Make Amer­ica ex­cep­tional again

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY RON­ALD A. KLAIN The writer, a Post con­tribut­ing colum­nist, served as a se­nior White House aide to Pres­i­dents Barack Obama and Bill Clin­ton and was a se­nior ad­viser to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 cam­paign.

As Democrats en­gage in soul-search­ing about their fu­ture, here’s an idea: Pro­gres­sives should claim one of the old­est ideas in Amer­i­can thought — the con­cept of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism — for their own. Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, the view that the United States’ rev­o­lu­tion­ary found­ing, de­vo­tion to lib­erty and nat­u­ral re­sources make it a coun­try with a unique role in the world, has tra­di­tion­ally been the province of con­ser­va­tives, who have tended to add a re­li­gious di­men­sion to the mix. Ron­ald Rea­gan’s in­vo­ca­tion of the “shin­ing city upon a hill” ex­em­pli­fied this con­ser­va­tive em­brace.

Lib­er­als have more of­ten shied away from such rhetoric. When Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was asked about ex­cep­tion­al­ism at a 2009 news con­fer­ence, he replied dis­mis­sively, “I be­lieve in Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, just as I sus­pect that the Brits be­lieve in Bri­tish ex­cep­tion­al­ism and the Greeks be­lieve in Greek ex­cep­tion­al­ism.”

Then, in one of the least-ap­pre­ci­ated in­tel­lec­tual di­men­sions of his pres­i­dency, Obama re­de­fined the ex­cep­tion­al­ist idea dur­ing his sec­ond term and set forth a new vi­sion of ex­cep­tion­al­ism based — not on Amer­ica’s found­ing or di­vine des­ig­na­tion — but on the ex­tra­or­di­nary acts that Amer­i­cans per­form to help oth­ers in need, not just in the United States, but through­out the world.

I wit­nessed this evolution as White House Ebola re­sponse co­or­di­na­tor, when Obama of­fered a com­pelling ar­tic­u­la­tion of this con­cept of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism af­ter an emo­tional meet­ing with health-care work­ers who had been bat­tling Ebola in West Africa. He de­scribed an Amer­ica “de­fined by courage and pas­sion and hope and self­less­ness and sac­ri­fice and a will­ing­ness to take on chal­lenges” that other na­tions can­not, or will not, tackle. “This is Amer­ica,” Obama said. “We do things dif­fer­ently.”

Obama’s vi­sion of an Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism fos­tered by each gen­er­a­tion’s sac­ri­fice at home and abroad is ide­al­is­tic and pro­gres­sive. Whether it is peace­keep­ers end­ing slaugh­ter in the Balkans, Peace Corps work­ers toil­ing away in a re­mote vil­lage in South Amer­ica, a SEAL team res­cu­ing hostages in the Mid­dle East, or a church group wel­com­ing a refugee family into a small town in Ohio, this con­cept of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism was cap­tured well by Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 phrase, “Amer­ica is great be­cause Amer­ica is good.”

As Obama took his jour­ney to­ward an em­brace of a new Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, Don­ald Trump was tug­ging the Repub­li­can Party in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, away from its his­tor­i­cal de­vo­tion to the ex­cep­tion­al­ist ideal. In 2013, be­fore his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Trump joined Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in crit­i­ciz­ing Obama’s call for a more in­ter­ven­tion­ist ap­proach to the cri­sis in Syria. Obama, cit­ing the need for hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion, ar­gued, “That’s what makes Amer­ica dif­fer­ent. That’s what makes us ex­cep­tional.” Trump took of­fense, as­sert­ing that Obama’s at­ti­tude that the United States is ex­cep­tional “is very in­sult­ing” to other coun­tries.

Now, the core idea of Trump’s Amer­ica First, “Art of the Deal” pres­i­dency — that Amer­ica should look out only for Amer­ica and should not take on any risk, sac­ri­fice or con­ces­sion not in its im­me­di­ate self-in­ter­est — rep­re­sents a fun­da­men­tal re­jec­tion of ex­cep­tion­al­ism. It ex­plains why Trump’s re­ac­tion to crit­i­cism of Putin’s mur­der­ous regime was not to deny Putin’s wrong­do­ing but to posit moral equiv­a­lency be­tween the United States and Rus­sia: “You think our coun­try’s so in­no­cent?” So much for Amer­ica as that city on the hill.

And of course, this re­jec­tion of an ex­cep­tional role for the United States in the world un­der­girds Trump’s views on refugees. It is why Trump called the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agree­ment to re­set­tle 1,200 refugees from a re­mote is­land near Aus­tralia the “worst deal ever.” Trump can­not imag­ine the United States un­der­tak­ing the re­set­tle­ment be­cause it is com­pas­sion­ate or of­fers a unique bea­con of hope to peo­ple seek­ing free­dom; for him, this is a deal for suck­ers and should be re­jected.

But he is wrong, and Obama was right: The United States is bet­ter than this. That is why now is the time for the left to throw off its his­tor­i­cal skep­ti­cism of, even an­tag­o­nism to­ward, Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism and un­abashedly chal­lenge Trump with a pro­gres­sive for­mu­la­tion of this ideal.

“The Re­sis­tance” is writing a new chap­ter of grass-roots ac­tivism. That protest has so far been mostly de­fined by what it is against: Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, re­peal of Oba­macare, the in­tol­er­ance spewed by the alt-right. But the peo­ple fill­ing the streets are not merely op­posed to Trump: Most are drawn to the idea of stand­ing for some­thing larger than them­selves. Em­brac­ing a pro­gres­sive con­cept of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism — of a na­tional mission and de­ter­mi­na­tion to, as Obama said, build a “bet­ter world not just for our­selves but for peo­ple in ev­ery cor­ner of the Earth,” as only the United States can — would add a noble and af­fir­ma­tive mes­sage to the new move­ment, and ac­cel­er­ate its devel­op­ment into some­thing more than a left-lean­ing ver­sion of the tea party’s ni­hilism.

Democrats are strug­gling to get past the blame game over 2016 and their di­vi­sive party chair elec­tion. If they want to har­ness the en­ergy of the streets, demon­strate that they are a party of prin­ci­ple and ideas, and create a home for to­day’s ide­al­is­tic young ac­tivists, they should step into the void cre­ated by Trump­ism, turn the ta­bles on decades of po­si­tion­ing in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and be­come the party of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism.

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