I personally do not believe in American exceptionalism. What I do believe in is human fallibility.
I personally do not believe in government superiority. I do believe in the natural rights of all human beings.
Resultantly, what has made America “exceptional” in the eyes of the world is not how forcefully it applies its authoritarian boot to the necks of its citizens; rather, American “exceptionalism” is derived from the ability of people to freely pursue their own interests without governmental intervention. If individual freedom and liberty do not exist, then America is by no means “exceptional” but quite similar to other regimes across the globe. Distinction requires separation, and throughout the last century, many people fled from their country of origin to the United States because they believed that they too could be “exceptional” and be free to pursue their own ends.
Natural rights are a human privilege, and sadly, what makes a modern government “exceptional” is their ability to uphold these innately human rights above national interests.
This is what makes natural rights so simple and powerful: You have them as a function of being human, so no matter who you are or where you are born, you have the same natural rights as everyone else, no matter where you go. This is a sentiment expressed by the Founding Fathers both in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This sentiment reflects the feeling in the late 1700s that natural rights were being ignored, and so the writers of these two documents used language to ensure the protection of natural rights.
Yet, in the 21st century, our national conversation has changed so that many derive their exceptionalism as a function of being American, not as a function of being a human being who happens to live in America.
A very destructive derivative argument is that if you are not an American, then you are something less than exceptional and are therefore unworthy of natural rights. Birth is an immutable trait that no person has any control over. Yet, we have begun assigning personal culpability to those born elsewhere and individual superiority to those born within.
Recent discussion on immigration has adopted the destructive argument mentioned above. What is discussed is how the government can control and contain the “immigration problem.” What is never discussed is that the Constitution, which allegedly grants the federal government all its power, does not grant power over immigration—it only grants power over those naturalized or born in the United States. The text of the 14th Amendment says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Hence, the Constitution does not grant the federal government power over those individuals who were not born in or not naturalized in the United States. If the Constitution did grant that power, then persons all over the globe living independent lives in other countries would fall under the jurisdiction of the United States federal government.
Yet, this is exactly one of the prescriptions that many presidential candidates are prescribing: taking federal action (e.g., drone strikes) against illegal immigrants, who fall outside of federal jurisdiction. Such prescriptions highlight the surge in American nativism, the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.
Nativism is built from the same raw materials as racism and dehumanization. In all three cases, you think your self-identification makes you better than another group. The targeted groups change, as do the words used to describe the “problem,” but the underlying formula remains the same: We don’t like you because you’re not like us.
Accordingly, inciting fear about the “immigration threat” has been the catalyst to expose the dormant racism always lurking just below the surface of our American “exceptionalism.” In many cases, racism doesn’t even bother to put on politically correct makeup before it goes out into public. Consider this incident, where rhetoric from one presidential candidate directed against immigrants was channeled into violence: Two brothers from South Boston urinated on and beat a homeless man because he was believed to be an illegal Hispanic immigrant. After being asked why he did it, one of the attackers said, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”
Reporting for the Post and covering an Alabama rally of Donald Trump, Dave Weigel provided this quote from an interview with a white farmer in Alabama:
“You probably think we’re prejudiced, but my whole life we had niggers work for us in the field. And they were niggers. My daddy called them niggers. I’m not ignorant. That’s just the way I was raised. There’s black people and there’s niggers. You live around here, you know the difference.”
As CNN reports, “David Duke, the anti-Semitic former Ku Klux Klan leader, praised Republican front-runner Donald Trump for his immigration policy proposals and said Trump is ‘the best of the lot.’” As Buzzfeed reports, “America’s white nationalists have spoken, and they’ve spoken loud and clear: Donald Trump is their presidential candidate of choice.” Yahoo! News reports the following:
“Like so many others in this country who are afflicted with the political handicap of intelligence, protester Efrain Galicia simply couldn’t stand to see Donald Trump’s oft-repeated slogan “Make America Great Again” again without making one small edit. Joining fellow protesters in New York near Trump Tower earlier this week, Galicia debuted his slogan remix via a handmade blue sign reading ‘Trump: Make America Racist Again.’”
Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan may not be “Nativism.” His real slogan is “Make America Great Again.” That may sound like a nice idea, but the ultimate question I have is for whom exactly is it being made great?
Because it seems, at least from anecdotal reports, that Mr. Trump’s message of nativism resonates very well with racists. Yet what those racists fail to realize is that they are being exploited by Mr. Trump to serve his own presidential end. He is a billionaire, which means he lives in a world surrounded by a border that most people—regardless of race or native-born status—can almost never cross. The average racist couldn’t emigrate over to Mr. Trump’s economic cohort even if Trump himself built a luxurious, gold-plated highway to the destination. One of the greatest economic threats to the average prejudiced American, then, is not from below in those seeking an economic opportunity; it’s from those above who already have enormous economic power and strive to protect their own interests.
For centuries, people have always held that America is great (and it is) because it allows anyone to apply themselves and excel. If that formula is changed and it is made great for some at the expense of others, then we have rejected the core principle of natural law that an exceptional America was founded upon. If we reject natural law, then we will have taken something exceptional and great and turned it into something plain and ordinary.
History repeats itself time and time again: A powerful majority suppresses the rights of powerless minorities by demonizing them with group prejudice, persecuting entire groups because of malevolent segments, and creating alleged “threats” to the “natives” that are purposeful distortions of reality. History has taught us that this has happened before, and such a script may secure short-term political gain at the expense of long-term national vitality.
Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” Will we now act responsibly, or will we choose instead to throw away that which made us great to begin with?