The death knell of American Exceptionalism under Trump
If Trump pushes his agenda too far, Republicans concerned with liberal democracy and rule of law might start to push back.
In contemporary times, poll after poll shows the American public to be more self-interested than altruistic. Whether on the topic of humanitarian intervention, or promoting democracy abroad, or providing a humane detention for captured enemy protagonists, American society as a whole is not very supportive of these policy goals if significant costs—or fears—are involved. In the abstract, Americans may express liberal and cosmopolitan views supportive of universal human rights. But this country that sees itself as a beacon of moral progress for all the world to see, the engine for global good, is the same country with a demonstrable history of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, slavery and lynching, Jim Crow laws to exploit and repress African Americans, anti-Semitism, periodic isolationism and xenophobia, grinding poverty under a harsh form of capitalism, gender discrimination and intolerance for the LGBT community, and a host of other defects. As 19th century Frenchman Ernest Renan observed, intense nationalism requires a lot of forgetting.
Indeed, probing questions reveal what Bill Clinton clearly understood when he got past Somalia and dealt with Bosnia and Kosovo. If you want to help those in distress abroad, you have to do it at very low cost with minimal dangers to even the professional military. Promote democracy? Well, only where security and economic interests are not threatened. Avoid the temptation to torture enemy prisoners? The current trend among the post-9/11 public, pushed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, is toward more and more acceptance of abuse, in the name, of course, of protecting a morally superior nation.
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The central problem is not so much the weakness of liberals in a conservative society, but rather the moral weakness of opportunists who enable Trump and defer to his illiberalism.
The popular and inescapable conclusion these days is that the so-called American inspired liberal world order was fashioned by elites, not by grass roots demands by the public. In so far as International Relations featured a quest for a rules-based international politics, forbidding aggression, recognizing human rights, promoting free trade and private property, this came from elites (often on a bipartisan basis) and not from the demands of an ill-informed public. The seamier side of American society was often (but not always) held in check by elites of both political parties who in general sought a rooted cosmopolitanism—that is, a blending of American identity and self-interest with international rules of the road including on democracy and human rights.
The result of this elite vision, cutting across both major parties, was something close to the precepts of hegemonic stability theory, or the idea that the governments in Washington also functioned as a de facto government for the world. Pursuit of core American interests was combined with considerable sensitivity to the needs of friends and allies. From 1945 and again after 1991, there was more to US foreign policy than the single-minded pursuit of narrow US advantage.
One outcome after 2016, quite possibly and maybe even probably, is the death knell of American Exceptionalism.
The election of 2016 has both reinforced the dark underside of American society, giving it unprecedented voice in high places, and moved to destroy the liberal world order built up over the past 70 years. It is perfectly clear that Donald Trump has never heard of hegemonic stability theory, nor, more practically, has he entertained the notion that a great America requires sensitivity to the needs of others as compared to a selfish grabbing of whatever there is to grab. He does not mind hurting those who disagree with his impulsive diktats, whether they be individuals or foreign governments. His poorly conceived travel ban affected maybe 90,000 people with no security gains, while it certainly did damage to US foreign policy interests.
One outcome after 2016, quite possibly and maybe even probably, is the death knell of American Exceptionalism. The rhetoric of making America great again is being joined by such mean-spirited policies toward Muslims, foreigners, women, those of differing opinions of all types, that in the real world (as compared to the world of “alternative facts”) there is no way that the idea of a morally superior America can survive.
But there is another outcome, which depends on the effectiveness of a push back against Trump policies. Just as many Republicans pushed back against Trump’s proclivity to embrace Putin in Russia, so a Republican refusal to support Trump on his violations of human rights might actually strengthen both reasonable policies and the notion of American Exceptionalism. It is not so much a matter of liberal Democrats taking to the streets as it is the Republican Party finding its moral core. After all, Richard Nixon was forced to resign when key Republican moderates like Howard Baker of Tennessee abandoned party unity and spoke against Nixon’s abuse of power.
It is too much to expect contemporary Republicans to stress the international law of human rights when it comes to Muslims, foreigners, and in general a quest for a liberal world order. Most contemporary Republicans, whether realists or neo-cons, have never liked human rights treaties and are deeply suspicious of international law in general. But they might rise to challenge Trump on grounds of American values and rule of law. Perhaps we can reach the desired goal not by alternative facts but by alternative means—since “American values” properly defined and rule of law overlap with universal human rights.
In other words, Donald Trump may wind up resurrecting American Exceptionalism by showing that the rest of the elite, especially Republicans, will not defer to his illiberal impulses. The central problem is not so much the weakness of liberal Democrats in a deeply conservative society, but rather the moral weakness of those Republicans and other opportunists who enable Trump and defer to his illiberalism. Parts of American society already constitute an illiberal democracy as Fareed Zakaria explained that term. In liberal democracy, office holders see the opposition as loyal and patriotic with the right to rule periodically; dissidents and minorities are not persecuted but protected by effective rule of law through independent courts. Illiberal democracy may feature free and fair elections, but the winners do not manifest belief in these two key values. North Carolina Republicans are a case in point with their efforts to deny winning Democrats the right to govern effectively.
The really huge question, as Trump might say, is whether most other Republicans will follow that kind of illiberal trend. Both the US and world order are at stake.
David P. Forsythe is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Nebraska, and the co-author with Patrice McMahon of the recently published book, American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: U.S. Foreign Policy, Human Rights, and World Order.