Let the Undoing Commence: The End of American Exceptionalism

November 16, 2016

The pig-lipsticking began within hours. Let’s give Trump a chance. Obama said it. That’s fine. He’s the President. His job as First Parent is to make the best of a miserable, pathetic situation (when they go lower, we go higher). But we also have Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Yamhill, Oregon (always Yamhill, Oregon, yes, we get it, you’re from Yamhill, Oregon!), who reassures us that we are not Weimar Germany and who “hopes” that Trump, the child, will allow “adults” to run foreign policy. And we have those well-known political philosophers Charles Barkley, Doc Rivers, and Mark Cuban. They too want to give Trump a chance. Along with the good folks of Harlem, who like that Trump is “real” but do not believe he will do “the really crazy things like deporting everybody.” But who mostly don’t care anyway, since “My president is Jesus.”

As former University of Washington athletic director, Barbara Hedges would say, and as President Obama surely wishes he did say, “Hope is not a strategy.” European Jews hoped their way to the gas chamber. I truly do understand the confusion. No one knows what the fuck is going on. And so it is tempting to resort to bromides that go down easy and soothe the soul. After all, the children may be listening. Yes. Maybe it is okay if Trump is “real.” But “real” in a good way. Not “really” real. And of course we do need to give ourselves several weeks to grieve, to simply sit within and absorb this new sense of unrealness (as Obama has instructed us to do). But we take this Trump-chance-giving too far and too seriously at our own peril. We barked and brayed about the existential threat Trump posed as a presidential candidate. Why would this threat diminish now that he is actually going to be president? Is Trump as president no less unqualified and no less a sleaze than he was as candidate? Are our words no less transactional and disposable than his? Sheesh.

What we are really saying when we urge each other to give Donald Trump a chance is that we need to give America a chance. We must to continue to trust in the strength of our democratic institutions and the vitality of our spirit as a nation. We must trust our belief that we are the exceptional nation. The belief in American exceptionalism extends beyond the actual arrival of European settlers to the American strand, of course. But in the past century, this idea has taken on more specific, if divergent meanings. In The Liberal Tradition in America, published some 60 years ago, Louis Hartz argued that the United States is exceptional because it is the product of unique and favorable historical and geographic circumstances that have insulated and sheltered its populations from the tectonic forces of class and creed that shaped the European experience.

The Liberal Tradition in American remained the canonical statement on American exceptionalism until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan (along with speechwriters such as Peggy Noonan) subtly reframed the argument, mostly by repurposing the Puritan vision of the City on a Hill. According to Reagan, America is an exceptional nation because our (Western, Judeo-Christian) circumstances, beliefs, traditions, and institutions make us better than other nations lacking this privileged foundation and divinely authored spirit. Particularly since 9/11, conservative advocacy organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have evangelized this somewhat more mystical (and certainly more smug) understanding of American exceptionalism. Infusing it, however, with a dark, brooding, menacing, paranoid, and toxic energy – the energy that has powered Donald Trump and his Breitbart crew to the presidency.

Congressional Democrats, we learn, may try a bit of jujitsu. Take Trump at his word regarding his commitment to infrastructure, family leave, and trade policies that have always been Democratic Party staples and Republican Party anathema. See if they can re-energize their working class, industrial belt constituents. Try to drive a wedge between Trump and Congressional Republicans. And force Trump to show his true colors, sooner rather than later. This seems fair and appropriate – a politically legitimate “chance”. Which, if successful, will at least partially, minimally redeem a political system that has exposed itself as hideously mean-spirited, incompetent, and self-serving.

But I will not be holding my breath. We kid ourselves. IT cannot happen here. War. Genocide. State failure. Economic collapse. Civil strife. Boorish descent to the Hobbesian state of nature. Except IT has happened here. The American exceptionalism prophets never had it right. Louis Hartz carefully elided the nation’s traumatic experiences with racial conquest and civil war in order to sustain his consensus vision (for contemporary perspectives, see this NY Review article). Ronald Reagan entirely ignored the deepest and most enduring meaning of John Winthrop’s lovely and profound City on a Hill sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Here is the source of my fear. Louis Hartz plumbed his personal demons to write The Liberal Tradition in America. Reagan was simply not terribly bright. But the scorched earth politics that have consumed our nation since 9/11 have unleashed very smart, well-organized, technologically savvy, and preposterously well-funded tribal movements in this country (for lack of a better term, let’s use the umbrella of the Tea Party to characterize them) that have outmaneuvered ordinary, well-meaning liberals (the ones who now call for us to give Trump “a chance”) at nearly every turn in the past 15 years. Demographic shifts aside (for the moment), the coalescence of these groups in the recent election represents a pure will to power that is so difficult to define, pin down, understand, and address because its raison d’etre has nothing to do with interests, logic, and reason. Not just in 2016, but since 2001, the Democratic Party has been fighting the wrong war. Trump remains a freak of nature, but those who have attached themselves to him – the Steve Bannon’s and Roger Ailes’s of the world – are cynical, instrumental, and ruthless. They are cunning, not wise. Arrogant, not humble. Their currency is fear. And they have no respect or affinity for the truth.

One definition of an exceptional nation is that it is somehow prelapsarian and has no experience with or true knowledge of evil. Well, if that blessed state were ever ours in the United States, it is no longer. Even for the Shire-like inhabitants of Yamhill, Oregon. Those who would like ways to consider how thinkers and actors in less sheltered times and places addressed the irruption of evil into their world, and the undoing of all they imagined to be enduring, might start (but not end) with Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. And we must not forget J.R.R. Tolkien, who, as we learned in a recent NY Times essay, found Mordor in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, and wrote The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of “power exerted for domination.” But The Lord of the Rings also instructs us in the dialectics of power, and the capacity of “small” people, in dark times, to find within themselves hidden caverns of strength, resourcefulness, wisdom, and love that evil can subdue but not destroy. This is a strategy, in our dark times, to which hope can attach itself.