What makes America 'exceptional'? Clinton and Trump trade places

Typically, 'American exceptionalism' has been a Republican talking point. But this election, it's Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump who's touting the idea – even as young Americans increasingly question it.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Legion's 98th Annual Convention at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati Wednesday.

When Hillary Clinton spoke in front of a group of veterans on Wednesday, she invoked a concept that has long shaped how many conservative Americans have understood their country and its place within the world.

“If there is one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this: The United States is an exceptional nation,” Mrs. Clinton told those gathered at the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati. “I believe we are still Lincoln’s ‘last best hope of earth,’ still Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill,’ still Robert Kennedy’s ‘great, unselfish, compassionate country.’ ”

Such lofty talk of “American exceptionalism” has been woven into the nation’s DNA since the time of the Puritans, many scholars say. The United States, many believe, is a unique nation with a special, perhaps God-ordained role to play upon the global stage.

But within the crosscurrents of this topsy-turvy election cycle, the roles of the presidential candidates have flipped.

On Wednesday, Clinton spoke of the value of the American military, both to secure American interests abroad and to act as “the global force for freedom, justice, and human dignity.”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has said the assumptions behind American exceptionalism are “insulting” to the rest of the world. “I don't like the term,” he said last year.

The reversal comes amid a deeper shift within the country itself. The rising generation of Millennials more often sees American exceptionalism as connected to ideals than to the exertion of its power, polls find.

“A new patriotism in American may be rising,” wrote Lynn Vavreck in The New York Times.

In the context of this election, however, Clinton’s more traditional speech “makes perfect sense,” says Mark Naison, professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University in New York.

She has just spent a month courting Republicans potentially alienated by Trump, after all.

In general, her speech underlined her long-held hawkish positions on the use of the American military. The United States is not only an exceptional nation, she said, it is also indispensable nation as a force for good.

Who's the Republican?

This is not a typical Democratic talking point.

“On the left and in most precincts of the Democratic Party, the word is used sneeringly, while Republicans embrace it enthusiastically,” says Jerald Podair, professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

Indeed, Republicans explicitly trumpet American exceptionalism in their party platform.

The Republican nominee, however, has expressed the view of many liberals over the years. In 2013, after Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized President Obama’s use of the phrase “American exceptionalism,” Mr. Trump agreed, calling it “insulting” to the rest of the world.

Then in April last year, a month before he announced his candidacy, Trump repeated the critique, telling the Texas Patriots political action committee, a tea party group: “I don't want to say, ‘We're exceptional. We're more exceptional.’ Because essentially we're saying, ‘We're more outstanding than you…’ I don't like the term. I never liked it. When I see these politicians get up [and say], ‘the American exceptionalism’ ... I think, ‘You’re insulting the world.’ ”

Trump’s position has hints of the growing generational shift, but Millennial ideals appear to go deeper.

On the surface, Millennials report having fewer traditional notions of patriotism. Only 15 percent of 18 to 29 year olds describe the US as the greatest country in the world, while half of 30 to 64 year olds still make that claim.

Yet as the Monitor reported this week on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem, many Millennials see the country’s “exceptionalism” in acts of questioning, and through a desire to fix its flaws.

This includes a vigorous critique of the idea of America as a special nation and a force for good in the world – especially by minority thinkers.  

“American exceptionalism has its roots in the ideologies and genocidal practices of land conquest, from Manifest Destiny to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Dylan Rodriguez, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, in an email. “Inseparable from the history of US white supremacist thought – which includes eugenics and the legal edifices of Jim Crow apartheid – this is an exceptionalism that nurtures a dynamically racist commitment to social Darwinism.”

Obama's take

Early in his tenure, Obama drew the ire of conservatives after he casually dismissed a question about American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said in 2009.

But Obama now says he believes “in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being” – though on new terms that echo Millennials’.

America’s exceptionalism is rooted in the history of American protests and battles for freedom, he says. In his speech for the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches last year, Obama gave a Whitmanesque litany, from “the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life,” to “the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South,” and to “the countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights,” among others.

“That’s what it means to love America,” he said. “That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”

Clinton’s speech on Wednesday offered hints of that vision, though specifically as a means of contrasting herself with Trump.

“My opponent misses something important,” she told the veterans. “When we say America is exceptional, it doesn't mean that people from other places don't feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America's unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”

In that way, the idea of what makes America great could be a central campaign theme this November, says Professor Naison. 

“This vision of the US, not only as a beacon of freedom for nations, but as a place where oppressed people might want to move to, is precisely the vision she wants to juxtapose to Donald Trump's vision of the US as a walled society cutting back on its global obligations.” 

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