“We believe in American exceptionalism,” reads the first line of the 2016 platform of the Republican Party, which just nominated a standard-bearer who says he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. “I don’t think it is a very nice term,” Donald Trump said last year. “You’re insulting the world…. if you’re German, or you’re from Japan, or you’re from China, you don’t want to have people saying that. I never liked the expression.”
It was Ronald Reagan who, perhaps more than any other politician, helped popularize the concept of American exceptionalism. He did so as part of the larger New Right project of re-moralizing American foreign policy, of once again investing US military and economic power with a sense of higher purpose. To do so, Reagan turned John Winthrop’s 1630 description of the Puritan mission in the New World as a “shining city on a hill” into American exceptionalism’s key metaphor. In his 1989 farewell address, Reagan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
When pundits today say that Trump represents something new in American politics, they aren’t necessarily denying that his racism, misogyny, and threats of violence are foreign to American history. Rather, claims that Trump is unique mostly have to do with his refusal to leaven his nastiness with appeals to universalism. After all, Reagan could mock the 1964 killing of civil-rights activists by launching his 1980 campaign at the spot where they were murdered, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, talking about “states’ rights”; Bill Clinton could, just before Super Tuesday 1992, campaign in front of Georgia’s notorious Stone Mountain Correctional Institution, “where he stood next to conservative Southern Democrats Sam Nunn and Zell Miller, as well as Dukes of Hazzard star Ben Jones (recently heard prominently defending the Confederate flag), posing for photographers in front of a group of black inmates.” George H.W. Bush ran ads with Willie Horton and Republicans rebuilt their party around the Southern strategy and “welfare queens.” Yet even as they dog-whistled racism, they still, apparently, appealed to the better angels of our nature, a balancing act that somehow makes those politicians more organically rooted in the history of America.
What rankles about Trump, what seems to upset our Vox–cracy, is that Trump doesn’t mix his darkness with kitschy light. “Very very dark,” Chris Hayes said in a tweet, based, I think, on a preview of Trump’s acceptance speech: “Straight up nationalism no chaser.”