With all that has happened in the past few weeks, the idea of American exceptionalism has seemed even more skewed and outdated. Both nationally and on campus, the new political climate has been tense and filled with uncertainty. President Donald Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” implied a return to a better nation, which had seemingly been lost in past administrations. Yet, the first weeks of Trump’s presidency have thoroughly worked against what makes America exceptional.
At its core, “American exceptionalism” is the idea that the United States is the vanguard of liberty, democracy and opportunity — a nation unlike any before it, created on the basis of equality and liberty, and throughout history, a country dedicated to upholding and cultivating these essential values, both abroad and at home. American exceptionalism promotes the United States as a nation which is singular, unique and a leading example for other nations.
My own belief in this definition of American exceptionalism is wary. The United States’ history of being a pillar of equality is both skewed and inaccurate. Our patriotism is not unlike any other democratic nation’s, and our true upholding of equality is lessened by historic racism and discrimination embedded in our institutions.
However, recent political events have made me more cynical in viewing America’s exceptionalism. Trump’s Cabinet appointments, his executive order on immigration and the more recent and personal racial incidents on our campus have been disheartening, to say the least. Yes, parts of my disappointment hinge on my political leanings, but certain issues go beyond politics.
Trump’s executive order on immigration is a huge step away from American exceptionalism. If we are considered a country of liberty and equality, then we should be opening our doors to those who need help the most, not closing them. The actions Trump has taken, or rather has tried to take, are symbolic of a different kind of American exceptionalism: an exceptionalism that promotes equality and liberty, but only for the few, not the many.
Furthermore, the ban goes against what I believe actually makes the United States exceptional: the people. The nature of Trump’s executive order sends a simple message to those who come from the seven countries affected by it: You are not welcome here. Yet, this rhetoric, whether enacted through law or not, degrades the diversity the United States has prided itself on. The United States has stood out among other nations because of its power to draw people from all over the world onto one land mass, living, working and creating. The rich diversity of this country is what makes it exceptional. Without immigrants, the story of American innovation, culture and progress would be incomplete.
In addition to the executive order, Trump’s war on the press seems to be part of his redefining of America’s greatness. In a collection of tweets, Mr. Trump has called out The New York Times for fictional reporting, or, more accurately, reporting that doesn’t praise him. The president’s rhetoric toward the press again degrades the liberty and democracy associated with American exceptionalism. The press has been a sure check on the actions of those in power, and, if anything, true freedom is found in the truth-telling of our journalists. A press that depicts politics truthfully, regardless of whether it taints the image of the powerful elite, is a press that uses its First Amendment right to hold leaders accountable and give a voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one. Attacking the press is attacking one of the truest and most historic examples of American freedom.
Yet, while Trump continues his unexceptional actions, his constituents are doing the opposite. American exceptionalism hinges on democracy and liberty, and while Trump may continuously stray from these virtues, Americans are working to uphold them. A Trump presidency may have created an upheaval of anger and fear, but it has simultaneously redefined what makes the United States exceptional. Exceptionalism isn’t in the hands of a single leader or political administration. Exceptionalism is in the hands of the people.
In the past few months, a wave of solidarity has made its way through the United States in a reaction to Trump’s divisive nature. The record-breaking Women’s March was just the beginning of Americans coming together to stand up and speak out against injustices heightened by Trump’s presidency. Instead of idly sitting by, people of all backgrounds are taking a stand in whatever way they can.
American exceptionalism isn’t found in the political leaders we have representing us, but in our own abilities to stand up and speak out against those leaders’ actions when we see fit. American exceptionalism is found in the vast diversity of our population and our ability to recognize and accept our differences. American exceptionalism is found in a press that refuses to sugarcoat the truth in an effort to please the powerful. American exceptionalism is found in people protesting executive orders outside airports, even if they aren’t affected. American exceptionalism is found in four judges working against an executive order, blocking what would be an injustice to many. American exceptionalism is found in a group of students standing outside a university president’s house in the middle of the night, calling for accountability and change.
This is American exceptionalism. It isn’t who we have in the highest seat of our government, but how we stand up against the injustices and divisiveness he may promote. That is exceptionality.
Anu Roy-Chaudhury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.