Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazinecontributing editor, may be the writer of Building the fantastic community: Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House, which will be released on January 30. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

This article is the second in a set on what President Donald Trump changed history—reviving historic debates which have simmered in low heat consistently, and altering just how historians consider them. Begin to see the first in the show right here.

Us americans have actually always thought their country was exceptional. They thought it even as early as 1630, when John Winthrop delivered a now-famous sermon in which he called the Puritan community a “city on a hill”—long before there even was an American country.

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In more the last few years, the thought of American exceptionalism is becoming tainted by politics—a rhetorical cudgel that politicians, particularly conservatives, wield to bludgeon their opponents.During President Barack Obama’s tenure, Republican leaders indicated concern that, in Newt Gingrich’s terms, there is “a determined band of radicals in the usa who outright oppose United states Exceptionalism.” Mitt Romney reported that Obama didn’t “have the same feeling about US exceptionalism that individuals do.” Previous ny Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went one step further. “I do maybe not genuinely believe that the president loves America,” he declared. Unlike his predecessors, Obama didn’t seem to appreciate “what a great nation we are.” Obama eventually felt compelled to improve the record. On July 4, 2012, he paid tribute to several newly naturalized residents, celebrating their diversity and service to country as “one associated with reasons that America is exemplary.”

It’s unusual your Republican Party’s newest standard-bearer, President Donald Trump, has disavowed the very concept of “American exceptionalism.” “we don’t think it’s an extremely nice term,” he said. “I think you’re insulting the world.” But that doesn’t signify Trump has chucked this dearly held concept. When most conservative politicians invoke the word “exceptionalism” they normally use it as shorthand for natural national chauvinism—the assertion that the United States is not only various, but better. Trump has replaced it, at the very least temporarily, with an angrier label line that conveys equivalent feeling of nationwide energy and entitlement—America very first, it self a term ripped from history and freighted with dark meaning. Whenever America is first, it owes small to everyone else. It’s a more Trumpian means of saying how many other politicians often mean.

Once they utilize the term “exceptional” to connote pure superiority, however, politicians generally betray a facile grasp of history. In its original formation, American exceptionalism ended up being a much more complicated theory. It conveyed the idea that the United States ended up being resistant from social, governmental and financial forces that governed other countries—specifically, it was invulnerable to communism and fascism, also to violent governmental convulsions of type that jolted European countries through the long 19th and twentieth centuries. It also implied that People in america bore a providential obligation become exemplars of virtue in a sinful world.

Exceptionalism ended up being for all years a hotly contested topic among historians and social boffins. Could arbitrary edges actually render a whole country exempt from wider social, economic and political forces, especially in an age when these borders became more porous toward movement of capital and labor? Or did patterns of political development actually produce unique types of national “character”?

In more the last few years, the debate cooled. Though some governmental scientists proceeded to explore possible variants of United states exceptionalism, most historians figured the theory had been meaningless and the very conversation itself stale.

Then came Trump.

His election and also the conditions that accompanied it—a growing rejection of science and evidentiary fact, extreme political tribalism, the increase of conservative nationalist motions around the world, a well known response to immigration and free trade—may offer final and conclusive proof there is almost nothing excellent towards united states of america. Our company is fully susceptible to the exact same forces, good and ill, that drive politics world wide.

But before we sound a death knell the concept, it would help to keep in mind what it really means.


Ironically, the expression that numerous conservatives usually reported as their very first entered the popular lexicon in 1929, whenever Josef Stalin censored what he called the “heresy of American exceptionalism.” At problem had been the insistence of United states communists, under the leadership of Jay Lovestone, that their country’s economy had been developing on a timeline divergent from that of European countries, therefore necessitating an intermediary duration before outright revolution.

This apparently benign idea set United states communists on a collision program with Moscow. Marxist orthodoxy held your rules of political economy had been universal and immutable. History—in this case, the various stages of capitalist development—operated the same way every where. Nobody nation ended up being immune to its universal axioms. The Soviet leadership purged Lovestone and his supporters and replaced them with more conforming enthusiasts.

If the phrase had been new, the underlying sentiment—that America had been in some way various, or special—was perhaps not. Considering that the earliest days of colonial settlement, the Puritan settler Winthrop conceived of America as a “city on a hill,” a definite spot with a heaven-sent responsibility to create a fresh and pure world. In aftermath associated with War for Independence, numerous residents consented with William Findley, a farmer from western Pennsylvania that would later provide in Congress, that Us americans had “formed a character peculiar to by themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.” During their travels across the young nation in 1831 and 1832, the French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville figured “the place of America is therefore quite excellent,” for certainly, most people who he consulted believed, within the words of 1 of his Boston informants, that “there are no precedents for the history.”

