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US exceptionalism: The blinkers through which a flawed republic is viewed

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David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

Donald Trump is out of office, but the wave of US exceptionalism doesn’t seem to be receding any time soon.

By now, and especially after the historic inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the 46th US president and 49th vice-president respectively, the conspiracy-drunk mob of insurrectionists that stormed the US Capitol on 6 January feels like old news. However, one aspect of that day has stuck with me: the reactions of politicians and journalists laundering US exceptionalism by describing the event as un-American and foreign – something that happens “there”, not “here”. 

Americans – although certainly not all of them – tend to believe the US is a unique country without parallel in the history of the world. As Stephen M Walt notes, the concept of US exceptionalism presumes, “America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.” 

This concept helps explain why so many Americans consider the US president to be the unquestioned leader of the “free world”. Under the guise of exceptionalism, the US is understood to be without a moral equivalent. Such a framing diminishes Americans’ capacity to view their country outside of exaggerated nationalistic tropes; it also relies on stereotypes, many of which are racialised, and fails to consider the United States’ shortcomings, both foreign and domestic. 

Although I grew up in the US, I became an adult in South Africa. Nevertheless, I still oscillate between buying into US exceptionalism and shunning it. This sense of exceptionalism is like a familiar blanket I search for when no one’s looking and one I feel too old for – and sometimes embarrassed by – when someone is. I suspect many Americans feel the same way about the US, loving the privileges the passport affords and regretting the conversations the accent prompts. 

When Donald Trump was elected president, US exceptionalism, ironically, became as clear as it might ever be. His very election was deemed something that people couldn’t seriously vote for, and that was instead imposed by outside actors, namely, Russia. In 2017, journalist Rachel Maddow suggested Russians (read: Putin) may be controlling the US government. Many other journalists, politicians, ordinary Americans and people around the world simply nodded along and agreed, despite only $150,000 being spent on Facebook adverts intended to stoke polarisation and blur the lines between fact and fiction. 

Any excessiveness of US exceptionalism that emerged through the election of Trump didn’t mean it abated. Over the duration of his incoherent tenure the non-stop attention placed on him and efforts to link his administration to every single thing taking place around the world, had the perverse effect of reaffirming the United States’ centrality – in the eyes of Americans, at least – in the world, even though his administration directly challenged that centrality. Even in the negative register, no country does it as well as the US. 

So, when insurrectionists clinging to their delusions of conspiratorial grandeur like a pearl necklace violently made their way into the Capitol Building, chilling videos and stunning photographs appeared, capturing what it looks like when the destruction of the future is required to rescue some notion of the past. These videos and images, plus the deaths of five people, prompted a range of voices to draw from often nameless and placeless cliches to declare the event as the opposite of US exceptionalism. 

Former president George W Bush stated that he and his wife were “watching the scenes of mayhem unfold at the seat of our nation’s government in disbelief and dismay”, because “this is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic”.

Democratic Representative Steve Cohen tweeted: “This is now a third world country led by a tin-pot dictator”, adding later: “Russia, if you are reading this, come and take your President home!” Republican Representative Mike Kelly said, “We look more like a banana republic right now than the United States of America”. Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted the event was “3rd world style anti-American anarchy”.

Former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said, “Trump has made us into a third-world banana republic.” Journalist John Hardwood tweeted: “Trump has specifically, deliberately triggered Third World rioting in our nation’s capital”. Journalist Cenk Uygur tweeted: “Trump turned this country into a banana republic”. Journalist Jake Tapper tweeted: “I feel like I’m talking to a correspondent reporting from, you know, Bogota”.

These comments reflect a vision of the US underpinned by the continuity of its exceptionalism, not the absence or suspension of it. They are part and parcel of the so-called “city on the hill” looking down on the rest of the world while it looks out across a global vista and sees no comparisons. In this vision, events like the storming of the Capitol Building are aberrations and un-American impulses, drenched in stereotypical and often racially tinged language reserved solely for so-called third-world countries. 

Additionally, they overlook how much of the United States’ history of democracy has been about exclusion, racism and recasting critical viewpoints as heretical and un-American. They also overlook how much the US has undermined democracies abroad, especially in Asia, Africa and Central and South America. After all, the term “banana republic” was borne out of collusion between multinational corporations, like the United Fruit Company, and the US government, to subvert countries unenthusiastic about inequality and the absence of their own sovereignty, and foment coups and revolutions to maintain grossly unequal economic relationships. 

Although former president Trump is now out of office and, without social media, will more than likely fade into the obscurity of America’s goldfish-like political memory, the wave of US exceptionalism doesn’t seem to be receding any time soon. Indeed, during his inauguration speech President Biden repeated the idea of the United States’ exceptional infallibility, exclaiming: “Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, and to drive us from this sacred ground. That did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”

That such agreement about the foreignness of the siege on the Capitol Building exists, especially at a time when there’s heightened polarisation across the political and social spectrum in the US, suggests that while Americans disagree – at times, vehemently and violently – with one another, there’s broad agreement on how exceptional the country is. DM

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  • Could it be that the end of the Pax Americana era has finally arrived, and now we must enter in the new Pax Sinensis era?….It has already started in the new (dis)United States of Sino-Amerika…

  • While I am no believer in the myth of American exceptionalism, one must be fair and point out that theirs is the first modern democracy, and the one upon which all others are, to one degree or another, based upon.
    As for the idea of ‘the leader of the free world’, that is a a Cold War appellation, from a time when there were two superpowers, completely ideologically opposed to one another. One where freedom was prized, and one where the state controlled all – considering that, it’s obvious why the president of the Western superpower was deemed the leader of the half the world that was (relatively) free from oppression.
    Finally, the ‘banana republic’ comments may be ironic in light of some of the collusion with big business you mention in your article, but considering how few other nations – most notoriously, those in Africa – have claimed to be democratic, but have failed dismally, due to vote rigging, opposition torture and one party states, it’s hardly surprising that the nation that has held relatively free and fair elections non-stop for close to 250 years would view attempted sedition and the overturning of their election results as something akin to that seen so regularly on our continent…