The term, “American Exceptionalism” is one that has been notably fluid throughout its history. It has at times referred to the unique character of the settlement and founding of the United States as the “first new nation.” At other times it has served as a justification for a “benevolent” American hegemony in the post-World War II era to the present with Hillary Clinton embracing the meaning recently:
“When we say America is exceptional, it means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”
I’m not going to dwell on those meanings here because the danger I believe is not a threat to our founding values (since those values though perhaps exceptional also included slavery, limited franchise and ethnic cleansing) or a turning inward, away from a role in international conflicts (which is wishful thinking in a global economy). Though both those outcomes are to varying degrees possible, the concept of American Exceptionalism that I think is truly under siege in the current election is the original meaning.
This original definition, which in some places has been credited to Joseph Stalin, argues that the United States somehow stands outside the laws of Marxism that requires Capitalism inevitably result in violent class warfare. In The Language Log Mark Liberman has a great history of the development of the term and what captured me particularly was an explanation it cited from Ronald Reagan, The Movie and and Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin:
The doctrine of American exceptionalism developed within a wing of American Communism in the 1930s to explain the failure of Marxian socialism to take root in the United States. American exceptionalists contrasted the limited and superficial conflicts in America to the more tenacious social and political divisions that had generated revolution and dictatorship.
Whether or not Donald Trump wins the election (he won’t), we can be certain that the “tenacious social and political divisions” that this campaign has both revealed and encouraged will remain on November 9. For perhaps the first time since the American Civil War, the possibility exists that a significant portion of the country will not accept the legitimacy of the result. We’ve been moving toward this moment for a long time, with offenders from both ends of the political system chipping away at the foundations both from within and without. But it took a demagogue the size of Donald Trump to weaponize the social, economic, racial and political rifts in American society to place us at real risk of revolution or — and as absurd as I feel typing it — dictatorship.
The emergence of Trumpism (because there is no other single ideology that contains the man and his channeling of grievances, antipathies and retrograde masculinity) and its adherents has produced an environment not of competing ideas in the intellectual marketplace, but irreconcilable realities which can only be validated by the utter destruction of its opposite. It is a political movement which rejects compromise or moderation and regards with scorn the disapproval of institutional elites from politics and the media. It parades its anti-intellectual, xenophobic, misogynist bona fides with pride as badges of authenticity. It transforms white fragility into an anticipated and eagerly expected electoral martyrdom which itself will serve as validation of its psychotic critique of an admittedly flawed society. It has unleashed forces that may not be quietly contained or mainstreamed in a concession speech — indeed, concession itself will be seen by many as betrayal. Perhaps even more dire, the mechanisms of a budding surveillance state which many of us already fear, stands at the ready either to serve or put down an insurrection. Either scenario would undermine the constitutional rule of law in ways 9/11 didn’t even approach.
This could very well blow over. The fever could break and the American Exception might very well remain in-place (even if the exception in the end isn’t uniquely American). But it has not been so severely tested since the time of secession and for the first time in many of our lives, the concept can feel fragile. My fear is that while the arc of history does bend towards justice, the arc of empire tends towards entropy. Like the certain but abstract knowledge that some distant day the sun will swell and swallow the Earth whole, I can’t help but feel that the originators of American Exceptionalism were working on too small a historical scale for such a concept to prove endurable. Perhaps I am overly-afflicted by the triumph of dystopian fiction in popular culture and susceptible to such catastrophic imaginings. But equally possible is that American Exceptionalism is a mirage of remarkable but not permanent duration.