The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world — and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.
–Harry Truman, 19471
We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
–Donald Trump, 20172
While there has been ample scholarly debate on the Trump administration’s grand strategy, there is one factor that deserves far more attention than it has received: Donald Trump’s rejection of American exceptionalism.3 Trump breaks with all U.S. presidents since 1945 not just because he challenges the postwar “liberal international order,” as many scholars have argued,4 but because he rejects its underlying master narrative. A master narrative is the enduring narrative of a nation, which, according to Ronald Krebs, constitutes the discursive playing field upon which voters and policymakers debate more discrete national security narratives.5 Whether it was to promote “the four freedoms,” to be “a shining city on a hill,” or to be an “indispensable nation,” presidents of both parties have based their arguments for U.S. leadership on a belief in American exceptionalism.6
Significantly, this master narrative has influenced not only presidential statements and rhetoric, but also actual foreign policy. Constructivist and liberal scholars of U.S. foreign policy argue that there exists a powerful national agreement on what role the United States is supposed to play in world history because of what kind of nation the United States is believed to be.7 This is not to say there has not been disagreement over U.S. foreign policy since 1945 — take, for example, the profound disagreement over the Vietnam War. But there has been a fundamental agreement that the United States should have a leading role in the international institutions it set up in the 1940s. One important reason for this was the powerful meta-narrative of American exceptionalism. Ironically, realist scholars have repeatedly confirmed the importance of exceptionalism by lamenting its effect on American politics.8 Unlike the disagreement over how ideas of American exceptionalism influenced earlier U.S. foreign policy, then, scholars actually agree that, since World War II, the makers of U.S. foreign policy have operated under the assumption that the world needs U.S. leadership not just because of American military might or the dollar, but because the United States is exceptional.9 This elite agreement deepened, rather than weakened, after the end of the Cold War. In fact, Barack Obama invoked American exceptionalism in 31 percent more speeches than the average of all other presidents combined since 1945.10
The contrast with Obama’s successor is stark. While Trump’s attack on the “liberal world order” has received ample attention from scholars of U.S. foreign policy,11 the analysis of Trump’s puzzling rejection of American exceptionalism has only just begun.12 Perhaps this is because Trump is often incoherent and self-contradictory and frequently tells lies and falsehoods,13 making an analysis of his statements and policies challenging.14 Yet, as Charlie Laderman and Brandon Simms show, there are important consistencies in Trump’s worldview, such as his critiques of NATO and China, as well as the general critique of U.S. leaders as fools taken advantage of by “wily foreigners.”15 Another such consistency is the glaring absence of the narrative of American exceptionalism from his worldview. Indeed, Trump’s rate of invoking American exceptionalism in his first year as president was less than half of the overall average across all presidents since World War II.16
Of course, in arguing that putting “America First” would make America “great again,” one might think that Trump, in fact, is promoting American exceptionalism. The idea of American exceptionalism is certainly connected to “greatness.” Republican voters might think Trump is embracing exceptionalism — understood as American superiority and even a sense of national mission — because the “America First” agenda is, to some degree, reminiscent of the Republican Party’s foreign policy agenda.17
This article argues against this view. Trump’s grand strategy is different in kind, and not just in degree, from U.S. postwar foreign policy because it rejects the underlying master narrative of American exceptionalism.18 The competing narrative Trump has adopted underscores this: The United States is not morally or ideationally superior to other countries — it is not an “exemplar.”19 In fact, according to Trump’s worldview, it is remarkably similar to countries that define themselves by materialist national interests and an ethnic national identity. Specifically, Trump’s embrace of an “America First” foreign policy entails a rejection of the moral mission that has been central to modern U.S. foreign policy: promoting (in theory, anyway) liberal internationalism through democratization, free-market economics, and human rights.20 Trump’s master narrative views the world somewhat similarly to realists: as a competitive, anarchic place where it is every state for itself, where alliances are temporary, and only the fittest survive.21 In this worldview, making America “great” means making America economically wealthy, militarily powerful, and safeguarding the white, Christian cultural heritage of the United States. In other words, Trump’s America First foreign policy platform is grounded in a master narrative perhaps best thought of as what Walter Russell Mead calls “Jacksonian” nationalism.22
Trump’s grand strategy is different in kind, and not just in degree, from U.S. postwar foreign policy because it rejects the underlying master narrative of American exceptionalism.
At the heart of Trump’s rejection of the U.S. post-World War II grand strategy of international leadership, therefore, is a confrontation between two master narratives: that of American exceptionalism and Jacksonian nationalism. American exceptionalism is an ideational master narrative. It is a story about an ethnically and religiously diverse nation united in adherence to liberal ideas and institutions both at home and abroad. In contrast, the Trump administration’s story of America is ascriptive: It is the story of a white, Christian race with materialist interests to pursue abroad.23 To be clear: In labeling the two narratives ideational and ascriptive (or even materialist), I am not making an ontological distinction between the world of ideas and the world of matter. Rather, I am analyzing two different narratives that stress different ideas. It is, as such, an analysis based in constructivist theory. Furthermore, I am not arguing that the exceptionalist narrative has only led to good foreign policy outcomes and that America therefore ought to return to the pre-Trump era. In fact, the sense of moral superiority inherent in the exceptionalist narrative has demonstrably led the United States astray numerous times.24 Rather than endorse one narrative over the other, this article analyzes the current foreign policy debate as a conflict between two master narratives, and contributes to a better understanding of what is at stake at this pivotal moment in American history: the meaning of “America” in the world.25
This article is structured as follows: In section two, I define American exceptionalism and discuss its influence throughout U.S. history. In section three, I examine the political history of America First and Jacksonian nationalism, and compare each to Trump’s own version of America First. I argue that Trump’s America First platform is closely related to its historical predecessors in the 1940s and the 1990s, especially its focus on economic and cultural protectionism. However, Trump’s America First breaks with the historic focus on non-interventionism as Trump’s version is more militaristic and interventionist. In the final section, I conclude by posing two questions: Can the United States simply “snap back” after Trump, and, if not, have we finally arrived at the “end of American exceptionalism”?
II. American Exceptionalism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Superiority, Mission, and Resisting the Laws of History
American exceptionalism is a set of ideas, not a set of observable facts.26 As Richard Hofstadter famously observed, the United States does not have an ideology, rather, it is one.27 These ideas define the United States as “an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; not only unique but also superior among nations.”28 The belief in American exceptionalism is an “enduring identity narrative” in the United States,29 and sets the parameters for how political leaders can and will narrate the story of “America” and its place in the world.30 It is a narrative with a long pedigree. In the colonial era, British ideas of exceptionalism, which included a religious as well as a racial component, contributed to what would later become American exceptionalism, with specific claims to political exceptionalism made during the founding era.31
Today, this narrative defines the United States not as a country like many others, built on a blood-and-soil identity, but rather as an exceptional Enlightenment invention built on liberal ideas and ideals.32 It is a narrative so strong and so pervasive it would be fitting to argue, as Anatol Lieven does, that “‘American exceptionalism’ is just another way of saying American civic nationalism without using the word nationalism.”33 Significantly, historians as well as constructivist and liberal scholars of international relations see this narrative as not only influencing rhetoric, but also having played an important role in influencing U.S. foreign policy throughout U.S. history.34
American exceptionalism, however, is a malleable concept and has been taken to mean different things throughout its history.35 This is especially clear when considering the role race has played in the definitional struggle over the meaning of “America.” There are three ideas that contribute to the master narrative of American exceptionalism.36 The first is that the United States is superior to the rest of the world. The second is that, because of this superiority, the United States has a special role to play in world history — it has a moral mission to pursue abroad. The third is that where other great nations and indeed empires have risen to power only to fall, the United States will not — it will resist this law of history.
American Exceptionalism: Superiority and Mission
Below, I discuss how superiority and mission have manifested themselves throughout U.S. history. I will show, among other things, that American exceptionalism has been a rather malleable concept, used to advocate for almost opposite foreign policy approaches.
