The uproar over US President Donald Trump’s latest outrageous remarks attacking four members of the US Congress – Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, all women of colour – for constantly criticising America and telling them to “go back” to the countries “from which they came” highlights the trouble with American exceptionalism.
Exceptionalism is not unique to the US. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Barack Obama said at a NATO summit in the spring of 2009. And the US is exceptional in many ways. It dominates the world militarily, economically and culturally, in pretty much everything from sport to the number of Nobel laureates. In 2017, it was the preferred destination for fully a fifth of all adults worldwide who desired to permanently relocate to another country. And of course, only Americans have actually walked on the moon.
The US is also exceptional in less desirable ways. It is unique among the major industrialised nations of the world in not providing its citizens with universal healthcare and has the shortest life expectancy and highest infant mortality; it incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on the globe, its income inequality far outstrips other developed countries; and few nations can match the death toll gun violence in the US exacts every year.
However, the ideals of racial supremacy are also founded on and justified by appeals to exceptionalism – to being different and better than the rest. This moral exceptionalism eschews criticism of American conduct at home and abroad.
In a series of tweets following Trump’s recent tirade, Republican Congressman Sean Duffy suggested that Omar, the only one of the four Congresswomen born outside the US, was ungrateful for “America’s generosity, goodness, and unparalleled opportunity,” which had “rescued her family from an African refugee camp and [given] her the equivalent of a lottery ticket to come to the USA,” and that the country needed to do more to teach immigrants “about our greatness”.
Throughout history, powerful states have always tended to confuse material strength for moral superiority, to see their ability to oppress as a sign of divine favour and to obscure their plunder under the banner of a God-ordained mission.
The European plunder and destruction of African societies was rationalised under similar appeals to unique destinies and a “civilising mission”. The colonial state in Kenya, for example, was founded on the twin, though contradictory, pursuits of maintaining both an extortionate white supremacist order – “a white man’s country” – and the myth of a condescending paternalism in which British saw themselves as governing in the interests of the very people they plundered.
This view of a barbarous and primitive external world requiring a benevolent white guiding hand is clearly reflected in Trump’s assertion that the non-white world is composed of “countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world … totally broken and crime-infested places”. The US role in generating those same circumstances is, of course, not something he troubles himself trying to understand.
The very idea of exceptionalism cannot be divorced from such conceptions. President Ronald Reagan’s famous allusion to America as “the shining city upon a hill” in his farewell address 20 years ago necessarily sees the rest of the world as shrouded in darkness and savagery, and the US as “a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home”. Yet, the effort that he calls for to propagate this myth, at the dinner table and through popular culture, belies its spuriousness.
In a moral sense, America is exceptionally ordinary at best. Its foundational document which claims to recognise the equality of all men (and not women) was written by and for slave owners who included a description of the local population they were exterminating as “merciless Indian Savages”. It was not originally conceived as a means of liberation for all but for a privileged few who sought to recreate “a romanticised colonial past”.
While it has done a lot over the course of nearly 250 years to extend that promise of liberty to a wider proportion of its population, in much of the non-white world, even before Trump, the US has been less the beacon of hope it claims to be and more the harbinger of death and war and colonial-style exploitation and oppression.
The brutal treatment of would-be asylum seekers and migrants at its southern border reflects the US’s record in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. It has pursued a foreign policy largely at the behest of corporate interests, propped up murderous regimes and dictators, overthrown democratically elected regimes, destroyed relatively prosperous societies like Iraq, and protected racist regimes in South Africa and Israel.
Like other empires before it, it has created and perpetuated the very conditions of darkness from which it claims exceptionality.
It is a country that has shown itself, despite its rhetoric of democracy, to be no more immune than the rest of the world to the temptations of fascism and ethnic nationalism – quite the contrary. Its institutions and norms are proving to be no match for political demagoguery and race-baiting. Trump’s support among Republicans actually rose after his racist tweets and a few days later, one of his top aides demanded to know the ethnicity of a reporter who asked about them on the White House grounds.
Reagan’s vision was of “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here” – was always little more than a fantasy.
Trump is America’s reality check. As writer Eric Levitz concludes in his intelligent examination of the dangers of American exceptionalism, “Trump’s great gift to the American people is that he has made our government’s ugliest features easier to see.” The emperor is indeed naked. Pointing that out is the true crime of the four Congresswomen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.