The phrase “American Exceptionalism” always irritated me, as it was about waving the flag while ignoring a history that, checkered like most countries, began with slavery, our original sin, and continued with Manifest Destiny, the doctrinal foundation for a genocide. In 2012 Mitt Romney wrapped his campaign in exceptionalism, that we are “a great champion of human dignity and human freedom,” sidestepping our manipulation of other countries, often with troops. If the phrase were narrowed to refer to our civic freedom and rule of law, well, that’s the heritage England bequeathed to its colonies in North America and Australia/New Zealand, and we share it with much of the developed world. We aren’t that exceptional.
I’m having second thoughts, thanks to Donald Trump.
If the United States is exceptional, it is because our founders declared it into being, along with certain unalienable rights (in fairness, Romney noted those too). For a century we have been exceptionally powerful. But what has made us unusual if not unique is the way we have grown: with a (mostly) open door to immigrants, who give us their extraordinary ambition; the world’s model of privately and publicly funded universities that draw students from around the globe; and a government that partners with private enterprise to foster discovery and risk-taking while ensuring that the external costs, such as pollution created in pursuit of profit, are not borne solely by the public. The Trump regime threatens all of it.
I am saddened by his disrespect for the rule of law and norms of governing, for the separation of powers, for his predecessors’ legacies. But I am most troubled by his attitude toward and actions on immigration – the executive orders and excessive discretion granted to ICE – and the atmosphere they create.
We know that we are a nation built by immigrants – and that many have resisted waves of immigrants that didn’t conform to their sense of identity. Antipathy birthed the Know Nothing party in the 1850s and led to restrictions climaxing in the 1924 Immigration Act, whose purpose, the State Department concludes in a history of the era, “was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Impetus for the Immigration Act of 1965 was our recognition that as leader of the free world, we lacked moral authority as long as discriminatory restrictions on country of origin remained. The law barred any preference for or discrimination against “the issuance of an immigrant visa because of . . . race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” At the signing on Liberty Island, President Johnson said the law “corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation” counter to the Declaration’s self-evident truths.
The intent of Trump’s two executive orders – to ban Muslims (his campaign promise) from certain countries – is contrary to the spirit and letter of the 1965 act. The orders also are ineffective as counter-terrorism measures, according to a DHS analysis reported February 24; it found that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” Evidence that the ban has nothing to do with national security emerged in a news report this week that the administration would cut Coast Guard and TSA funding to pay for the border wall.
The changes to deportation enforcement are worse. Ripping parents with long-ago misdemeanor convictions – or no convictions at all – from their communities, at incalculable cost and misery for their American-born children, has sown fear and disruption across the country.
The world becomes more interdependent, but we imagine we can spin a cocoon. International business and tourist travel has dropped. Students are reconsidering whether to come to American universities. A trickle of foreign nationals is heading north of the border. Silicon Valley companies are looking to Vancouver, where the foreign-born workers they recruit are welcome.
That we are the “city upon a hill” passed from the Sermon on the Mount to America’s creation myth and on to Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Kennedy, King and Reagan. Still aboard ship en route to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, future governor John Winthrop preached:
We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.
What byword are we creating?