What Trump's slick catchphrase really means: "Make America great again" is just code for "get the best deals"

Salon speaks to a historian about the way American Exceptionalism has been twisted to justify bad ideas

Published December 4, 2015 11:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Scott Heppell)
(AP/Scott Heppell)

Whether justifying foreign intervention because of the Unites States’ inherent virtue or proclaiming the need to “make America great again,” the notion that our country is uniquely moral and righteous has been circulating lately. It’s a macho, pumped-up variation of the idea of “American Exceptionalism” – the notion that the Puritans, the American Revolution, widespread Christianity, the vast open spaces, or some other element makes the country politically and culturally different than others. It doesn’t always mean that the U.S. is free to defy international rules and standards, but it’s only a quick jump to that kind of conclusion.

Where does this potentially dangerous idea come from, and where does it lead?

Salon spoke to Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California at Davis and the author of the book “Blessed Among Nations,” which looks at what makes the U.S. different from other countries. His new book is “The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace.”

We spoke to Rauchway from his office in Davis. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Do you hear the same tones of American Exceptionalism in recent saber rattling and in Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again?” There’s a widespread rhetoric on the political right that this country has lost a specialness that needs to be restored.

Yeah, clearly. This is one of those weird examples where a phrase that really is only current in academic circles suddenly pops over into politics.

American Exceptionalism is an academic term used to describe the idea that America is unique – which, of course, is not unique to America. Other nations have their own notions of uniqueness. The French believe they have a special civilizing mission. The Germans believed that they had a “special path” – that the German peoples had a special destiny of their own, to realize their greatness. (This was pre-Nazi-era.)

So everyone is special in their own way – like Lake Wobegon. But even before the United States [was founded] a variety of Americans have indulged this view, going back at least to the Puritans.

Now, their notion of what makes these people different is very different from our own. It’s a weird thing: Reagan invoked, famously, [John] Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” speech to completely invert the meaning of the speech.

When Winthrop said, “We shall be a city upon a hill -- the eyes of all people shall be upon us,” he meant, “If we screw up, we’ll be in big trouble because everyone will notice. Everyone will be watching and waiting. And the only way to counteract that is to give aid to one another, because we are all as one in the body of Christ.” So it was a rather different view that we got later.

Exceptionalism tends to subsume and reinterpret previous versions.

How do you hear it coming up now?

If it’s on the right, it tends to be that the United States has a special ability to combine prosperity and liberty that is denied to other modern nations. “Everyone else has fallen prey to some version of Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes, and you probably can’t distinguish between them, really. We alone understand that prosperity and unfettered enterprise go hand in hand.”

Is it ever invoked on the left?

It is, but less. A few years ago Bill Moyers tried to construct an idea of progressive American destiny – going back to more leftist movements in the American past. Every now and then people do that.

Let’s talk about where the idea of our uniqueness came from, and how it’s changed over the years.

It’s commonplace for almost all people to think that they have a special destiny and a relationship to their god. One of the clear founding texts was the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln combines the Civil War with the idea of a special role for the United States in promoting democratic government. So that it shall not perish from the earth – this is a special mission that the United States has taken up.

If that’s not the founding text, it’s at least the most eloquent expression of the idea that American is special because of its association of the victory of the Civil War – the Civil War is a sort of re-founding of the nation.

He’s echoing some of the Founders and the Framers for re-opening the idea of whether a republic can endure. The Greeks and the Romans and the Florentines seemed to [teach us] that a republic inevitably declines – but the Framers seemed to be reopening that question. Madison said, make the republic bigger, even continuously bigger… This association of an expansionist republic with that idea of retesting an old theory that I think is probably the core bit of American Exceptionalism.

When and how does it become, “Whatever we do is right because God has somehow smiled on us.”

That’s a crude version of what we’re talking about. When Winthrop or Lincoln invoked God, it wasn’t because we were always virtuous – neither of them believed that. But it is to say that God is taking a special interest in us, as he did for the ancient Hebrews. It doesn’t mean that we’re always going to do the right thing… But it’s that Americans are tasked to a special mission; that we are therefore held to a higher standard.

As you suggest, there’s a cruder version: We are intrinsically virtuous because we are Americans, because we are Christians, because we are capitalists.

I think the cruder version is the one circulating more these days.

Right – it’s now shaded into, “My country, right or wrong.”

What are the consequences of this idea – that we have a special mission, that the Lord is on our side…?

There’s a fairly well established [argument] that because we are a special country, we don’t need a welfare state, for example. That goes back at least to the late 19th century and has been continually mobilized.

It seems like it can be dragged out every time we want to emulate another nation…

Right. “Other nations have gun control, we don’t need that. Other nations have state-funded day care, we don’t need that. Other nations have national health, we don’t need that. We have The West. We have limitless opportunity. We have whatever special thing it is that we have.”

Have some of our foreign misadventures been driven by the sense that we have a special mission in the world?

That goes back a long way… American intervention in World War I – Woodrow Wilson had a very peculiar idea of our relationship to Providence… The Cold War was often framed in explicitly Exceptional terms: Not just the Lincolnian need to preserve democracy, but the need to protect the habits of a God-fearing people in a potentially godless Communist world.

Let’s close with the present and with Trump’s “make America great again.” What do you hear there?

This is the thing with a lot of Trump’s rhetoric: You have to interrogate his statements because he won’t tell you.

It’s certainly a very nationalistic view of the United States of America. It’s the idea — to use a phrase Trump might use – that the United States should “get the best deals for itself.” Or “get the best and classiest deals for itself” overseas... That this will somehow “make America great again.”

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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2016 Elections American Exceptionalism American History Donald Trump