The last, best hope of Earth?

Is the United States unique? Roger Johnson examines the role that exceptionalism has played in the p

John McCain and Sarah Palin have made a peculiar addition to the language of presidential campaigning. On 11 September at a Columbia University forum and at the vice presidential debate, each expressed a belief in the idea of American exceptionalism.

It is a mild surprise to see these candidates appropriating a term more commonly found in academic discussion of American society and history. “American exceptionalism” is used to describe ideas that the United States contains unique factors that make its culture, politics or character qualitatively different from any other. Such ideas are found in historical interpretation, but also in national ideology - and at points where they intercept.

Describing themselves as exceptionalists might be new, but the idea they expressed was resoundingly consistent with presidential rhetoric. Significantly, Palin twinned the idea with an evocation of Ronald Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.” Responses, such as Roger Cohen’s at the New York Times have focussed on this latter association, with its threads to John Winthrop and undertones of religious destiny. Others, such as Rush Limbaugh and Gerard Baker, have grasped at the theme of exceptionalism, seeing it as a dividing issue between the candidates. The impression persists that it belongs to and defines the American right, and by extension the McCain/Palin campaign. This is due to easy assumptions about America’s cultural divide, but also to President Reagan’s remarkably successful appropriation of exceptionalist narratives of American strength, righteousness and destiny, and his persevering hold on the current Republican party image.

At best this underestimates the giddy exceptionalism that infuses Barack Obama’s own rhetoric and image, at its most absurd it depicts him as an unexceptionalist – one who seeks to expose America’s limits, and relegate it to the ordinary.

Obama has depended on narratives of America’s unique and transcendent nature, and has presented himself and his future presidency as the product and evidence of an exceptional nation: “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This came from his speech last March which focussed on the issue of race in his candidacy and in America.

Though rarely part of Reaganesque celebratory national narratives, America’s racial divide is often interpreted as vital to its exceptional nature, defining the country and shaping its history. In confronting it, Obama implicitly accepted this, but also constructed around it a narrative of unique American potential for change and self-betterment.

Also implicit was his potential as a symbol through which racial understanding and national unity could be achieved.

In the end, the presidency is a fundamentally exceptionalist institution, through the myths it contains about the potential of American citizens to rise to the top, about the potential of American power and world leadership, and about the preservation and perpetuity of American democracy. It demands of its candidates to draw on and promote what it represents, and offers in its past an illustrious array of symbols through which they may do so.

While the Republicans have chosen Reagan, Obama has consistently evoked Lincoln and his vision of America as “the last, best hope of Earth.”

Roger Johnson is an Associate Tutor in American Studies at the University of Sussex. He studied at the Institute of the Americas in London and is pursuing a doctorate on cultural memory and the Reagan administration.
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The US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.