“America” has a long tradition of being seen as “superior” by its own people. This idea does not connote mere difference or uniqueness. Rather, the distinction is hierarchical: It classifies the United States as superior in both ideas and institutions and therefore it promotes an idea that America has a mission to fulfill.37 This is different from patriotism,38 as it implies more than just love of country. The belief that America is superior has had a first-order effect on how the United States views itself and its role in the world: Because it is superior, it has a mission to pursue, and in this mission, it shall not fail because its superiority enables the circumventing of the laws of history. The idea of superiority has also influenced the framing of American foreign policy.
U.S. presidents often use exceptionalist rhetoric in their speeches both at home and abroad, setting the country apart from or above its international counterparts.39 This indicates a broad and deep acceptance of the idea of American exceptionalism among the American public.40 A typical expression of this broad acceptance can be found in an article by commentators Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, who write that the United States “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” This they attribute to “our Founding and our cultural heritage.”41 This is, of course, not something that one can ascertain objectively. If one tried to measure levels of freedom and dynamism, one might find that the United States did not, in fact, top these rankings.42 This is immaterial, however. What matters are not the rankings, but rather the belief Lowry and Ponnuru (and most Americans with them) hold. American exceptionalism is the master narrative of the United States, not a fact to be measured.
The belief that the United States is superior to the rest of the world because of its ideals and institutions has been powerful, persistent, and pervasive throughout U.S. history. In fact, this self-perception is so well established in U.S. political discourse that American polling firms such as Gallup and the Pew Research Center actually poll Americans on their belief in American exceptionalism. Defined in various manners in such polls, American exceptionalism can be operationalized as a belief that the United States is the “greatest country in the world because of its history and Constitution” or that “American culture is superior to others.” In 2010, Gallup reported that a huge majority of Americans (80 percent) agreed with the statement, “The United States has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world.” The fact that U.S. polling bureaus regularly ask Americans such questions speaks volumes about the pervasive belief in American exceptionalism (and, relatedly, the persistent fear that it is dwindling).43 While the poll numbers vary, the exceptionalist master narrative has held for over two centuries.44
If one questions American exceptionalism, and the idea that it connotes superiority rather than simply difference, one’s Americanness may itself be questioned. It means one does not sufficiently believe in the idea of “America,” which is inherently suspicious. This became clear amid the harsh criticism of Obama’s answer to a question posed to him in Strasbourg, France in 2009 on whether he believed in American exceptionalism or not. Obama’s answer seemed to convey an understanding of American exceptionalism as a relative phenomenon — a narrative, if you will. Contrasting American exceptionalism with narratives found in other nations such as Britain and Greece, Obama’s answer — “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — was seen as rejecting the idea that American exceptionalism implies moral superiority. It set off a heated debate in the American media,45 possibly because reports ignored the rest of Obama’s answer. Obama, in the tradition of previous presidents, went on to say that he was enormously proud of his country “and its role and history in the world.”46
If one questions American exceptionalism, and the idea that it connotes superiority rather than simply difference, one’s Americanness may itself be questioned.
Research on social and national identity indicates why Obama’s initial qualifier would upset many Americans. As Jason Gilmore and Charles M. Rowling argue, messages that enhance the “standing of one’s own national group” feed citizens’ self-esteem and pride “because their own personal identity is tied to the image of that national group.”47 Messages that counter this source of self-esteem naturally meet with resistance, as Obama’s comments did.48 Constantly invoking American exceptionalism is therefore not only a proven way that American presidents can bolster their community’s feelings of self-esteem, but in fact is a vital part of nation-building in a country made up of many different ethnicities and religions.
Of course, the idea that America is exceptional because of its superior civic ideals rather than its ascriptive characteristics is not something there has been agreement about in American history. If seen as a battle between civic and ethnic nationalism, American exceptionalism has represented both at various times, again testifying to the malleability of the concept itself.49 Originally, American exceptionalism stemmed from British exceptionalism, which entailed the promotion of a white, Protestant civilizational mission against the Catholic colonialism of the Spanish empire, as they competed over territory and influence in the “New World.”50 Up until the American Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, it was not clear whether a racialized definition of American exceptionalism or a civic kind of nationalism would prevail. While the civic nationalism of the “last, best hope on earth” won the Civil War, what civic nationalism actually meant was still under development. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, allowed for a kind of melting-pot definition of the nation, but one that only included “races” from Europe, entirely excluding black Americans.51
Liberal ideals have been an important — yet contested — part of modern, post-Civil War, U.S. nation-building, but they have not been the only ones.52 Rogers Smith divides American identity into three equal strands: a “liberal” strand composed of classical liberal rights and liberties; a “democratic republican” strand composed of civic-minded participation by citizens who are motivated by a defense of the common good; and an “ascriptive inegalitarian” strand composed of nativist, xenophobic, and racial hierarchies. The contestation between ascriptive and civic definitions of “America” is why the narrative of American exceptionalism has been useful in the ongoing effort to create a nation out of an ethnically and religiously diverse population.53
In addition to being viewed as a “superior” republic, the United States is also on a world historic “mission” according to the narrative of American exceptionalism. What this mission consists of has been the source of constant and fierce debate throughout U.S. history, and has evolved over time.54 What is clear is that this belief in a mission has influenced not just the framing, but also the content of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout American history, prominent groups have used exceptionalism to argue for both an interventionist foreign policy (i.e., a “missionary” version of exceptionalism) and a non-interventionist foreign policy (i.e., an “exemplarist” version of exceptionalism), attesting to how ideas of exceptionalism can be used for different — indeed contravening — political purposes.55 Proponents of an exemplarist worldview have often defined the United States’ role as “standing apart from the world and serving merely as a model of social and political possibility.”56 Creating a “more perfect union” is the meaning of the United States, which is why “meddling in the affairs of other states could cause irreparable harm to the U.S. body politic.”57 Summarizing the exemplarist sentiment, H. W. Brands warned, “in attempting to save the world, and probably failing, America could risk losing its democratic soul.”58
For a long time, most historians of U.S. foreign policy argued that as American exceptionalism cycled between exemplarism and missionary expressions, U.S. foreign policy was concomitantly isolationist or internationalist.59 But this view was highly problematic, as it required categorizing U.S. foreign policy before World War II — or at least up until 1898 — as isolationist.60 Viewing early U.S. foreign policy up through the 1800s as an expression of exemplarism required categorizing “manifest destiny” as a form of domestic politics. The manifest destiny of the United States, as journalist John O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, was “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”61 Testifying to the strength of the American self-conception as superior to the Old World, historians did not begin to compare “westward expansion” to European colonialism until the early 20th century.62 And yet, much like European great powers, U.S. foreign policy in the 19th century often consisted of wars of aggression and “civilizing” “inferior” races. Indeed, a constant feature of the U.S. debate over expansion and territorial conquest — whether on the continent or across the seas — was marked by the problem of race: who could be part of “America” and whether non-whites could truly become Americans.63 For example, Thomas Jefferson associated Native Americans with the “earliest stages of civilization” and expected them to civilize or perish. This was certainly a “self-serving logic” that “provided the ideological rationale for an expansive republican empire,” as Peter Onuf writes.64 Later, Andrew Jackson engineered the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands southeast of the Mississippi River in order to make way for white settlers. While the tensions leading up to the Civil War slowed down U.S. settlement of the western part of the continent,65 its potential as a civilizing power was finally reached when the United States entered the Spanish-American War in order to, in the words of President William McKinley, “uplift and civilize” the savages languishing in the Spanish empire in Cuba and the Philippines.”66 William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt made similar arguments for the superiority of the nation, encouraging it to take upon itself the “white man’s burden” of civilizing “backwards” peoples.67 The mission in U.S. foreign policy — whether directed at Mexicans, Native Americans, the Spanish Empire, or Prussian militarism — historically mixed elements of ethno-nationalism with Enlightenment ideals of democracy and capitalism, executed with religious zeal. Various presidents as different as Jefferson, Jackson, James Polk, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson have endeavored to teach the world what to do and how to do it — to execute the “white man’s burden.”68
In addition to being viewed as a “superior” republic, the United States is also on a world historic “mission” according to the narrative of American exceptionalism.
