Turning Back on the World: Trump and the American Exception

19th September 2018

As an idea, American exceptionalism is unique. It remains the single most unifying concept in American politics. Across the political spectrum from the resurgent left to the alt-right, all agree that America is exceptional. The foundational view is that the United States is exceptional because it was born from an idea. As Deudney & Meiser wrote in 2012, ‘America is exceptional both in fact and perception, because more than any other state in history it has embodied and advanced an ideological vision of a way of life centred upon freedom, in politics, in economics, and in society.’

While this notion is universally acknowledged by all political stripes in the US, ideological camps compete to articulate and recognise its true meaning. President Bush’s view of exceptionalism was etched into the neoconservative ideal. As Fukuyama (2006) observed, the administrations’ guiding principles included regime change, benevolent hegemony, unipolarity and military pre-emption. Bush arrived at these principles via an articulation of exceptionalism that viewed American power as uniquely capable, and uniquely deserving, of the international community’s trust to achieve its aims. Obama on the other hand, always sought to capture a normative constraint that he considered inherent in America’s exception: 

‘…our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.’

While not always successful in his policy goals, it is this sense of moral realism that guided the former President to pull American boots out of the Middle East, attempt the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and end the previous administration’s history of torture and extraordinary rendition.

What, then, for President Trump?

A common narrative is that Trump’s disdain for political norms has caused a departure from American exceptionalism altogether. Daniel Sargent describes this as ‘less like the regular oscillations between pragmatism and idealism that have recurred throughout the history of U.S. foreign relations and more like a paradigm shift.’

Others consider Trump’s rejection of norms as indicative of American exceptionalism unhinged. In other words, the current president has aptly demonstrated American exceptionalism to be but a thinly constructed veil for grotesque nationalism and arrogance on the world stage. As Zeitz writes, ‘when most conservative politicians invoke the term “exceptionalism” they use it as shorthand for raw national chauvinism’.

Both of these views are wide of the mark. Each claim makes its assessment based on hidden normative assumptions about what American exceptionalism should prescribe. Claiming an end to exceptionalism by appeal to Trump’s conduct assumes that exceptionalism necessitates a president who values mutual respect between nations. On the other hand, claiming that Trump’s behaviour is an unhinged form of exceptionalism presupposes that the notion simply is, in Zeitz’s words, shorthand for raw national chauvinism. To understand a president’s motives, we must remind ourselves that American exceptionalism exists as a fluid notion, being employed to suit varying ends during different moments in history. In other words, it is not a prescriptive idea. Rather, it is an idea vulnerable to subjectivity, interpretation, and, ultimately, misuse.

Trump’s view is that American exceptionalism translates to American isolationism. Peter Beinart observes that US administrations often interpret exceptionalism through the lenses of rights and responsibilities. American right to enjoy geopolitical freedom on account of its unique power, and, American responsibility to protect weaker nations and uphold international law. Within the context of this dichotomy, ‘what makes the Trump administration unusual is that it is almost all “rights exceptionalism” with virtually no “responsibility exceptionalism.”’.

Trump, therefore, has turned America inward. Under his administration, America seeks to enjoy national autonomy and power while neglecting international responsibility. This view is underlined by departure from major internationally recognised agreements including NAFTA and the Iran Deal, and constitutes the assumptions underpinning Trump’s frequent calls for Mexico to pay for the proposed wall across the southern US border.

It is often said the Trump administration is unpredictable, it is not. To understand this government we need to remember the president’s articulation of American exceptionalism. With Trump at the helm, America first will remain the order of the day for as long as the administration lends its hands to Making America Great Again. Meanwhile, the international community will have to contend with global issues absent the often-described indispensable nation.