‘Americans and Europeans alike sometimes forget how unique is the United States of America,” Margaret Thatcher said. “No other nation has been built upon an idea—the idea of liberty.” This is the essence of American exceptionalism. The American identity and national bond are based not just on a common history or culture or language but, more important, on a set of common ideals and principles, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence: the equality of all individuals, the inviolability of human rights, and the dependence of government’s legitimacy on the consent of the governed.
How do these ideas fit into Donald Trump’s vision of American greatness? He promises to “make America great again.” But where in his declarations can we find the language of the American creed? Think about it. In all his stump speeches, tweets, and debate performances, how many times have you heard him utter the words liberty, freedom, democracy, Constitution, Founding Fathers, rights, ideals, equality, opportunity? Has he ever quoted the giants of our political pantheon—Lincoln or Jefferson, FDR or Reagan? Unlike every other candidate, Republican and Democratic, in this race and in races past, he completely ignores the ideas at the heart of the American experiment.
Instead, he repeats words like winning, great, huge, beat, kill, deals, successful, rich. He quotes himself and his own books. The central idea at the heart of Trumpism is the idea of winning. And winning, by his definition, means beating a loser. Right now, he says, we’re losing to China and Mexico and Japan and all the rest. But he’ll change that. He’ll reverse the flow of money from foreigners and illegal immigrants back into the pockets of hardworking Americans. Trump’s world is a zero-sum game, and Trump’s America will start winning again only when everyone else starts losing.
This simplistic thinking defies logic and basic economics. But it does appeal to a certain sense of American nationalism: that “we” as a collective need to rally around a strong leader who will make us once again richer and more powerful than everyone else. Why? Because we’re us and they’re them. This kind of nationalism, however, is completely unexceptional. The leaders of literally any other country on earth could—and often do—say the same thing to their people and appeal to the same nationalistic sentiments. There is nothing uniquely American about what Trump espouses. There is no American ideal or philosophy providing a moral reason for this national mission to “win.”
What has been unique in American political discourse for 240 years is that our ideals have given a higher purpose to our common mission to govern ourselves at home and champion our values abroad. Americans, Jefferson wrote, are “trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.” It fills me with pride to belong to the one country in history to have built its foundation and forged its bonds of citizenship on these magnificent ideals. It has given me a deep love for my country—a patriotism I feel in my bones.
Many foreigners find this somewhat mystifying, if not unsettling. My European friends in particular are often shocked when they come to America and see how often and fervently we wave the flag, sing the national anthem, and celebrate our military. They recoil and ask how I can partake in such naked displays of nationalism. In their countries, comparable shows of national sentiment are often linked to racism, xenophobia, militarism, and chauvinism. And not without reason: The history of Europe and much of the world is replete with countless tragic examples of political leaders whipping their countrymen into a nationalistic fury to start wars, crush individual rights, oppress minorities, and even commit genocide.
But America is different, I explain, unique in that our national identity is based on ideas. Without a shared belief in liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity, we would cease to be Americans in any meaningful sense. Our patriotic displays express a shared pride and dedication to those ideals far beyond any brittle bond of race, ethnicity, or narrow sense of nationality.
Donald Trump is chipping away at that truth, reducing American patriotism to an ugly and tawdry nationalism bereft of true American values. He denounces and dismisses allies who share those values—peaceful democracies like Japan, South Korea, Germany, and other NATO members—but compliments and quotes dictators like Vladimir Putin and Mussolini, who dismantled democracies and invaded their neighbors. A core tenet of his foreign policy is to demand our allies give us more money in exchange for our protection. He seems to view the role of the United States and its military in the world not as FDR’s “arsenal of democracy,” but rather a mercenary force with little higher mission than to reclaim every penny of its cost from other nations.
In the domestic arena, he demonstrates disdain for our most dearly held freedoms, threatening to “open up libel laws” to sue newspapers that write negative stories about him, joking about killing reporters, and calling them “such lying, disgusting people.” He regularly whips his crowds into frenzies of anger and violence completely anathema to the democratic spirit, encouraging them to “knock the crap out of” protesters and have them “carried out on a stretcher.” When one of his supporters did assault a protester at a North Carolina rally and followed it up by declaring that next time, “we might have to kill him,” Trump praised the man, saying “he obviously loves his country.” That Trump confuses such hatred for patriotism is telling. And that this hatred is often directed toward protesters who are members of racial and ethnic minorities—at rallies where Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric flirts all too closely with nativist and racist sentiments—makes these episodes even more disturbing. When he leads his crowds in angry jeers of “USA! USA! USA!” to cheer on this vitriolic behavior, he inverts in the most awful way what that chant should mean.
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