While it is correct to divide the narrative of American exceptionalism into two foreign policy articulations — one missionary and one exemplarist — it is wholly inaccurate to argue these two articulations have been reflected in actual U.S. foreign policy history. In fact, while the missionary foreign policy — which is active, international, and sometimes aggressive — appears throughout U.S. history, there is very little evidence of an exemplarist foreign policy being employed. This is a common misconception, and, one might add, a consequence of having bought into the manifest destiny narrative of U.S. expansion in the 19th century, which argues that the United States was simply taking control of territory God always meant for them.69 Arguing that the United States was exemplarist during its first century because it was “geographically isolated,”70 when it competed with European imperial powers for territory, ethnically cleansed Native Americans, and indeed fought a war of aggression against Mexico, renders the term “isolationist” meaningless.71
In fact, as revisionist historians of the Wisconsin School, led by William Appleman Williams, began arguing in the mid-20th century, rather than a cyclical U.S. foreign policy (where U.S. foreign policy was seen as “cycling” between internationalism and isolationism), the United States has always been interventionist.72 The territories not already owned by the United States in 1783 were not some mythical region waiting to be “civilized” by the United States. Rather, “westward expansion” was itself a settler colonial project.73 Indeed, how could a supposedly isolationist country go from 13 colonies to controlling an entire continent without an interventionist foreign policy? Unfortunately, the isolationist thesis is still argued today.74
As the United States grew in size and diversity, its impending great power status led to fierce debates over the white, Christian emphasis of its foreign policy mission. The racial aspect of “America” was toned down. Following World War II, U.S. presidents focused on the liberal ideas of exceptionalism, rather than the civilizational aspect of the “white man’s burden,” as the source of America’s uniqueness and the reason for its mission in the world. Thus, American exceptionalism separated out its earlier racial components. Obama’s understanding of American exceptionalism can be seen as the culmination of this evolving civic version of the concept: “Obama offered an inclusive vision of patriotism,” writes Greg Gardin, “using his own success to celebrate the country’s meritocracy and as proof that racial division could be overcome through the gradual extension of liberal political equality.”75 As Obama said in 2007 as a presidential candidate, “Our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals.”76 It is with this modern, post-World War II master narrative that Trump has broken.
Resisting the Laws of History: Exceptionalism and Modern Foreign Policy from 1945 to 2015
With each historical era, the United States has proven itself resistant to the laws of history. Rather than rise and fall, it has only risen — vanquishing powerful enemies along the way.77 After conquering an entire continent, the United States went about conquering the seas, and ultimately defeated two iterations of the worst the Old World had to offer: German militarism and fascism. Significantly, upon defining itself in contravention to Soviet Communism, the promotion of American exceptionalism became an important tool for U.S. presidents, especially in the era of what Jeffrey Tulis has labeled the “rhetorical presidency.”78 Against these ideologies American exceptionalism, understood as the adherence to liberal ideals, flourished. In foreign policy, the narrative of American exceptionalism has been used by presidents to communicate the purpose of U.S. foreign policy and therein garner support for their preferred policies, because what “America” means conditions what it can and should do in the world. In fact, argue Gilmore and Rowling, “The concept of American exceptionalism has become one of the most common features in U.S. political discourse.”79
The assumption that the United States has a “uniquely moral national mission has shaped debates over foreign affairs since the nation’s founding.”80 The narratives American presidents communicate about foreign policy exist on different levels: Any discrete national security narrative — such as that of “primacy” in the 1990s or the “Global War on Terror” in the 2000s — must operate within and adhere to the discursive landscape of the master narrative of exceptionalism.81 Over the years, presidents and political parties have disagreed on discrete national security narratives but not on the exceptionalist master narrative that has underpinned U.S. foreign policy since 1945, and which builds on a story about an exceptional America that dates to before the founding. Until Trump became president, this story constrained not only how U.S. presidential candidates and presidents framed the discourse on the United States and its role in the world, but policies themselves.
All U.S. presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have taken pains to narrate foreign policy as a moral mission based in American exceptionalism, understood as an adherence to “superior” liberal ideals.82 Since then, the United States has presented itself as a beacon to the world, standing for “a vibrant, forward-looking Americanism that presented itself as the highest expression of liberal universalism.”83 Many studies show how and why the idea of American exceptionalism has come to be so prominent in American politics, whether from the field of communications,84 presidential studies,85 or, more recently, international relations.86 By promoting the idea of American exceptionalism, U.S. presidents have justified why the United States should play such an active role in international politics: because the world needs this exceptional nation and its benevolent influence. From this perspective, it was quite natural to conclude that what was right for America was right for the world.
An eloquent example of how presidents have framed U.S. foreign policy as a moral mission comes from John F. Kennedy, whose rhetoric frequently played on American exceptionalism. Indeed, as president-elect he gave a speech simply referred to as the “city upon a hill” speech:
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.” Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.87
Using American exceptionalism to frame U.S. grand strategy has not been a partisan phenomenon, even though the Republican Party associates itself more with overt statements of patriotic sentiment.88 In fact, Gilmore and Rowling find that Democratic presidents have been more fervent in their invocation of American exceptionalism in global contexts (44 percent of speeches given by Democrats versus 17 percent given by Republicans).89
This is not to say that presidents have agreed on how the United States should best advance its moral mission, but there has been a post-World War II consensus on whether the United States is so obligated. There has also been bipartisan agreement on the reason why — namely that the United States has a special role to play in world history.90 As scholars have shown, U.S. presidents since 1945 have repeatedly turned to the reliable rhetorical strategy of emphasizing American exceptionalism to “reinforce mythic notions of America as the unquestioned leader of a stable world order.”91 Indeed, the superiority of the United States and the special role it is supposed to play as a leader of other nations has been ubiquitous in modern presidential rhetoric. A quantitative content analysis of State of the Union addresses from 1934 to 2008 found only three mentions of other countries as worthy of serving as examples for the United States to follow.92 The United States has always been the shining city on the hill, as no other country can be.
Post-Cold War Triumphalism
The influence of American exceptionalism on the framing and content of U.S. foreign policy took on a new force after the Cold War ended.93 Indeed, Americans interpreted the Cold War’s end as a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism: “By the grace of God,” President George H. W. Bush said in his State of the Union speech in 1992, “we have won the Cold War.”94 Whatever the questions had been — what were the best political systems, economic theories, or civic ideals? — the only answer left in international politics was the United States and its example to the world. The end of ideological history was here, comfortably parked in an oversized American driveway.95 This exceptionalist interpretation of why the Cold War had ended set the stage for a triumphalist decade, or a “holiday from history,” as George Will called it.96 In arguing for why the United States should continue its deep involvement in world affairs even without a clear enemy, President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, looked inward to the peculiar genius of the American body politic for the answer. The United States was “the indispensable nation,” Clinton stated in 1996 while defending the U.S. intervention in Bosnia.97 That became the Clinton administration’s go-to phrase for conveying American exceptionalism in an age of primacy. In making the case for a possible strike against Saddam Hussein in 1998 on “The Today Show” Albright said,
[I]f we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. I know that the American men and women in uniform are always prepared to sacrifice for freedom, democracy and the American way of life.98
And yet, Republicans viewed Clinton’s vision as too timid. In 2000, future George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen wrote in the Weekly Standard that there were two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the “‘global multilateralism’ of the Clinton-Gore Democrats” versus the “‘American exceptionalism’ of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.”99 Nevertheless, this disagreement belied a fundamental foreign policy agreement: All post-Cold War presidents have promoted a strategy of primacy, which essentially argued that the United States should seek world hegemony because of its exceptional mission.100 Although they all used the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, this was not merely a discursive tactic. There was strong bipartisan belief in American exceptionalism and America’s mission: to convince the rest of the world to join in the “end of history” with the one nation that had already reached history’s destination. The Republican and Democratic views on the international order in the 1990s — and America’s role in it — were more similar than perhaps many recognized at the time. Indeed, Hans Morgenthau’s description of Wilsonian liberals at the beginning of the 20th century applies equally to neoconservatives and liberal internationalists at its end — they all believed that a new world order of peace would eventually “end” history once all countries adopted liberal democracy.101
The influence of American exceptionalism on the framing and content of U.S. foreign policy took on a new force after the Cold War ended. Indeed, Americans interpreted the Cold War’s end as a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism.
