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The Clash of Exceptionalisms

A New Fight Over an Old Idea

True believers: watching a Veterans Day parade in New Hampshire, November 2015 Brian Snyder / Reuters

Many Americans have recoiled at President Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy. Critics charge that his populist brand of statecraft undermines the United States’ role as an exceptional nation destined to bring political and economic liberty to a waiting world. Trump exhibits isolationist, unilateralist, and protectionist instincts; indifference to the promotion of democracy; and animosity toward immigrants. How could Americans elect a president so at odds with what their country stands for?

Yet “America first” is less out of step with U.S. history than meets the eye. Trump is not so much abandoning American exceptionalism as he is tapping into an earlier incarnation of it. Since World War II, the country’s exceptional mission has centered on the idea of a Pax Americana upheld through the vigorous export of U.S. power and values. But before that, American exceptionalism meant insulating the American experiment from foreign threats, shunning

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