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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times