But most of the compliments Americans paid themselves half a century ago ring hollow in the 21st century. In 2010, as a rising star in the Tea Party movement, Marco Rubio delivered the keynote address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. He told his own inspiring personal story and credited it to the unique opportunities of the United States. “The result is an America where—which is the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition.” None of that is true, and in important ways it is the opposite of the truth. Who your parents were and where you came from matters probably more in the United States than in most other advanced economies, at least if statistics on upward mobility are to be believed.
America’s uniqueness, even pre-Trump, was expressed as much through negative indicators than positive. It is more violent than other comparable societies, both one-on-one and in the gun massacres to which the country has become so habituated. It has worse health outcomes than comparably wealthy countries, and some of them most important of them are deteriorating further even as they improve almost everywhere else. America’s average levels of academic achievement lag those of other advanced countries. Fewer Americans vote—and in no other democracy does organized money count for so much in political life. A century ago, H.L. Mencken observed the American “national genius for corruption,” and (again pre-Trump) Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks the U.S. in 18th place, behind Hong Kong, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany—never mind first-place finishers Denmark and New Zealand.