After 9/11, President George W. Bush’s communication of a clear, black-and-white story of good versus evil was a natural extension of the triumphalism of the 1990s and fit perfectly within the master narrative of American exceptionalism. This became what Krebs calls “the national security narrative” of the post-9/11 era — the “Global War on Terror.”102 This narrative organized how the administration promoted its policies, how the media framed these policies, and how the American public thought about the new “war” they were now in.103 As Krebs writes, “The War on Terror was more than a slogan: it was shorthand for a post-9/11 narrative that not only placed that day’s horrific events in a meaningful context, but also set the terms of national security debate in the United States for the next decade.”104 This narrative would not have resonated or received such widespread bipartisan acceptance from the American public had it not overlapped with the master narrative of U.S. foreign policy: that the United States is an exceptional nation with moral intentions, bound to make the world a better place. The Bush administration’s story of what had happened and why cast the United States as the innocent victim, attacked out of the blue not for its policies in the Middle East, but for its very exceptional nature: “Why do they hate us? They hate us because of what they see in this very Chamber,” Bush told Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. “They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”105 In his second inaugural, Bush essentially argued that fighting the “war on terror” was a continuation of the eternal American mission:
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation.106
Returning to the question of whether Obama rejected American exceptionalism, as his critics charged, this article builds on the theoretical assumption that there is a meaningful and important distinction between a nation’s master narrative and its various foreign policies. One can have a variety of grand strategies all based in the exceptionalist master narrative, but one must distinguish, as Krebs does, between master narratives and discrete national security narratives. One could argue about whether Obama’s counter-terrorism policies diverged more in rhetoric than in practice from his predecessor, or about whether Obama actually moved in a non-interventionist direction. However, his discrete national security narrative of modest retrenchment did not reject the master narrative of American exceptionalism. Indeed, at Strasbourg, Obama said,
If you think about the site of this summit [Strasbourg] and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that… . And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.107
Lest one think this was pandering to the press, this was a belief Obama had long held. As he said in his speech to the Democratic national convention in 2004,
I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.108
III. Donald Trump, American Exceptionalism, and America First
Prior to Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination, the Republican Party promoted a grand strategy of leading the liberal international order, grounded in the master narrative of American exceptionalism. This had been the case since Dwight D. Eisenhower won the foreign policy battle inside the Republican Party in 1952, defeating non-interventionist proponent Robert Taft. With Eisenhower, the GOP embraced the view “that America had a moral obligation as well as a national interest in transforming the victory of World War II into a lasting global peace by building strong alliances and expanding military readiness around the world to counter the Communist threat.”109 It was, in David Farber’s words, the “Willkie-Dewey-Eisenhower — and then Goldwater-Reagan-Bush-Bush — wing of the Republican Party” that won out in the GOP in the post-World War II era.110
The American exceptionalist narrative constituted the foundation of U.S. foreign policy debate in both political parties, influencing their views on foreign policy and constraining presidential candidates’ rhetorical choices.111 The 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney arguably built its foreign policy platform on this very idea.112 That same year, the Republican Party included the concept in its party platform, stating that American exceptionalism is “the conviction that our country holds a unique place in human history.”113 In 2016, all Republican presidential candidates save one took pains to use exceptionalist rhetoric.114
In April 2015, two months before he announced his candidacy for president, Trump broke with the Republican Party and stated that he did “not like” the term American exceptionalism.115 He ironically said this at an event called “Celebrating the American Dream,” hosted in Houston by the Texas Patriots PAC. At the event, Trump was asked to define American exceptionalism, whether it still existed, and what should be done to help grow it. Trump answered,
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.’116
Trump stated that those who refer to American exceptionalism were “insulting the world” and offending people in other countries, such as Russia, China, Germany, and Japan. Contravening common talking points for any presidential candidate regardless of party, Trump said, rather, that it is “not a nice term,” showing unusual foreign policy flair. He did suggest that were he to become president, he would make the United States exceptional, but even then Trump said he would not use the term because he would not want to “rub it in.”117
But Trump has not only rejected American exceptionalism in his rhetoric — that is, when he talks about it at all — he has also rejected it in his policies.118 His America First platform shows that he rejects American exceptionalism on two fronts: He does not view the United States as morally superior to other countries and, therefore, he does not view the United States as having a mission to pursue abroad. Trump’s definition of American “greatness” is ascriptive and material, rather than ideational and aspirational.
In this section, I examine Trump’s views on American exceptionalism along with his grand strategy in order to show how Trump rejects both the American exceptionalism master narrative and its policy implications. In so doing, I argue that Trump relies on a competing master narrative, Jacksonian nationalism. Trump’s grounding in Jacksonian nationalism leads him to embrace parts of the traditional America First platform, which in its two previous iterations has promoted ethnic nationalism and economic protectionism. However, Trump rejects non-interventionism, opting instead for unilateral militarism abroad. Here, Trump is more in line with original Jacksonianism than with America First.
America First in U.S. History
What does “America First” mean? Is it a concept, a slogan, or a foreign policy agenda? Or perhaps just a refreshingly honest brand of realism?119 “America First” is in fact several things. It was most famously the name of an organization founded in 1940 in order to lobby against U.S. intervention in World War II. As historian Melvyn P. Leffler writes, “For me, America First was associated with the insularity, isolationism, unilateralism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and appeasement policies that President Franklin D. Roosevelt struggled to overcome in 1940 and 1941.”120 It was also a slogan used by Pat Buchanan in the 1990s to argue against free trade, immigration, military alliances, and interventions.121 Today, it is the shorthand for Trump’s foreign policy platform. Let us examine each in turn, their connections, and the master narrative on which they all rely.
America First Before World War II
The phrase “America First” is most strongly associated with its use during World War II. According to Susan Dunn, America First was the name of the “isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”122 This summary is somewhat unfair to the organization’s varied membership. The interwar America First was composed of all kinds of people who were skeptical of America entering into another European war. They included future president Gerald Ford, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter, and Sargent Shriver, who would go on to lead the U.S. Peace Corps. Ford and Potter, students at Yale at the time, founded the “Committee to Defend America First.” Its establishment in 1940 was “in direct opposition to progressive journalist William Allen White’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.”123 It grew quickly from a group started by anti-war students to a large movement with hundreds of chapters and almost a million members. Some notable members were Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gore Vidal. The committee would come to be associated with fascists and anti-Semites, and most famously, Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh argued in 1940, during the blitzkrieg in Europe, that the United States should not interfere because “the white race” was not under threat.124 Lindbergh joined America First in April 1941, drawing big crowds at its rallies. Despite the varied membership and commendable aim of avoiding yet another war, the committee’s main historical legacy has been that of a disgraced organization that was on the wrong side of history both in terms of advocating against intervention in World War II and in terms of anti-Semitism.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual Allied victory in World War II, “America First” became synonymous with having been on the wrong side of history.
The phrase “America First” predates 1940, however. It was a Republican campaign slogan in the 1880s.125 As Christopher McKnight Nichols writes, “the cry of America First emerged in the nineteenth century’s era of rapid industrialization, modernization, and urbanization,” and its foreign policy agenda was “non-entanglement, nonintervention, neutrality, and unilateralism.”126 It was the latest discussion in a historic debate on why, how much, and in what ways the United States should be involved outside its borders.127
The slogan did not quite catch on until Wilson popularized it in a speech in 1915, however, declaring, “Our whole duty for the present, at any rate, is summed up in the motto: America First.”128 Although he was arguing for U.S. neutrality in the Great War, not isolationism, the phrase nonetheless became the motto of those who wanted the United States to stay out of European politics and indeed stay isolated from it. Wilson’s goal was to keep a diverse nation with people whose heritage stemmed from all over the world firmly pro-American. This topic would become tense as the patriotism of “hyphenated” Americans of Irish, German, and Italian descent became increasingly questioned. Indeed, at this time, the U.S. Bureau of Education was mounting an America First campaign in order to promote the assimilation of immigrants. The purpose was to encourage immigrants to put America first, before their old countries, all the while signaling that immigrants did not need to reject their culture, language, or history of origin.129
After Wilson, the motto caught on. As presidential candidates in 1916, both Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes used America First as part of their election slogans.130 After the debate over the League of Nations and the future role of the United States in the world, Warren G. Harding, the Republican presidential nominee of 1920, similarly thought it useful to employ America First as part of his campaign:
Call it the selfishness of nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — To safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first, to live for and revere America first.131
The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which reasserted itself in the early 20th century, taking aim at Catholics and Jews in addition to African-Americans, also used “America First” as a motto.132 In evidence submitted to Congress, at a hearing on the activities on the Klan in 1921, the Klan’s “Imperial Proclamation” was entered into the record. Here, it said: “[The Klan] stands for America first – first in thought, first in affections, and first in the galaxy of nations.”133
With the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual Allied victory in World War II, “America First” became synonymous with having been on the wrong side of history. The disbandment of the Committee to Defend America First four days after Pearl Harbor conceded the point.
