American Exceptionalism

By Jack Gabriel

America used to be great.

Or at least, that’s wh my history courses have taught me. We were great when we declared our independence from the tyranny of the British Empire in 1776. We were great when Andrew Jackson defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. We were great when we granted women the right to vote in 1920. We were great when we were the first country to send a man to the moon in 1969. Our past is filled with all this greatness.

What happened?

When I look around today, America does not seem that great. Women are still fighting for equal wages. Black people are fighting against police brutality in the streets. ISIS is wreaking global terror and are not being stopped. The news tells us that China and illegal immigrants are stealing all of our jobs. By all means, we need to make America great again.

With this state of mind, I might be able to fathom why someone would consider supporting a candidate who challenges the status quo. But in reality, these examples do not reflect America as a whole. Sure, our past is filled with greatness, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t screw up along the way.

America was great when we said that all men are created equal, but let’s not forget that the same men who wrote those words owned slaves, and slavery wasn’t abolished until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. America was great when Andrew Jackson defeated the British in New Orleans, but let’s not forget that a little more than a decade later, he would sign the Indian Removal Act as president, resulting in the transplantation of multiple Native American tribes and, thus, the Trail of Tears. Let’s call it what it was: a genocide.

Let’s not forget that when women were celebrating their new right to vote, the American government passed the Immigration Act of 1924, limiting the number of immigrants from certain countries who were seen as “inferior stock.” It was the first time eugenicists would play an important role in Congress. At the same time, thirty states were legally practicing eugenic-based compulsory sterilization, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, a ruling that hasn’t been overturned. Nazi Germany even cited the “success” of eugenics in the United States while enacting similar legislation that ultimately led to the Holocaust. Let’s also not forget that while we were fighting the Nazis, we relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.

And let’s not forget that while we were working on sending a man to the moon, we were also overthrowing governments in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala.

America has a great and storied past, but we have also made some terrible choices that cannot be ignored. History courses don’t always feel the same way though, which is in part due to something called American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is a combination of three ideas. The first is that our history is inherently different from other nations. The second is that we have a unique duty to transform the world. The third is that the first two ideas make America superior to everyone else. The Republican Party has taken this third idea and inflated it beyond belief. In their eyes, the United States is like the biblical “City upon a hill;” we are exempt from issues that have faced other nations and our history is perfect.

Over the past decade, this exaggerated view of America as the best country in the world has evidently led to some problems. For the Democrats as well, and Hillary Clinton specifically, American exceptionalism is at work today. Her view is that America is great right now and we must work to maintain and continuously improve it. To many Republicans, America is the best, enough said. Any doubt about it at all is too much. This has led to arguments about teaching more American exceptionalism in schools. If the goal is to convince people that America is the best, the ideal way then is to only teach the good the bad.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you haven’t been living under a rock since the Y2K scare, then you probably understand that a lot can and has gone wrong. This overemphasis of the great points in American history coupled with the ever-increasing violence in the news and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle has caused people to forget about the issues in the past; we’ve been conditioned to only see the problems America is facing today.

The news is filled with countless accounts of violence and corruption, causing people to live in a constant state of fear over whether America, believe it or not, is still great. Not everyone can see past what they are being shown, however. People see their fellow citizens rioting in the streets on the news. They see images of ISIS beheading journalists and destroying monuments in the Middle East. They hear about companies moving overseas or hiring immigrants, and the only thing they hear and learn about the past is the good. Make America great again, then, makes perfect sense. Enter Donald Trump.

The stage couldn’t have been more perfectly set for Trump. With 17 candidates in the field and a base of detached “deplorables” to take advantage of, Trump was able to use his reality TV personality to take over, and ultimately destroy, the Republican Party. All Trump had to do was preach the violence and corruption seen on TV to the environment the Republican Party had been creating for years. Through their loving and inflated lens of American exceptionalism, the Republican Party created Donald Trump.

It is interesting to note that even though Trump used American exceptionalism to his advantage, he rejected it. In his view, which he was able to convey to his supporters, America is no longer great and he would be able to make America great again. The very doctrine that the Republicans used to create Donald Trump and the electorate was exactly what Trump rejected, allowing him to win over those voters who sought a change from the status quo, a revival of American greatness. Maybe that’s why Trump will be heading to the White House. Even so, with a nation incredibly divided, Trump has showed us exactly why America’s ugly points need to be remembered.

Through their loving and inflated lens of American exceptionalism, the Republican Party created Donald Trump.

I don’t think there is much that is more cliché than “those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” or any other iteration of that saying, but there is  no way around it: it’s true. Our history is an important part of who we are, and we need to learn it, all of it. Both the good and the  bad brought us to where we are as a nation today. We screwed up in the past, and we will continue to screw up in the future, but as long as we continue to own up to and overcome our shortcomings as a nation, one thing will always stay the same:

We were great. We are great. We will always be great.