There have been two intertwining strains of this popular but still nameless idea. The first had been rooted in Puritan theology and held that America ended up being divinely selected for success and objective. The 2nd presumed that the usa was unique within the character of its people, economy and politics.

Utilizing the advent of modern universities inside late 19th century, scholars experimented with explain this historic uniqueness. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner offered the absolute most lasting concept in 1893, along with his essay, “The importance of the Frontier in United states History.” By Turner’s reckoning, the US frontier had been a great leveler where pioneers shed all semblance of status and heritage and worked together to tame a fierce backwoods. It was a cauldron of democracy—the “gate of escape from the bondage of previous.”

Turner’s thesis produced more despair than pride. Although the country was in many methods filled with confidence—“the “greatest fate the world ever knew ended up being ours,” said future Secretary of State John Hay in an average display of nationwide chauvinism—alongside this spirit of optimism ran a feeling of synchronous dread. In 1890, the U.S. census declared the western frontier formally “closed.” If the frontier was the greatest source of America’s unique governmental economy, now, without more territory to overcome and «civilize,» the nation’s raw ambitions and skill would surely dissipate.

The essay struck a resonant chord, for already many people saw indications of weakness in the culture. As more guys worked as clerks and experts, they let atrophy the muscle, brawn and sheer courage it took to break the land. Even manual laborers had been now almost certainly going to be employees of other men, in the place of self-sufficient yeoman farmers or store owners, whom early in the day generations of Americans thought to be the building blocks for the republic. Worse still, countless brand new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe threatened to dilute the heritage that many old-stock Us americans considered central towards nation’s past success. The usa was losing its advantage, approximately individuals concerned. It could not be the final time that concerns about “exceptionalism” ran parallel to doubts towards country’s future prospects.

The frontier thesis was one among many attempts to determine and explain points of difference. Many historians and governmental boffins desired to respond to a question that Werner Sombart, the German sociologist, posed in 1906: “how come there no Socialism in the us?” It appeared to simply take root every where else, yet not in the United States. Was it America’s cultural and linguistic variety? The shortcoming to forge a working-class identity that transcended race? A surfeit of available land to absorb the working class? These possibilities animated social experts then, and also to a big level, even now.

Though exceptionalism claimed deep origins in American tradition, the concept certainly arrived to unique inside 1950s, as a generation of historians, writing inside wake of World War II, sought in order to make feeling of why their country, alone, had escaped the violent disruptions that beset Europe on the previous 150 years: revolution, regicide, class uprising, total war and genocide. None of it had happened in america, these historians noted. They conveniently glossed over the violently repressive regimes of chattel slavery, Redemption, war on Indian nations, and Jim Crow, which, of course, many historians writing in these years blithely did.

Some, like David Potter, believed that material abundance freed America through the economics of scarcity that drove the trajectory of contemporary political development in Europe. It created a breeding ground which America’s “distinctive nationwide character” could just take root and develop. Other people, like Louis Hartz, proposed your lack of a feudal heritage set Americans on a uniquely tranquil path. Drawing on Tocqueville—who observed more than a hundred years earlier your “great benefit of Us americans usually they have reached a situation of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and they are created equal, in place of becoming so”—Hartz posited a longstanding “liberal tradition” common towards vast majority of Us citizens. His concept fit nicely in the mid-century “consensus” college of history, which held that despite tactical differences over financial and governmental concerns, many governmental actors in US history—Federalists and Republican-Democrats, Whigs and Democrats, Democrats and Republicans—shared an easy typical belief system that rejected doctrinal extremes of far right and far kept.

The most popular thread binding these diverse interpretations was a belief that the rest of the world (and certainly Europe)—but not the United States—operated according to a singular assortment of economic and historical rules.

The idea of American exceptionalism dropped into intellectual disrepute by the early 1970s. After a decade of governmental turbulence over civil liberties and Vietnam—police violence against calm black protesters, urban riots, political assassinations, pitched anti-war protests, acts of governmental terrorism by left-wing extremists—it seemed scarcely certain that the united states ended up being any less fractured and unstable than its European cousins. Exceptionalism no further appeared like a sure thing.

It had beenn’t just external occasions that inspired a reconsideration. As successive generations of scholars grew interested in such phenomena as transnational immigration and borderlands conflict—not just between Mexico plus the U.S., but between nation-states far and wide—the clearer it's become that United states history is inextricable from international occasions. The field of relative history also inspired scientists to acknowledge that America could be distinctive from other countries, however it is not governed by an original set of guidelines regarding state-building, economics, faith, ideology as well as socialism. Nor are other countries driven by the same worldwide forces. All countries experience a point of differentiated political and economic development, and, as Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers observed, to inquire of, “Is America various?” is no more instructive a question than “‘Is Argentina different?’ Or Afghanistan.”

