From the beginning Americans have been proud of a self-perceived national exceptionalism: intellectual, physical, and moral. While Europeans wrangled continental wars between feudal factions of themselves, our initial European explorers and settlers broke exotic (to us) ground in a New World. We eventually split from that Old World with a defining rebellion.
The global industrial revolution made us virtual rulers of an entire hemisphere. Our capitalism became a worldwide economic and political model with the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Carnegies, Astors, and Vanderbilts as our 19th-century oligarchs.
Geographic isolation allowed us to choose our 20th-century battles and tip the outcomes of two world wars in favor of our principal forebears. With vast continental resources unscathed by war, we excelled each time and underscored our ascendancy.
Americans alive today have known an America only in recurring roles of international leadership, determinant of combat outcomes, engine of economic growth, groundbreaker in scientific advancement, model of modern democracy, contender in international sport, and a center for arts and culture. American Exceptionalism.
There are cracks in the façade, but we mostly refuse to acknowledge them. Our Civil War continues to be fought over racism that went quiet but never went away. Our religious and societal intolerances escape headlines while being reinforced in private enclaves. Our cultural stratification is ingrained on ethnic, economic and regional foundations.
Now the morally weak and intellectually vacuous Trump presidency gives tacit permission to express views, abet actions, and expose behaviors that previously were considered beneath us as a nation. We are better than this. One can only hope the extreme ugly factions now apparent in our society are mere offshoots, not the mainstream. Am I clinging to an American fable?
It’s clear now American exceptionalism may always have been a myth. It was a desperate self-congratulatory cheer to Americans in the midst of hard times. Current times force us to merge Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” with Dylan, “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle the walls.” A nation’s self-image hangs in the balance.