Trump, the Washington Post and American Exceptionalism

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One of the more annoying myths of U.S. history is the idea of “American Exceptionalism,” which has been bandied about pretty much from the birth of the republic, but has become more or less universally accepted in the last few decades.

George W. Bush said the U.S. had been “called to a unique role in human events. In a 2015 book entitled Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, former vice president Dick Cheney and daughter Congressman Liz Cheney wrote, “We are not just one more nation, one more same entity on the world stage. We have been essential to the preservation and progress of freedom” As president Barack Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

The press is equally adamant in its portrayal of the United States as a special entity, which obviously has been by every empire since the dawn of time. In his paper “The Greatest Nation on Earth” Misha Desai wrote that between 2010-2012 the term “American Exceptionalism” had “exploded, leaping into print and online publications roughly 4,172 times.”

James Hohmann, National Political Correspondent of the Washington Post, added another contribution yesterday. Hohmann’s column started by citing Trump’s grotesque remarks, as reported by the New York Times, that “migrants might be shot in the legs to slow them down at the southern border,” among other vile proposals. So far, so good, those comments were exceptionally vile.

Hohmann uses this to demonstrate that Trump is unlike any previous American president in that he is “pulling back from the principle” of American exceptionalism, a “guiding creed, which not long ago was a point of both national consensus and pride…While imperfect, the United States is not just another country on the U.N. roster somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.”

Presidents of both parties have historically recognized the essential role that the United States plays as a special and unique beacon of freedom. We have strived to be the world’s moral backbone, a leading champion for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Even as previous leaders had to make uncomfortable compromises and partner with unsavory characters to advance the national interest, that self-conception and the welcoming attitude it entails have been steadfast. But that’s not Trump’s worldview.”

Hohmann’s column extensively cited the case of Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey a year ago, in arguing that Trump has broken with American exceptionalism.”What prompted him to leave the kingdom, and to begin writing columns for The Post, was the sharp increase in domestic repression under [Mohammad bin Salman],” the story said. “His columns also argued against Mohammed bin Salman’s reckless regional agenda — especially the war in Yemen, which the crown prince had launched while serving as defense minister.”

Trump has refused to break with the Saudis over Khashoggi’s killing, saying, “We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars in orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them. It’s all about, for me, very simple. It’s America first.”

Of course, the Saudis have been a key strategic ally of the United States for more than a half century. That alliance is one of those “uncomfortable compromises” and MBS is one of those “unsavory characters” that no U.S. government if going to cut loose, despite the U.S. being a “unique beacon of freedom.”

Hohmann cites a recent column by Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter in George W. Bush’s White House, which says Trump “wants us to take pride in blood and soil rather than in a set of universal ideals. His calls for loyalty are based on geography not morality. He urges us to love America because it is powerful, and because it is ours, not because it is good.”

Hohmann is a graduate of Stanford and he’s got an alumni profile and interview where he says, “Studying history gave me the tools to think critically. It offered a framework through which to understand the world.”

One of my biggest pet peeves is when reporters use the word “unprecedented.” Nothing is truly unprecedented, yet if you follow the news closely that description abounds. Many journalists have never studied history, sadly, and they treat every news cycle as if it’s somehow exogenous to all the others that have come before. But past is prologue.

It certainly is. Trump is extreme in many ways, but in terms of foreign policy he’s nothing exceptional. And it’s hard to argue that you’re part of an “exceptional” country when Donald Trump leads it.

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