Via Mother Jones, he’s getting pounded by other #NeverTrumpers on social media for this but it makes sense within the context of his own nationalist message. He makes two points in the clip. One is the pedestrian idea that crowing about “American exceptionalism” can be alienating to people abroad who think their own homelands are exceptional, which I’m sure is true. Although, as Trump himself notes, that’s more of an argument not to talk about it, not to disbelieve in it. But he doesn’t believe in it either — or at least he doesn’t right now. How could he? A guy who’s running on the idea that America needs to be made great again is necessarily of the opinion that it isn’t so great as is. That doesn’t directly contradict the idea of American exceptionalism, properly defined, but it’s in tension with it:
I don’t like the term. I’ll be honest with you. People say, “Oh he’s not patriotic.” Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, “Why are you exceptional. We’re doing a lot better than you.” I never liked the term. And perhaps that’s because I don’t have a very big ego and I don’t need terms like that. Honestly. When you’re doing business—I watch Obama every once in a while saying “American exceptionalism,” it’s [Trump makes a face]. I don’t like the term. Because we’re dealing—First of all, I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much. On top of taking it back, I don’t want to say, “We’re exceptional. we’re more exceptional.” Because essentially we’re saying we’re more outstanding than you. “By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you.” I don’t like the term. I never liked it. When I see these politicians get up [and say], “the American exceptionalism”—we’re dying. We owe 18 trillion in debt. I’d like to make us exceptional. And I’d like to talk later instead of now. Does that make any sense? Because I think you’re insulting the world. And you, know, Jim, if you’re German, or you’re from Japan, or you’re from China, you don’t want to have people saying that. I never liked the expression. And I see a lot of good patriots get up and talk about Amer—you can think it, but I don’t think we should say it. We may have a chance to say it in the not-too-distant future. But even the, I wouldn’t say it because when I take back the jobs, and when I take back all that money and we get all our stuff, I’m not going to rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. But I never liked that term.
If what he says about foreigners finding their own countries exceptional sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same point Obama made early in his presidency when he was pilloried by conservatives for his comments on the subject. Remember? “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That was evidence, supposedly, that Obama didn’t believe in America’s fundamental greatness to the same extent as his predecessors. (He’s since said a lot more about American exceptionalism over the years, as you’ll see at the last link.) The rule of law, peaceful transfers of power, a historically strong military that eschews wars of conquest, a belief in free enterprise as the engine of economic growth, leadership abroad in defense of liberal values — those are the things that define “American exceptionalism,” or are supposed to. You can celebrate all of that while still agreeing with Trump that the country’s seen better days and needs a dramatic course correction to return to true greatness, but like I say, if you’re a committed nationalist, why would you want to? Nationalism succeeds when people are convinced that parasites, both foreign and domestic, are sapping the national culture of its health and that purging them is the path back to wellness. Standing up and crowing about American exceptionalism undermines that message by suggesting that the nation is already so strong that the parasites can’t do much damage. Especially if you’re a narcissist to Trump’s degree (enjoy the joke in the excerpt about how his ego isn’t that big), you want voters convinced that you’re the key to restoring American exceptionalism, not the Constitution or a return to traditional morality or what have you. He’s going to deport the Mexican illegals and block the Muslims and “take back all that money and … get all our stuff” from foreign countries, as he so eloquently puts it. Then America will be exceptional. Not before.
How funny is it, though, that the soon-to-be-crowned GOP nominee in 2016 actually criticized Barack Obama, of all people, for talking about “American exceptionalism” too much? About 80 percent of Trump’s controversies the past year would have triggered full-scale meltdowns in conservative media coming from a prominent character on the left like O and this quote is no, er, exception. As it is, hardly anyone will bat an eye. Partisan tribalism can move intellectual mountains.