As US News’s Robert Schlesinger has also noted, “American exceptionalism” is not a traditional part of the presidential vocabulary. According to his search of public records, Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term.
And yet in recent years it has become a commonplace of Republicans and Democrats alike. As the country has become politically shakier, the rhetoric about its greatness has only escalated in an American version of “the lady doth protest too much”. Such descriptors have become the political equivalent of litmus tests: you couldn’t be president or much of anything else without eternally testifying to your unwavering belief in American greatness.
This, of course, is the line that Trump crossed in a curiously unnoticed fashion in this election campaign. He did so by initially upping the rhetorical ante, adding that exclamation point (which even Reagan avoided). Yet in the process of being more patriotically correct than thou, he somehow also waded straight into American decline so bluntly that his own audience could hardly miss it – even if his critics did.
Think of it as an irony, if you wish, but in promoting his own rise the ultimate American narcissist has also openly promoted a version of decline to striking numbers of Americans. For his followers, a major political figure has quit with the defensive BS and started saying it the way it is.