many of their criticisms have been vindicated. But instead of yielding to the dovish, humble, multiculturalist GOP that liberals might have imagined, the Bush exceptionalists have been succeeded by a Right that has dumped the idea of exceptionalism, but that defines “normal country” in Hobbesian terms. Normal countries plunder; normal countries distrust outsiders; normal countries give power to men like Donald Trump. The model isn’t post-historical Scandinavia; it’s Putin’s Russia.
Thiel is right that Trump’s effort to erase American distinctiveness is his key innovation. He’s also right that the exceptionalist assumptions embraced by Left and Right alike in the last generation are overdue for rethinking and revision. But without some higher aspiration for American greatness, our politics can drift to very dark places indeed.