When President Donald Trump’s old-guard-Republican critics lament what he’s done to American conservatism, they often complain specifically about the abandonment of the idea of American exceptionalism. Once Republicans were optimists about their country; under Trump they see only “American carnage” and decay. Once Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush believed in America as the leader of the free world, the shining city on a hill; under Trump the Republican view of the American position in the world is dark, nasty, zero-sum.
In a speech this week in Washington, at a conference organized to give form and substance to conservatism’s nationalist and populist turn, the Trump-supporting Silicon Valley heretic Peter Thiel essentially took ownership of that accusation. An uncritical faith in American exceptionalism, he suggested (according to notes taken by an attendee, Bonnie Kavoussi), often licensed pre-Trump conservatives to ignore their country’s mounting problems in their own country, the ways in which we were becoming “exceptional in bad ways” — from our obesity rate to our opioid epidemic, from our decaying infrastructure to our unjustified narcissism.
So the nationalist turn in conservative politics, Thiel went on, need not generate a chauvinistic spirit of “my country, right or wrong,” as its critics charge. Instead, by asking “how does my country compare to other countries?” the nationalist can recognize problems that the exceptionalists ignore and propose solutions they preemptively reject.
Thiel’s comments reminded me of an essay by Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review, another nationalism-friendly writer, which defined nationalism not as the corruption of patriotism but as an example of what patriotism looks like “in its irritated state” — when some internal failing or external challenge convinces people that the nation they love has lost its way or risks disaster, and that basking in sentimental exceptionalism will ensure only that your country doesn’t stay exceptional for long.
I like the Thiel-Dougherty case for being skeptical of exceptionalism because it fits with the arc of conservative debates before and after the rise of Trump. The modern conservative movement — at its most idealistic, at least — was organized to defend genuinely distinctive features of American life: our unique mix of commercial dynamism, religious zeal, communitarian affections and decentralist suspicion of the state. But in the post-Cold War dispensation this defense became rote and unconvincing, because even as they chest-thumped about their own patriotism and the perfidy of liberalism, conservative politicians didn’t seem to be actually cultivating or sustaining the things their ideology claimed to be defending.
This tendency culminated in an Obama-era conservatism that decided that anyone unhappy with Republican governance was just an ingrate who didn’t deserve the American experiment: You were a socialist if you doubted the perfection of our health care system, part of the mooching “47%” if you didn’t think a capital-gains tax cut would solve the working-class’s social crisis, an appeaser if you doubted the wisdom of a maximally hawkish foreign policy.
Whereas the conscious un-exceptionalism of Trump’s 2016 campaign, his willingness to poor-mouth America, to bemoan the ways we’ve lost ground to our competitors, to promise to restore lost greatness and blame both parties for decline — all of this was actually much more suited than the Romney-Ryan message to the actual socioeconomic conditions faced by many Americans. And in the shadow of that Trumpian un-exceptionalism a far more interesting debate about what ails America has opened up on the right, one that acknowledges more of the failures that exceptionalism encouraged (misguided military adventures, above all), and the problems of stratification, stagnation and social breakdown that it often overlooked.
But — and you know there’s a but — none of the people having this lively debate are the president of the United States. And in the president himself you can see how nationalism-in-power, instead of correcting exceptionalism as Thiel suggests, can simply become a cruder, more exclusionary version of the “everything is awesome” mentality that inspires its irritation in the first place.
This happens in two ways. First, once nationalists control the government, they feel tempted to insist that they have succeeded in restoring greatness long before any restoration is accomplished. In Trump’s case this temptation is a compulsion: In a little over two years we have gone from “American carnage” to yesterday’s tweeted proclamation that America “has never been stronger than it is now — rebuilt military, highest stock market ever, lowest unemployment and more people working than ever before. Keep America great!”
In other words, the problems that brought me to power can’t be problems any more now that I’m in charge — which requires, in turn, that anyone who insists that there actually are still problems must be the problem themselves. It’s in this spirit that nationalists-in-power often end up scapegoating some group of malcontents or critics within the nation, implying that they are saboteurs and wreckers, that their complaints are treasonous, that they should be expelled.
And it’s this spirit that infuses the strange-but-predictable spectacle of Trump, just over two years removed from a campaign that constantly emphasized his country’s failings, railing against a squad of left-wing congresswomen for their own criticisms of America and demanding that they go back to the foreign countries whence three of them did not in fact arrive.
Love it or leave it, in other words, with a bigoted edge — which is not a populist corrective to exceptionalism, but exceptionalism’s dumbest form.
In his partial defense of nationalist irruptions, Dougherty urges us to “judge them on a case-by-case basis.”
When nonnationalists notice the irritated and irritable character of nationalism, often the very next thing they say is, “Well, they have a point.” You would judge a nationalist movement the way you would judge any man or group of men in an agitated state. Do you have a right to be angry about this matter? What do you intend to do about it? How do you intend to do it?
Judged on this standard, the nationalist turn in conservative politics seems to me eminently justifiable, a response to a series of elite blunders that should inspire anger and revolt. The intellectual debate generated by this turn, whether it’s happening in Washington conference rooms or conservative periodicals or at the 8 p.m. hour for Fox News, is often far more relevant to America’s problems that the conservative debate before 2016.
But the nationalist in the Oval Office remains, unfortunately, an exceptional disgrace.