To date, President Trump’s signature accomplishment is not policy-related; it’s cultural. He’s demythologized and deromanticized the idea of America.
No longer is the United States great because it’s good, let alone exceptionally good. “We’ve got a lot of killers,” Trump famously said in 2017, after being asked about extrajudicial assassinations in Russia. “You think our country is so innocent?” For Trump, America is great because, as one among all the not-so-innocent nations of the world, it has the greatest store of leverageable wealth and power. This isn’t a unique view of national greatness in world history, but it’s new to the United States.
As with most Trump innovations, there’s good and bad here. The good is that, without the gauzy effect of myth, more Americans might see that politics is an ugly business conducted by ordinary people. We were never supposed to become enamored of government or fall in love with our leaders in the first place. The bad is that national myths are important, and the American mythos is aspirational. If we no longer see ourselves as the most virtuous country in human history, then we’ll no longer try to bring our actions in line with that vision. And if we fail to appreciate how uniquely virtuous this country actually is, we become less likely to safeguard that virtue in the face of expedience.
If American greatness now rests purely in transactional prowess, occasions like Thanksgiving can seem a little passé. Whatever its confused origins and attendant controversies, the holiday is a celebration of the God-given blessings of being American—the freedoms and opportunities granted nowhere else in such abundance. It’s not hard to imagine a time when Thanksgiving could be taken as a vestigial remnant of an earlier, more gullible age; just another opportunity for a federally sanctioned long weekend. Perhaps we’re almost there.
But the astounding thing about American exceptionalism is that it’s not pure myth. It’s not a naïve fantasy (as Donald Trump seems to think) or an arrogant national disposition (as many on the left see it). It’s a historical and contemporary fact. The United States was and remains the greatest and most virtuous country in the world.
America is still the dream destination for the world’s migrants. And there’s no real competition. A 2017 Gallup poll of adults seeking to move for safety, shelter, or food found that 21 percent wanted to live in the United States. Germany, for all its efforts at welcoming the needy and desperate, came in second place with 6 percent.
There’s a reason that democracy-seeking protesters in Hong Kong sing the American National Anthem, and it’s not because the U.S. is rich and powerful. It’s because we are the exemplars and champions of individual liberty, a nation that thrives in its freedom even as its citizens increasingly fail to appreciate it.
Trump has changed the cosmetics of the American mythos. And that can feel very much like a shared dream is dying. But it’s important to remember that it mostly feels that way to those who are already living the dream. Among those still dreaming, in Latin America, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, it’s as singular and vital as it ever was. Being cynical about American exceptionalism is yet another luxury afforded only to Americans.