The 1990s: Pat Buchanan’s Revival of “America First”
When Pat Buchanan resurrected the motto “America First” in the 1990s, the New York Times labeled his agenda “fearful isolationism, nativism and protectionism.”134 His version of America First was focused on the economy and culture. In the post-Cold War era, this meant making “America first again in manufacturing,” including proposing deep tax cuts in order to prevent U.S. industries from moving abroad.135 Buchanan’s economic platform was nationalist and protectionist, as was his cultural platform: He wanted to keep the United States a white, Christian country. Arguing against the effects of globalization, Buchanan said that “our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations, not dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism.” He argued for “a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.”136
This was “a new nationalism” meant to divide and conquer.137 Campaigning in Georgia in 1992, Buchanan argued that the Voting Rights Act was “an act of regional discrimination against the South,” and told unemployed (presumably white) Georgians that, “anti-discrimination laws caused their jobs to be given to blacks.”138 In his famous “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” He labeled Bill Clinton’s agenda “radical feminism,” and accused the Democratic Party of not respecting the “Judeo-Christian values” the country was founded upon.139 His speech ended by recounting his visit to the Army compound in south Los Angeles, from which law enforcement had been dispatched to quell the riots. “And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”140
Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination again in 1996, this time against Bob Dole, then for the Reform Party nomination in 2000. In 2000, he revived “America First” as a campaign slogan. Interestingly, Trump, who was also seeking the Reform Party nomination at the time, called Buchanan “a Hitler lover,” alluding to the controversy about Buchanan’s view that Adolf Hitler had initially presented no serious threat to the United States, a view that was consistent with the original America First Committee’s stance in 1940.141
“America First” is a slogan that would resonate with what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition” in U.S. foreign policy. This populist tradition is one of four traditions found in U.S. history, according to Mead: the “American realist” or Hamiltonian tradition; the exemplary Jeffersonian tradition; and missionary Wilsonianism.142
Named after President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) the Jacksonian tradition refers to a populist foreign policy outlook originating in the era of white, male mass politics that Jackson brought forth. Prior to the era of Jackson, politics — whether foreign or domestic — belonged to “silk stocking”-wearing statesmen like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.143 Jackson, however, was a Revolutionary War veteran and the heroic victor of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.144 When the “elite establishment” — in the form of John Quincy Adams, son of second president John Adams — entered into a “corrupt bargain” and stole the election from Jackson in 1824, Jackson’s persona as a man of the people standing up to the entitled elite was cemented.145 His revanche over Adams in the 1828 presidential election inaugurated the era of “the people’s president” where Jackson “spoke in plain and powerful language to the people at large.”146
Jacksonian political philosophy is an instinct, rather than an ideology.147 Because it is “less an intellectual movement than it is an expression of the social, cultural, and religious values of a large portion of the American public,” Mead argues Jacksonianism is “obscure” to academics and the media.148 In other words: In true populist fashion, Jacksonians and the elite have mutual disregard for one another.149 Jacksonians are suspicious of what the elites might do with their tax money both at home and abroad. They worry about “untrammeled federal power” and are “skeptical about the prospects of domestic and foreign do-gooding.”150 When it comes to the military, though, Jacksonians are looser with the purse strings and are more trusting of the military establishment. “For Jacksonians, spending money on the military is one of the best things government can do,” Mead argues.151
So far, Jacksonians and America Firsters can agree — elites should not be trusted with one’s tax dollars, but military preparedness is important and is worth paying for. Were Jacksonians an early expression of the non-interventionism of America First, then? Not at all, according to Mead. Indeed, Jacksonians were consistently the most hawkish during the Cold War. Mead argues the Jacksonian tradition does not embrace isolationism. Rather, it is an interest-based foreign policy.152 Jacksonians are not eager to sit at home if there is a worthy fight to be fought. But for what cause are Jacksonians willing to go abroad and fight? According to Mead, Jacksonians are not that concerned with defending American values across the globe, but rather are focused on “national honor” on behalf of their community:
Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens.153
How does the Jacksonian tradition define the American community, on whose behalf it conducts foreign policy? Is it defined by adherence to liberal ideals, or by ethno-cultural boundaries? In fact, the answer to the question, “who counts as American citizens” in the quote above unites Jacksonians, traditional America Firsters, and Trump. Jacksonians are historically associated with “white Protestant males of the lower and middle classes”154 whom Mead refers to as making up a “folk community.” This is a “folk” that is “Christian in religious background, if not always in practice. They are European in origin — but largely without strong ties to a specific country other than the United States — and self-identify with American society from the colonial era until today.”155 Mead contrasts this group with “believers in a multicultural United States” who define the United States as a “nation based on ideology rather than ethnicity.”156 These are two very different things: Jacksonianism is based on the community values and sense of identity that stem from the British colonizers, specifically a subgroup whom historian David Hacket Fischer defined as the Scotch-Irish settlers.157 The Scotch-Irish Americans were “formed by centuries of bitter warfare before they came to the United States,” an experience that informed their warrior ethos and non-isolationist attitudes in foreign policy.158 This ethno-cultural definition of the American nation is distinctly different from the other three foreign policy traditions Mead identifies — Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, and Wilsonian — as they all identify the United States as built on an idea, not a people.159 Thus, ethnic nationalism is where Jacksonianism diverges fundamentally from the other three foreign policy traditions.
When it comes to the military, though, Jacksonians are looser with the purse strings and are more trusting of the military establishment.
Jackson was the first populist president, commencing a tradition carried on by presidential candidates in both political parties such as William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt.160 Mead identifies Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as modern presidents who managed to connect with Jacksonian voters. He also lists George Wallace, Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Pat Buchanan, and John McCain as political figures that have successfully tapped into this populist energy.161 Of course, these politicians advocated quite different grand strategies, with Buchanan overtly promoting non-interventionism. Further complicating the picture, the Jacksonian “folk community” is no longer ethnically homogeneous. Rather, Jacksonianism is a tradition with a long, bipartisan pedigree in U.S. history that attracts those Americans who feel unrepresented by the “elites.”
Because Jacksonianism is more of an “instinct” than a political ideology, and no longer exclusively represents a specific ethno-cultural group in U.S. society, general arguments and comparisons — such as the one I am making in this article — are inherently imperfect.162 The point is not to argue that Trump is a perfect replica of Andrew Jackson the president, but rather that there are important similarities between the Jacksonian tradition and Trump’s worldview.
Donald Trump’s America First
That Trump would choose “America First” as his foreign policy slogan was quite a shock, at least to historians familiar with its historical connotations.163 Of course, it is possible that Trump was not aware of the term’s historical significance and instead borrowed the phrase directly from Buchanan. Regardless, all of the versions of America First have promoted economic protectionism, ethnic nationalism, and anti-interventionism. It is concerning this final feature that Trump breaks with previous iterations of the term, hewing instead to the Jacksonian tradition. I will examine each in turn.
