Donald Trump once said that “this country is a hell hole” and that “the American dream is dead.”
We cannot do anything right, he claims, and we’re losing to all of our international competitors.
Indeed, the very foundation of Trump’s campaign has become his insistence that the United States is nowhere near what it used to be and we must do all that we can to “make America great again.”
The last word of that catchphrase is vital to completely understanding the gravity of what Trump is really imploring us to do.
Despite all of his rancorous hollering and denunciations of how our country has gone off the deep end, implicit in his campaign slogan is the idea that there was once a time when the United States could hold its head up — a time when America really was the greatest place on Earth.
Some reject this idea outright and deem it a mere arrogant and misplaced display of American exceptionalism that is coupled with the desire for the days of yore that have long expired.
All told, they are absolutely right to make assertions like these, but it is likewise intriguing to note that critics of Trump fall victim to a different kind of American exceptionalism that has become similarly corrosive.
In the early stages of the campaign, the initial response to Trump’s barking was largely one of dismissal. Of course his proposals were unfounded and ill-advised, but that didn’t matter. There was no way a buffoon like him could ever make a serious bid for the White House.
As Adam Gopnik writes, leaders on both sides of the aisle sat back, relaxed and assured us that “this will pass, it’s an oddity — and anyway it’s more important to be positioned after the demagogue’s fall than to take the costly action necessary to oppose him.” This rhetoric was endemic of almost all people who monitored Trump’s ascendancy, and it has a lot to do with why he has made it this far. It seems that in relentlessly condemning Trump, we have forgotten the true nature of our government.
While we have established that most of us see a Trump administration as a virtual impossibility, it is interesting that the hypothetical notion of such a prospect leaves us fearing that the nation as we know it would cease to exist. It would be disastrous, chaotic and some have even said they would leave the country.
If we really wanted to keep him out of the Oval Office, shouldn’t we do more than just push him and his irrational views aside? Given that an attitude like this one is genuine, why haven’t we done more than simply dismiss Trump as a nonsensical demagogue?
The answer is American exceptionalism.
When we proclaim that there is no way Trump could ever become President, we are simultaneously displaying the kind of American exceptionalism that has sown the seeds for his rise.
In case we did not know it already, democracy is inherently fragile — Trump’s burgeoning campaign is proof enough of that.
The fact that he is the likely nominee for the Republican Party would have been inconceivable just months ago. It therefore stands to reason that we must do all we can to ensure the perpetuity of our country.
Contrary to what the principles of American exceptionalism might champion, the permanency of our democratic government is not a guarantee.
That is why, as Gopnik remarks, “Lincoln could speak so solemnly at Gettysburg of government of the people, by the people, for the people perishing from the earth.”
For him, the statement was not a rhetorical tool: it was a profound concern that our democracy might at any moment come crashing down upon us.
There was no American exceptionalism in Lincoln’s comments, none at all, and that is because he realized that we must never take our democracy for granted. He recognized that if we do not fight for it, a government of, by and for the people could very well perish from the earth.
Paradoxically, what makes America the greatest country on Earth is our insistence that it is not.
But the second we start proclaiming that we are too righteous for a demagogue like Trump, we have lost.
So if we truly want to ensure that Trump’s fingers won’t be anywhere near the nuclear button, it is time we do something that we should have done a very long time ago: take him, his ideas and his supporters seriously.