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 international entanglements, spreading democracy through example rather than intrusion, embracing protectionism and fair (not free) trade, and preserving a relatively homogeneous citizenry through racist and anti-immigrant policies. In short, it was about America first.

That original version of American exceptionalism—call it American Exceptionalism 1.0—vanished from mainstream politics after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But it retained allure in the heartland and is today making a comeback across the political spectrum as Americans have tired of their nation’s role as the global policeman and grown skeptical of the benefits of globalization and immigration. To be sure, as a grand strategy, “America first” is headed for failure. The United States and the rest of the world have become too interdependent; solving most international challenges requires collective, not unilateral, action; and immigration has already ensured that a homogeneous United States is gone for good. 

A brand of exceptionalism dating to the eighteenth century is ill suited to the twenty-first. Still, the contemporary appeal of “America first” and the inward turn it marks reveal that the version of exceptionalism that has guided

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