In Trump’s first inaugural speech, he accused the world of having swindled the United States: “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”164 Trump added, “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”165 The speech was, as Jim Goldgeier has noted, “a far cry from Morgenthau’s articulation of the purpose of Bretton Woods.”166
Upon entering office, Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that had taken seven years to negotiate, in favor of bilateral deals that he argued would “promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages.”167 He also renegotiated the North America Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, an agreement he had repeatedly criticized on the campaign trail.168 The hallmark of Trump’s protectionist agenda, however, has been commencing a trade war with China. Many economic experts share his complaints — that China engages in unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property.169 Trump’s remedy is highly controversial, however: Trump has increased tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States in several rounds since 2018.170 Former Bank of England governor Mervyn King has argued that the trade war with China threatens to undermine global economic growth, causing a “great stagnation.”171
In wanting to “protect” American consumers, Trump is echoing one of the most familiar aspects of the nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s (on which America First relied) — economic protectionism.172 This motto resonated with the protectionist Republicans in Congress after the Great War, who in the 1920s passed “two of the most protectionist tariff bills in history,” the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930. Although, as Thomas W. Zeiler writes, the United States should have learned from the “Smoot-Hawley debacle” in the 1930s what “America First demagoguery” can lead to,173 Trump has revived economic protectionism. During the presidential campaign of 2016, he presented trade as a zero-sum game. Trump, argues Zeiler, “went Hoover.”174 Here, Trump is in line with the original America First Committee, which also questioned whether foreign trade was all that important to the United States.175
Since World War II, both the Republican and Democratic parties have argued that being a responsible leader of the liberal world order involves not only enforcing the rules of an open international economy but also participating fully in it.176 Trump essentially rejects the economic pillar of the “liberal world order” and has repeatedly argued for a much more conditional role for America, insisting that the United States is being taken advantage of by other countries.177 This assumes that being the leader of the liberal international order is not currently economically beneficial to the United States, and leaves out entirely the ideational aspect. Returning to Trump’s discussion of what makes America exceptional, the United States is not exceptional as long as it is losing money to trading competitors such as China and Germany. It can only regain its exceptional status by renegotiating its trade deals to give the United States a higher return.178 In other words, there is nothing about the United States that is inherently exceptional, rather, exceptionalism is a function of being the richest country in the world. In 2015, according to Trump, the United States was less exceptional than other countries because other countries were “eating” its “lunch.”179
To be sure, past presidents have communicated the idea of American exceptionalism in different ways, sometimes taking pains to be sensitive to the interests and identities of foreign actors. Indeed, American presidents face a dilemma when speaking to foreign audiences. According to Gilmore and Rowling, “[T]hey must be ever mindful of a domestic audience that expects its leaders to champion American exceptionalism on the world stage but also sensitive to the interests and identities of other global actors.”180 As a result, some presidents have framed American exceptionalism in a more diplomatic manner when speaking in different foreign contexts. Perhaps this is what Obama was attempting to do in Strasbourg in 2009, and what Trump has been doing — taking pains not to insult foreign leaders, as he hinted at in his 2015 interview. However, Trump’s comments were not made on foreign soil or directed at a foreign audience. Rather, they were made in a domestic, even local, context.
The absence of a values-based definition of American exceptionalism in Trump’s rhetoric is as striking as it is unprecedented.181 To be clear, Trump does believe in some kind of American superiority — that is what his slogan “Make America Great Again” seems to be all about. However, he does not define greatness in terms of exceptional ideals and values, but in terms of economic wealth, military strength, and cultural identity. Echoing Buchanan, who started his 2000 presidential run for the Reform Party by championing West Virginia steel workers, Trump’s economic definition of what would make America great entails a revival of the U.S. industrial economy: “buy American; hire American.”182
The second important component of Trump’s America First platform is ethnic nationalism. This worldview builds on the tradition Smith and Gerstle have documented extensively in their work.183 This kind of ethnic nationalism represents a commonality between the Jacksonian tradition and the America First Committee, as well as Buchanan’s revival of the America First political brand.
Ethnic nationalism is foundational to Trump’s worldview, and that of his administration. Trump has called for fewer immigrants from “shithole countries”184 and a ban on Muslims entering the United States185 in order to preserve its white, Christian culture. From promoting the “birther” conspiracy theory (which accused the first black president of not being American partly because he was accused of not being Christian),186 to launching his presidential campaign by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug-dealers,187 to telling members of the House of Representatives to “go back” to their supposed homelands,188 the list of exclusionary rhetoric based on race, ethnicity, and religion is long.
This kind of ethnic nationalism represents a commonality between the Jacksonian tradition and the America First Committee, as well as Buchanan’s revival of the America First political brand.
Implicitly endorsing the thesis that Trump’s campaign was built on ethnic nationalism, some observers argued in 2016 that his appeal to non-white voters would be historically low, thereby dooming his chances at the ballot box.189 When Trump did win, some assumed his presidency would pivot to more inclusive rhetoric (and perhaps even policies) in order to bring on board more voters.190 Rather than broaden his appeal in an increasingly diverse country, Trump has continued to promote his ascriptive vision of the United States.191 The first prominent policy example of this was the “travel ban” (called the “Muslim Ban” by political opponents), the third iteration of which was found legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.192 It excludes immigrants from seven countries, five of them Muslim-majority countries.193 The second notable signal was when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency responsible for issuing visas and green cards and for naturalizing immigrants as U.S. citizens, released its new mission statement. As of February 2018 that statement no longer contains references to immigrants themselves — including taking out a line that called the United States a “nation of immigrants.”194
In fact, the Trump administration has racialized the issue of immigration.195 Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of USCIS, has argued that the famous Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” which appears on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, refers to “people coming from Europe,”196 while Trump himself has expressed hope of more immigrants from countries like Norway.197 Trump’s comment, which included the “shithole” remark, prompted U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Rupert Colville, to call Trump’s remarks “racist.”198 Most prominently, however, might be the symbolism — presumably intended — of wanting to build a physical wall along the southern border of the United States, but not along its northern border.199 The public announcement by Trump in the fall of 2018 — just before the midterm elections — that he would seek to end birthright citizenship (as defined in the 14th amendment) showed that rather than pivot toward inclusion, Trump would embrace ethnic nationalism, which was indeed an important part of his political platform.
This is why it is not quite right when Abram van Engen writes,
Trump never talks about Americans as descendants from those who came here long ago. He offers no story. There is no rise from immigration, no fleeing from oppression in the American past, no historical movement from one land to another. There is only the present day, only sovereignty and self-interest here and now.200
On the contrary, Trump does offer a narrative of the United States, but it is not the familiar story of a “nation of immigrants.” Rather, it is that of white, Christian America, a narrative compatible with Gerstle’s “racial nationalism,” Smith’s ascriptive tradition, and Mead’s Jacksonian nationalism.201 It explicitly rejects the inclusive narrative of a diverse nation unified by civic ideals. It builds, as this article has shown, on an important competing strand in American political history in which Americans have identified membership in their political community not with adherence to a set of classically liberal ideas and ideals, but rather with ethno-cultural origins and customs “strongly linked to North European ancestry, Protestantism, belief in the superiority of the ‘white race,’ and patriarchal familial leadership.”202
Mead, writing in 2002, acknowledged the “deeply regrettable Jacksonian record of racism,” but argued that Jacksonian America was evolving rapidly.203 Here, Mead might have been mistaken. In November 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center published leaked emails from Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s most important advisers on immigration, showing his support for and utilization of white nationalist literature and websites.204
Does Trump’s “America First” imply a resurrection of an older U.S. foreign policy tradition labeled non-interventionism, exemplarism, or even “isolationism”? Or, is he simply a more extreme version of previous Republican presidents, many of whom were strong critics of the constraints emanating from international alliances, institutions, and traditions? I argue that when it comes to military intervention abroad, Trump differs from both historic America First positions as well as Republican presidents since World War II.
Previous America Firsters argued for non-intervention on exceptionalist grounds. Trump, however, rejects the non-interventionist view that the United States is too special to get involved in the “corrupt old world.” Rather, Trump’s grand strategy is more similar to the classical realist tradition in international relations, in sharp contrast to the ideational tradition of exceptionalism.205 Indeed, in the 2017 National Security Strategy, the administration labels its strategy one “of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.”206 Trump’s version of America First strips out all the focus on ideals and norms, something realists often argue U.S. foreign policy focuses too much on.
