What makes Americans think they’re exceptional?
Australia and America are both destinations for people of the world hoping to start a new life, free and full of possibilities. Both have populations rich in multiple ethnicities and backgrounds.
But what do you do if the economy fails to deliver prosperity, or if serious infighting among the multiple cultures threatens to bring down the system?
Right now the US is facing that problem and when the USA threatens to lose its centre, it reaches for the solace of its most crucial common notion – its own exceptionalism.
This is a belief that America is the global exception: the richest, most democratic, most inventive and entrepreneurial, cleverest, and all manner of best-ests. French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville first used the word “exceptional” 200 years ago, referring to the fact that immigrants to America wrote a series of declarations in the 1700s on which not just a new nation but a new society was to be built. Abe Lincoln took it a step further in his plea that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth", meaning that the USA is responsible for globalizing democracy – which clearly means it’s the best of all nations.
When the Americans drove their tanks through the wreckage of Europe and dropped two atom bombs on Japan, they laid claim to the idea that they won the second world war, which super-charged the idea that America’s mission is to save us all.
Early on in my 40 plus years living in the US I realized that it was hard to name the nation’s top comedian because the sub-cultures of these 300 million folks are so many and varied that you can’t hit the spot with all of them unless you narrow the spot down to what everyone shares, which isn’t much. So, back then, Eddie Murphy was the top black comedian, Joan Rivers the top New York comic, no one was the nation’s top.
Politicians face a similar challenge. Bill Clinton won the Presidency in part because he had absorbed a rare portfolio of the references, preferences, expressions, and even facial and bodily gestures of multiple subcultures. He could weave them all into his national TV appearances, or put them on like costume changes at rallies across the nation. Hillary never had that talent, though she knew its value and tried like hell to do it better.
The problem with this pan-cultural dance is that you end up not saying much of anything. National politicians deliver bland messages in bland prose (Hillary), or we now see that they can mumblefuck their way to victory (Trump). In the end, the Trump campaign was rescued from incoherence by Cambridge Analytica, a marketing firm funded by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, which aggregated facebook likes and other online data to fine-tune their pandering to individual voters’ preconceptions: people who regularly “liked” online posts about Hillary adopting a baby from outer space (seriously) would then be urged to vote Trump to keep the aliens out of the White House. That’s the latest twist on targeting messages in pluralist societies, and – WARNING -- the Liberal-Nationals have hired a marketing outfit with the same metrics for our next election.
Now, the Trump circus has fallen apart. What’s left is a bunch of retired generals and global finance crooks from the Goldman Sachs school of finagling (from which Malcolm Turnbull also graduated), and these guys know that the only button they can push to keep the wild and disconnected citizenry from burning down the house is the we-are-exceptional button. The mad king Trump himself is getting it – he got to be President with his Make America Great Again caps (made in China), but now he sees he needs to crank it up a notch -- bomb the shit out of North Korea or Syria?
Trump’s response to the Charlottesville disaster was instructive: after days of dithering, he read stilted bits of the manufactured collective myths like “racism is completely unacceptable”, to keep a semblance of commonality to his message, then he dog-whistled to his own personal subcultures, reassuring them that white nationalists and Klansmen are just his kinda folks.
The myth of exceptionalism might yet hold America together. Some of my best friends over there have brilliant and critical minds, but if you challenge the notion that Americans are the most moral, most compassionate, most humane, and wisest of all the world’s people, hackles will rise. It’s that ingrained. James Baldwin wrote 50 years ago that “All of the western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the west has no moral authority.” Baldwin of course was a gay, black man. He also warned that “White Americans are … the most dangerous people … in the world today.”