NPR’s Tom Ashbrook posed a question to listeners on Friday’s call-in show, “On Point:” How is it that millions of American voters are devotedly flocking to support this vituperative thin-skinned demagogue –Donald Trump– for President of the United States?”
One listener in particular nailed it, responding that the country has been groomed for years by Republican rhetoric to be suspicious of outsiders, jealous of anyone who qualifies as “others,” and viciously protective of perceived rights of personal autonomy and Christian religious orthodoxy. The caller’s response was brilliant, but still misses an essential element.
The presumption of most political discourse in the United States, from both the right and from the left, is the usually unspoken myth of American exceptionalism. That’s the assumption that “our country holds a unique place and role in human history.”1 Hillary Clinton believes it. She said to the American Legion, “It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on Earth, it’s also the strength of our values…Our power comes with a responsibility to lead.”2
But, as the Australian historian, Ian Tyrrell, states so well,
Exceptionalism is not a condition (except maybe a psychological one) but a belief, and beliefs, like religions, don’t easily shift for rational reasons. In the case of exceptionalism, the belief is visceral, founded in everyday experience and constitutive of identity, where the individual identity is subsumed in a national identity. No facts can penetrate such a shield without doing damage to the individual.3
In fact, by many measures, America is not exceptional. We were one of the last countries to end legal slavery, and the only one to fight a civil war about it. The United States matched, and sometimes exceeded, other colonial powers in it’s rapacious conquest of the lands and livelihood of indigenous peoples. And even as the economy prospered from their ingenuity and industry, our country has persistently persecuted every wave of immigrants to arrive at American borders. Racism runs deep in American veins. I cannot rid my head of the vision of Chinese laborers in Rock Springs, Wyoming in September, 1885, massacred by white miners after the mine owners hired them to break the miners’ strikes.4
And today, although the US has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, we rank dead last among major nations in general health– behind Canada, Germany, Sweden, and God-forbid, France.5 Again, last year, Republican Forbes Magazine says Denmark outranks us as the best country for business development.6 And Finnish students, along with Japanese, Estonian, and others, consistently out-perform US students in math and science.7
On the other hand, the U.S., for the time being at least, has the biggest economy on the planet.8 We also have the largest military in the world.9
But more importantly, the United States embraced some two-century old Enlightenment principles more than just about anywhere else. Separation of church and state, freedom of speech, equality of opportunity. They are enshrined in our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence.
More than sound-bites, these values enliven every-day behavior. Historian Steven Ambrose eloquently describes how American soldiers in WW2 out-flummoxed Nazi troops at Normandy and after. While the Germans awaited orders from superiors, American GI’s took personal initiative and improvised tactics in-the-moment amidst the chaos of war to prevail in one contest after another.
I take no small pride in the fact that the first Andes to disembark in Philadelphia from Germany in 1742 could not read and write his own name. Seven generations later, all my cousins and siblings have earned graduate degrees and professional occupations.
Is this evidence of American exceptionalism?
I think not. Our country has been blessed with an abundance of resources, and with the isolation of two oceans mostly protecting us from harm. The U.S. found its nativity at just the right time– after the Renaissance and Enlightenment had reformed the middle ages, but before the conflicts that finally destroyed feudalism and poised the modern world to perpetually dispute the powers and profits of industrialization.
That interregnum, and the liberal principles that converged with it, have enabled the United States to prosper, and to proselytize its ideals of democracy and free enterprise to other parts of the world. Sometimes we did it for real– e.g., Woodrow Wilson’s vain efforts to design a democratic world without war in 1918; too often we enacted frauds– fighting a pointless war in Vietnam with only rhetoric to justify its barbarism.
But, we Americans are not exceptional. We have benefitted from some exceptional circumstances, exceptional values bequeathed from others, and some exceptional historical vortices. They have enabled us to prosper, to conquer, and to profess the luxury of benevolence. Like the Greek, Persian, Roman and Mongol empires, we have had our couple centuries at the top of the heap. It remains to be seen whether we stay there.
What has this to say about Donald Trump? Just two words, really… “no surprise.”
As unexceptional human beings, merely dropped by accident of history into this time and country, as a group, we are no better and no worse than any people of any other time or place. If the highly educated, highly cultured country of Germany could fall for the roguishness of the Third Reich, there is manifestly no reason that Americans cannot, likewise succumb to similar appeals to scapegoating, racism and xenophobia.
The mine workers of 1885 Rock Springs, Wyoming were our ancestors. The were uneducated, but they weren’t dumb. They were working class folks who toiled mercilessly in grueling conditions for company bosses who grew rich on their labors. When they struck for better working conditions, the bosses called in even sadder, poorer Chinese workers whose families were starving on the other side of the Pacific. And the workers of Rock Springs rioted. They murdered every Chinese they could find.
So, as I ponder Rock Springs, I wonder how we can even ask the question about the millions who support Donald Trump.
© Roy H. Andes, 2016
1. Republican party platform, 2012,
2. Speech, August 31, 2016
Read Hillary Clinton’s Speech Touting ‘American Exceptionalism’
3. Ian Tyrrell, “Serious arguments about U.S. exceptionalism,” July 5, 2013.
4. Tom Rea, “The Rock Springs Massacre,” Wyoming Historical Society,
5. “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, 2014 Update: How the U.S. Health Care System Compares
6. “U.S. Slides Again As Denmark Tops Forbes’ Best Countries,” Dec. 17, 2014.
7. “Global grade: How do U.S. students compare?” Wilde, April 2, 2015.
8. “The U.S. Economy Is in Great Shape,” Wall St. Journal Blog, Morath, Jun 16, 2016,
9. “Trends in U.S. Military Spending,” Greenberg, Council of Foreign Relations, June 28, 2011