Nor is Trump simply a more extreme version of existing Republican foreign policy. Previous Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush argued that the United States was too exceptional to be constrained by the rules of the liberal world order.207 Rather than principled exemplarism (America First) or exceptional unilateralism (Reagan and George W. Bush), then, Trump’s grand strategy is a “contradictory combination of hawkish militarism and strategic retrenchment,”208 relying on unilateralism, militarism, aggressive threats, and the strategic support from authoritarian leaders abroad.
Trump’s record is evidence that he is an interventionist.209 After promising to end the war in Afghanistan on the campaign trail, Trump increased the number of U.S. troops on the ground as president.210 President Trump dramatically increased the number of lethal drone strikes compared to the number launched during the Obama administration.211 He also sanctioned cruise missile strikes against targets controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in April 2017 as a response to a chemical weapons attack against the inhabitants of Idlib province earlier that month.212 Similarly, in April 2017, Trump declared he had ordered an aircraft carrier into the Sea of Japan to serve as a deterrent to North Korean aggression. “We’re sending an armada,” Trump told Fox News.213 A year later, the United States, in cooperation with Great Britain and France, again carried out strikes against Syrian government targets in response to a chemical weapons attack in Douma.214 Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, sees Trump’s national security policy as not one of retrenchment, but rather as “revisionist and interventionist” because it seeks regime change in Syria, Iran, and Venezuela.215
Scholars such as Charles A. Kupchan and Graham Allison therefore gravely misunderstand not just the history of U.S. foreign relations but Trump’s foreign policy when they assert that Trump’s America First is a revival of isolationism. Prior to World War II, Kupchan argues,
American exceptionalism meant insulating the American experiment from foreign threats, shunning international entanglements, spreading democracy through example rather than intrusion, embracing protectionism and fair (not free) trade, and preserving a relatively homogeneous citizenry through racist and anti-immigrant policies. In short, it was about America first.216
Not only is Kupchan wrong that Trump is embracing isolationism, he is also mistaken in thinking that America has a history of isolationism to revive.217 As this article has shown, isolationism as a 19th century U.S. foreign policy tradition is a myth.218 It certainly does not have anything in common with Mead’s Jacksonianism, as seen earlier.
While Trump’s strategy for the use of U.S. military power is unilateral — e.g., his strike against Syria in 2017 and his general approach to North Korea and Iran — it is not isolationist nor a strategy of retrenchment.
Historical accuracy aside, Kupchan’s argument also gets Trump’s contemporary policies wrong when he argues that, “Trump has cloaked himself in isolationist garb, repeatedly questioning the value of core U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia.”219 Trump did seemingly promise retrenchment — if not isolationism — on the campaign trail.220 Rather than retrench however, President Trump has increased troop deployments in Afghanistan, threatened war with North Korea, supported the Saudi-led war in Yemen, threatened war with Iran, and consistently promoted a military power build-up including the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the launching of a “Space Force.”221 While Trump’s strategy for the use of U.S. military power is unilateral — e.g., his strike against Syria in 2017 and his general approach to North Korea and Iran — it is not isolationist nor a strategy of retrenchment.222
What separates Trump from those in U.S. history who are often labeled isolationists is the same thing that separates him from the foreign policy establishment in general: his material, as opposed to ideational, definition of “American exceptionalism.”223 As Trump put it on Twitter, “I will make our Military so big, powerful & strong that no one will mess with us.”224 Trump’s foreign policy represents the Jacksonian skepticism “about the United States’ policy of global engagement and liberal order building,” a skepticism that comes “more from a lack of trust in the people shaping foreign policy than from a desire for a specific alternative vision.”225 It is not principled non-interventionism, rather it is a rejection of the liberal part of the world order. It is a materialist, militarist, unilateral kind of internationalism, not isolationism.
IV. Conclusion: “The End of American Exceptionalism”?
Trump’s foreign policy approach raises important questions about the future of American exceptionalism as a national narrative and its role in U.S. foreign policy. First, regarding foreign policy: Does the Trump era really matter all that much, if the next president can simply reverse course? In other words, is it possible for the next U.S. administration to snap back to a pre-Trump era when there was bipartisan consensus that the United States should play a leadership role in the liberal international order, even if there were disagreements about what that leadership style should look like? Second, regarding the American national narrative: If a snap-back is not possible, does that mean we have finally arrived at the “end of American exceptionalism”?226 I argue that a snap-back is unlikely because it is increasingly unwanted by important voices in both parties. Ultimately, the future of U.S. foreign policy depends on how thoughtfully American politicians approach this fork in the road. Rethinking U.S. grand strategy in the post-Trump era will require a more nuanced reflection about what American exceptionalism means than has been the norm in American political history up until this point.
Trump and the Liberal International Order: Can the United States Snap Back?
Is it possible for the first post-Trump president to “‘snap back’ to the status quo ante” and pretend that the Trump presidency never happened?227 Given all of the benefits the United States has accrued from its hegemonic position in the world, it would be natural to assume American elites in both parties will try. In terms of the Republican Party, I argue that Trump’s wholesale rejection of the master narrative underlying the U.S. commitment to the liberal international order makes this a difficult task. Having embraced America First — despite some important policy disagreements on issues such as Syria228 — any attempt at a snap back from the Trump presidency by the GOP faces the risk of being seen as non-credible by both domestic and foreign audiences.229 Furthermore, because of the growing dissatisfaction in both parties with the prior foreign policy consensus,230 it is entirely possible that another populist nationalist — perhaps next time from the left — will win an election in the future and further remove the United States from its leadership role abroad. For allies, therefore, the United States is a less reliable partner, and will continue to be so unless it produces a new and credible internationalist foreign policy alternative to Trumpism that appeals to important actors in both parties.231 This alternative must be rooted in a credible and unifying national narrative.
Trump vs. American Exceptionalism: A Republican Walk-Over?
According to Leffler, America First means
minimizing obligations to allies, treating everyone as a competitor, freeing the United States from the restrictions imposed by multilateral institutions, seeking trade advantages through bilateral negotiations, building up military power, befriending dictators if they support him, and acting unilaterally in a zero-sum framework of international politics.232
The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind. This means America First is, in important respects, a significant departure from neoconservatism, the heretofore paradigmatic Republican ideals-based foreign policy as defined in the post-Cold War years, particularly those of George W. Bush. More than anything else, the America First agenda and its rejection of American exceptionalism was why neoconservatives rebelled against the Trump candidacy and formed the NeverTrump movement.233 Given what we know of Bush’s faith and his strong belief in American exceptionalism, his view of the missionary role the United States could and should play in world history arguably influenced how he viewed Iraq and the “Global War on Terror.”234 As the invasion of Iraq was underway, in a televised address, Bush said, “To all the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you.”235 That is not to say that material factors such as oil have not been an important goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since before World War II, or that such concerns have not eclipsed liberal democratic goals on many occasions. But, allowing for a complex interplay of material interests and liberal ideals guiding U.S. foreign policy, there is still quite a distance between the rhetoric and policy of Bush, and Trump’s statement that “we want to keep the oil” in Iraq “to reimburse ourselves.”236
Rex Tillerson made explicit the divorcing of ideals from interests in his second speech as secretary of state: “I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values… . Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated — those are our values. Those are not our policies.”237 The late Sen. John McCain immediately criticized the speech in an op-ed, defending the traditional bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy: “Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.”238
Allies appreciated McCain’s efforts.239 Indeed, McCain seemed at times to serve as “shadow secretary of state” when he disagreed with the president’s foreign policies.240 Yet although there are Republican Party members who disagree with Trump’s foreign policy,241 McCain’s vocal opposition to Trump was rather unique in his party. Those Republican lawmakers who disagree with Trumpism either stay quiet and vote with the party, or find themselves retiring — whether willingly or not.242 Thus, despite a few internationalist voices, allies are having a hard time recognizing the Republican Party they thought they knew.243
The explanation for all this might be that the Republican Party itself has changed. Indeed, despite many Republicans disagreeing with Trump, he has still managed to successfully take over the party: First, by attaining its nomination, and second by winning over many important conservatives who initially were skeptical.244 The Republican journey from condemning Buchanan’s radical rhetoric in the 1990s to first, tacitly accepting and then, mainstreaming Trump is an important part of this development. “Over the last two and a half decades,” write Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “the GOP has mutated from a traditional conservative party into an insurgent force that threatens the norms and institutions of American democracy.”245 Trump did not cause this populist, nationalist moment as much as reap the benefits of the long-term trajectory of the GOP and its narrowing voter base. As Lilliana Mason shows, the Republican Party has increasingly come to represent “the white, Christian, male and rural elements of the U.S. electorate.”246
Trump’s version of “America First” is devoid of historic mission or religious election, but it is not “primacy without a purpose,” as Barry Posen has labeled it.247 Rather, it has a nationalist, protectionist, and populist purpose, rooted in an ascriptive master narrative. Future paeans to American exceptionalism of the sort that Marco Rubio made in the 2016 campaign would ironically be a rebuke of Trump’s presidency.248 At best, the current Republican Party is unsure of what “America” should mean at home and abroad. At worst, it has changed its mind entirely. In short, while the GOP may try to return to the status quo ante in a post-Trump future, they still have to fill a significant credibility gap in order to do so successfully.