In a nutshell, numerous historians today argue that it was constantly folly to assume that hidden forces drove each of global history,but greater folly, still, to assert that those forces were in some way inoperable within America’s ever-changing boundaries and among its perpetually evolving citizenry.


In the event that you nevertheless require persuading, search no further than recent occasions. It’s become axiomatic that Trump’s triumph had been of a bit with populist insurgencies as everywhere as France therefore the Netherlands, Britain and Greece. Driven by backlash against available edges, free trade and common markets, they share an angry ethno-nationalism, a rejection of elite institutions and actors, and a wispy nostalgia for an imaginary past. These movements reject intimate and social pluralism and, in some instances, claim a standard patron in Moscow.

Nor is it clear that America’s democratic norms and organizations are fundamentally any more rock solid than those of, say, Poland, Hungary or Venezuela. Because bad as? No. But any longer unassailable? To observe Republican North Carolina legislators' attempt to abrogate the outcomes of a gubernatorial election—to say nothing of GOP congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who have all but abandoned the legislative committee procedure in their feverish effort to cram the courts with conservative judges and pass profoundly unpopular course legislation by cover of night—one can’t help but worry that the United States has slipped into just what sociologist Larry Diamond calls a “democratic recession.” It’s an international, maybe not a uniquely United states, event.

If we’ve learned any such thing recently, it’s your united states of america isn’t immune toward forces of history. It's, quite the opposite, embroiled in them. That fact set appears the very repudiation of American exceptionalism, if we’re to make use of the term correctly.

Or is it?

In a slim but prescient volume posted over a decade ago, historian Eric Rauchway examined an early on period in which “globalization”—the global motion of capital, work, information and ideas—generated political and social populist backlash in the usa. Through the mid-19th century through World War I, America absorbed tens of an incredible number of immigrants and trillions of bucks in foreign business growth capital (in current-day money), and established a huge colonization system on par with those of European nations like Russia, England and France, though, when it comes to america, colonization took the form of western expansion on US soil. We had been, essentially, profoundly trapped in international currents.

By his or her own admission, Rauchway neither “cheers nor jeers” the concept of United states exceptionalism (“nor have always been I also especially enthusiastic about it,” he proceeded). Alternatively, he desired to explain “discernible degrees of huge difference in effect of world systems and the degree that they seem to have mattered in US nationwide development.” In this endeavor, he did identify much towards United States that was various.

Whereas other countries raised large armies and state bureaucracies to subdue and govern colonial land and folks, the United States didn’t must, therefore didn’t. These other globe powers drained their treasuries to invest in increasingly influential state organizations that worked to draw native populations into a permanent but subordinate relationship; america, by contrast, maintained a tiny main federal government and standing military. This distinction carried political effects.

Whereas other central states funded the lion’s share of infrastructure and capitalist development, America enjoyed such numerous access to foreign money that its railroads, telegraph systems, extractive industries and agricultural industry grew up around personal investment. Most of these points of differentiation contributed to a tremendously different pattern of governmental development.

Performing gents and ladies who faced work competition from new immigrants migrated en masse to destinations west—before 1900, frequently to new farms; after, to towns in which they discovered factory or service employment. Approximately 20 per cent of native-born Us citizens had been picking right up stakes and going annually, according to the census, rather than always willingly. In a day and age of growing wealth and economic inequality, numerous such native-born Americans expanded to resent immigrants, who they blamed with regards to their condition. Nevertheless they also nursed intense hatred toward banking institutions, railroads, grain operators, mine owners and monetary elites, whom (they believed) kept them in circumstances of economic privation and dependency.

The end result was a particular brand of American populism (which I’ll explore in greater depth in third article within show). It was often viciously nativist. It had been anti-statist; unlike socialists in European countries, political radicals in america tended to embrace punitive regulatory policies that could rein in large corporations, rather than large-scale social welfare policies that stretched government health care and pensions to employees.

If all this seems eerily familiar, it will. Replace Mexican immigrants for Europeans, Facebook and Google for Standard Oil and Union Pacific, JPMorgan Chase & Co. for … well, J.P. Morgan & Co. and Chase Manhattan Corp., additionally the tale is similar.

As was the way it is one hundred years ago, America today is very much part—if perhaps not on center—of history. It really isn’t immune to the exact same currents of immigration, free trade, population aging and technological modification being upending political and economic systems around the world. To think that we’re “exceptional,” in the manner that historians comprehend the expression, should reject reality for nationwide theology.

However, if we’re perhaps not exemplary, we might still be various, additionally the key to focusing on how we ensure it is from the other part of any political storm is probing the skills and weaknesses that flow using this distinction. Tocqueville’s Boston informer posited that “there are no precedents for our history.” He was wrong. The trick is once you understand those to find.

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