Reagan is still killing us: How his dangerous “American exceptionalism” haunts us today

Hillary Clinton's sobering recent interview is another example of how the Gipper's sunny nationalism won't go away

Topics: Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Rick Perlstein, Barack Obama, MSNBC, Jeffrey Goldberg, Foreign policy, American Exceptionalism, George W. Bush, Editor's Picks, ,

Reagan is still killing us: How his dangerous "American exceptionalism" haunts us todayRonald Reagan (Credit: AP/Ira Schwarz)

As the chaos in Missouri has reminded us this past week, the gap between what the United States is supposed to be and what it actually is remains more than large enough to fit a SWAT team or two. But while the always-childish fantasy of a post-racial America is choked by tear gas and pummeled by rubber and wooden bullets, the past few days have also seen the resurgence of another distinguishing aspect of the American character: Our unshakable belief in our own superiority, and our unwavering optimism that said superiority means we can right the world’s many wrongs.

I’m thinking, of course, of Hillary Clinton’s recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, an interview that my colleague Joan Walsh rightly described as “sobering” for any progressive who’d resigned herself to a Clinton candidacy but hoped the former secretary of state had lost the martial inclination that likely cost her the presidency in 2008. Because while it’s true that some in the media (especially those with a neoconservative worldview) exaggerated the forcefulness of Clinton’s criticisms, it’s also true that Clinton reminded us that her view of the world differs from the president’s in some fundamental ways.

“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” Clinton told the hawkish Goldberg, implicitly arguing that Obama’s relative reluctance to send U.S. troops into other countries was no better than his predecessor’s belief that no problem was too big to be solved by an American with a gun. Sounding another dog-whistle for the unreconstructed neo-imperialists among us, she went on to complain that “we don’t even tell our own story very well these days,” chalking up America’s diminished global reputation not to its policies but rather its shoddy branding. (This is a move conservative Republicans pull after every election loss, which should tell you something of its intellectual merit.)



The key moment, however, was what came next, after Clinton’s use of the corporate “tell our story” cliché, when Goldberg said that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” “That’s how I feel!” was Clinton’s enthusiastic response, before she added, with faux modesty, that a belief in the U.S. as global savior “might be an old-fashioned idea,” but she’d keep it all the same. It was a striking exchange not just for its historical ignorance (when it comes to defeating both Nazism and Bolshevism, it’s the people in the Soviet Union and its satellites, not Americans, who deserve the credit most) but also for its schmaltziness and the way it put a folksy, heartland spin to a historical narrative that inexorably leads to militarism.

For all the ways he’s disappointed when it comes to ending the neo-imperial era of American foreign policy, President Obama doesn’t talk like this. He doesn’t go for the kind of rhetoric that places the U.S. as the protagonist and hero in a geopolitical drama of good vs. evil. And unlike Clinton, he doesn’t talk about groups of Islamic extremists as if they’re simply the latest versions of a cosmic evil that once took the forms of Nazi Germany and the USSR. He’s a nationalist, sure; and he certainly shares Clinton’s preference for a global order in which America pretends to be first among equals, when the real balance of power is anything but. Still, Obama, unlike Clinton, doesn’t talk about the world as if it were the stage for a great struggle between slavery and freedom. He knows that kind of talk was discredited by the results of our foreign policy from 2002 to 2008.

Weirdly, Clinton’s decision to speak about the U.S.’s role in global politics as if she, in contrast to Obama, was an unapologetic, “old-fashioned” believer in American exceptionalism made her sound like no one so much as Ronald Reagan, the last president who told a humbled America to buck up and forget its recent mistakes. Indeed, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted this week when he hosted historian Rick Perlstein, whose new book on Reagan depicts him as absolver-in-chief, Clinton is seemingly “channeling Reagan in a very similar political moment” as that which confronted “the Gipper” after the trauma of the chaotic ’60s, Richard Nixon and Watergate. Pushing back against what Perlstein described as Obama’s attempt to inject “nuance” and “complexity” into our foreign policy debates, Clinton instead wants us to reclaim the “old-fashioned” belief that conquering “evil” is the special job of the exceptional USA.

It’s possible that this is all so much pre-campaign positioning on Clinton’s part, but I think she means it. After all, for someone planning to enter the Democratic Party presidential primary, being described as sounding like Ronald Reagan is, well, not great. But in fairness to Clinton, if you take a step back and listen to how most postwar presidents have spoken, she’s not breaking from the norm or doing something new. On the contrary, she’s signaling her intentions to return to a former status quo — it just happens to be one that poorly served most Americans as of late. Since the era of Reagan, and for much of the century before, most national-level politicians have exploited Americans’ characteristic optimism and belief in their country’s virtue to push a foreign policy that supposedly spread freedom, but really helps capital by meddling in the lives of poor people who live far, far away.

So here’s a prediction about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential race. At one point or another, there will be a television ad in which Hillary Clinton will speak of bringing back the former glory of the United States. She’ll say it’s time to mark an end to nearly 20 years of terrorism, depression, war and defeat. It’s time to feel good again about being the leader of the free world. It’s morning in America; and everything is great.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

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