Bipartisan Re-evaluation of “The Blob”
Significantly, both political parties are rethinking what the United States’ role in the world should be, which is why it is unlikely that there will be a wholesale return to the previous bipartisan consensus regarding U.S. primacy and leadership in the international order, no matter who wins the next presidential election.249 Trump is not the only person who is severely dissatisfied with America’s post-Cold War foreign policy.250 Nor is he the only one who thinks “exceptionalism is not a nice term.”251 Obama’s answer to the Strasbourg question in 2009 was a clear rebuke of his predecessor’s moralistic exceptionalism. Trump’s less eloquent response in April 2015 was, in a way, communicating the same idea as Obama: It is offensive to say to the world, “we are superior to you.”
In short, while the GOP may try to return to the status quo ante in a post-Trump future, they still have to fill a significant credibility gap in order to do so successfully.
Obama’s struggle with American power and ideals was an early sign of the re-evaluation and recalibration of U.S. grand strategy that was underway. Obama consciously distanced himself from the D.C. foreign-policy elites his adviser Ben Rhodes derisively nicknamed “the Blob.”252 In the end, many liberals were disappointed in the limited amount of “change,” but the Obama era was a sign of a dissolving foreign policy consensus.253 This was especially evident in the complex and tragic case of Syria, where reasonable people could disagree on whether and how much the United States should have intervened. After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on the people of Ghouta in August 2013, Obama stated,
America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer in the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.254
To many European allies, this was refreshingly different from the perceived moralism and arrogance of the George W. Bush administration. Obama’s more constrained view of what the United States should represent in the world signaled a growing internal debate in the Democratic Party that somewhat mirrors the one found in the Republican Party:255 Does American exceptionalism entail endless U.S. military engagement around the world? Americans — and many others — are understandably skeptical about such a proposition. According to a national survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation,
A plurality of Republicans and Independents believe America’s focus should be on building a healthy democracy at home and avoiding foreign conflicts. Democrats believe peace is best achieved through economic integration and free trade. “Peace through military strength,” associated with neoconservative hawks, and the “democracy promotion” approach associated with liberal interventionism received significantly less support.256
There is an important generational profile to this debate. In the 2017 Chicago Council Survey on generational attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy, Millennials were less inclined than Generation X-ers, Boomers, and the Silent Generation to embrace the idea that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” Only one-quarter of Millenials saw the need for the United States to be “the dominant world leader.”257 In other words, no matter who wins the presidency in 2020, an attempt at a snap-back might be unwanted by significant groups of voters in both parties.
Does This Mean the End of American Exceptionalism?
When Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell argued for the “end” of American exceptionalism after the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War in 1975, he did so because he found that the “belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future.”258 As it happens, this sentiment is strikingly similar to the disillusionment Peter Beinart finds when reviewing the memoirs of three Obama-era foreign policy officials. Indeed, writes Beinart, “it’s possible to read their books not only as tales of tempered idealism but also as chronicles of America’s declining exceptionalism.”259 Could it be that after several exaggerated reports of its death, the end of American exceptionalism is here? Let us look at what happened last time: Bell failed to predict the rise of Reagan and the strong comeback of American exceptionalism. If history is any guide, perhaps the next president will restore America’s sense of exceptionalism and purpose in the world like Reagan did in the 1980s.
The counterpoint is that this time it might actually be different — and that it should be different. Jimmy Carter — the president Reagan was reacting to — never negated American exceptionalism. He instead rebuked previous American foreign policy from the viewpoint of exceptionalism itself: “we can be better, if we try.” It was a familiar American rhetorical tradition — the lament of having fallen short of American exceptional ideals. No president or presidential candidate between 1945 and 2012 argued that the United States is unexceptional and has no role to play in the fight for liberal values around the globe. That powerful national agreement on what role the United States is supposed to play in world history because of what kind of nation the United States is believed to be held, in the end, for a rather short American century.
The United States has thus arrived at a fork in the road. There is still strong support for continued international engagement among Americans,260 but there is also an undeniable weakening of the U.S. foreign policy consensus. This dissolving consensus “reflects a failure to adjust effectively to changes at home and abroad, with resulting confusion and dismay about the nation’s direction and role.”261
At the heart of this moment of confusion and dismay is the confrontation between two master narratives: that of American exceptionalism and Jacksonian nationalism. American exceptionalism is an ideational master narrative. It is a story about an ethnically and religiously diverse nation united in adherence to liberal ideas and institutions both at home and abroad. In contrast, the Trump administration’s story of America is ascriptive: It is the story of a white, Christian folk community with materialist interests to pursue abroad. Yet, Trump did not create this moment. Before Trump’s presidential campaign, in 2014, the American National Election Study found that only 45 percent of Millennials “consider their American identity as extremely important.”262 The narrative contestation currently underway must be addressed properly because the United States — and its foreign policy — needs a master narrative. Americans need a story about who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. American exceptionalism has proven to be a very useful civic narrative for a nation that cannot unite around shared ethnicity or religion. Indeed, it might be the only possible narrative going forward for a country whose ethnic and cultural identities are increasingly diverse, yet increasingly divided along party lines.263
Leadership based on liberal ideals and institutions — rather than ascriptive characteristics — is also still the most attractive vision any great power in history has had to offer. According to Bell, American exceptionalism in foreign policy was supposed to be about the belief that the United States would be different from previous world empires in the exercise of power because it was democratic.264 Given the imperfect execution of the liberal part of the order in the past,265 however, if the United States wants to reclaim the leadership position Trump is currently forfeiting, it will need more than formulaic invocations of America as a “city on a Hill” or nostalgic paeans to a liberal world order that never quite was.266 It will need an updated story of “America” in the world, a story that acknowledges the problems with the “liberal world order” to address the concerns of the next generation of Americans, allies, and adversaries.267 A fresh discussion of what the United States can contribute to the world would entail leaving behind exceptionalist ideas of U.S. superiority and rather focus on securing a future that global advocates of liberal democracy can work together to achieve.268 After Trump comes a moment of opportunity: not to simply put the U.S. ship in reverse, but rather, to plot out a new course.
Hilde Eliassen Restad is associate professor of international studies at Bjørknes University College in Oslo, Norway. A Fulbright alumna, she has a Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and is the author of American Exceptionalism: An Idea that Made a Nation and Remade the World (Routledge, 2015).
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the following colleagues for their valuable feedback on the various stages of this manuscript: Melvyn P. Leffler, Nadim Khoury, Stephen Pampinella, panelists at the 2018 ISSS-IS conference, panelists at the 2018 BISA U.S. Foreign Policy Working Group Conference, Chris White and my colleagues at Bjørknes University College. A sincere thank you to the thorough and highly efficient editors Galen Jackson, Doyle Hodges, and Megan Oprea at TNSR as well as to the anonymous reviewers.
Image: Patrick Kelley