When the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden wanted to celebrate the English King Charles II’s ascent to the throne in 1660, he cast the new King as essentially a sacred being. In “To His Sacred Majesty,” Dryden describes Charles’s coronation in the following lines:
Next, to the sacred Temple you are led,
Where waites a Crown for your more sacred Head.
From the early Middle Ages to the 1700s, English monarchs were exceptional, standing both within and beyond the realm of the merely mortal. However outdated such thoughts might seem, they matter in a surprisingly intimate way for Americans today. The sacred English king was distinguished from the rest of humanity by the immortality of the nation he embodied. The king never died because the nation was said to live forever; the exceptional king and the exceptional nation were dependent on one another. Nationalized, individuated, and ennobled, the medieval English king stands as an early instance of a character we today know too well: the modern American individual, a figure exemplified in all its grotesque glory by former President Donald Trump.
When Trump announced in his 2016 inaugural address that “[f]rom this moment on, it’s going to be America first,” he brought to the surface an exceptionalism that America’s political establishment had long taken for granted. In his address, Trump also declared that when we all unite to “salute the same great American flag,” then “America is unstoppable” because “we are protected by God.” Trump assured his global audience that “we will not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” In all of this, the message was clear: America is special, a country anointed by God, and Trump’s constituents have been ennobled and emboldened by this belief. What should be a wake-up call in Trump’s rhetoric is just how bipartisan, how utterly mundane, it truly is—and, yet, this precisely is what President Joe Biden and much of the American pundit class are in a frenzy to disprove. For them, Trump must be the anomaly.
President Biden’s own recent inaugural address offered an image of America as torn between competing forces, “an ugly reality” personified by Trump and his white nationalist supporters and an “American ideal that we are all created equal.” Speaking, it must be remembered, of a country that has been one of the great purveyors of violence in the modern world, Biden nevertheless asserts that “through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our ‘better angels’ have always prevailed.” Biden predictably vowed “to make, once again, America the leading force for good in the world.” And, neatly echoing Trump’s promise four years ago, Biden assured us again that America “will lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
With painful clarity, the history of Trump’s presidency illuminated the violence and racism that underpins the conception of America as exceptional, as God’s “city on a hill.” When President Barack Obama sought to defend his extra-judicial drone war program in a 2013 speech at the National Defense Academy, he spoke essentially of the same America as Trump: “Long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world’s memory, alongside the brutal despots, and deranged madmen, and ruthless demagogues who litter history—the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad. And that flag will still stand for freedom.” In Obama’s speech, America stands for freedom, so when its President orders drone strikes on the people of Pakistan, Somalia, or anywhere else in the world deemed to be a “threat,” then that violence ought to be viewed in a certain sense as redeemed in advance. International law, democratic oversight: these fade before the secularized Christian conception of America as the world’s beacon of salvation. In the words of Biden’s 2019 campaign announcement, “America’s an idea, an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant.” America stands apart.
What Democrats offer is a New Testament version of the same politicized Christianity that Trump put in Old Testament terms. For over three centuries, American exceptionalism has justified all manner of horrors, and yet still no major American political party will challenge even the idea of manifest destiny. The consequences of this refusal for the world, particularly its black and brown inhabitants, are dire. From the millions forcefully kidnapped and enslaved in early America, to the hundreds of thousands murdered in Hiroshima and Cambodia, to the thousands killed almost without mention by drone strikes, America’s history of violence is monumental, and its moral reckoning forever postponed by the idea that it is different, that it is has been set apart from the rest of the world to bring salvation, even if that most frequently appears in the form of death, war, and racist disregard. America is not an idea; it is a former colony turned country with a laundry list of reparations long past due.
Any attempt to build a political alternative in the United States must begin with this fact. While one can mobilize America’s exceptionalism for new purposes, a strategy Amanda Gorman exemplifies in her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” one must go further and make explicit that the aim of such an effort is the undoing of the American project. America is not, as Gorman writes, “a country that is bruised but whole, / benevolent but bold, / fierce and free”; nor is it a site of “democracy,” as one of the most unequal industrialized countries in the world today. America is, however, as Gorman writes, the “loss we [unevenly] carry.”
In the wake of Trump, it is time for all of us to do what no major American political party will—namely, reject the presumption at the core of the American project. If one looks at some of the best relatively recent historical work on America’s origins (Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution, to take just two examples), one finds the simple but devastating fact that America is more the product of eighteenth-century slaveholders’ desire for independence than anything else. These histories show that America stands for the freedom to own—a freedom conditioned by slavery, racism, and theft—a freedom exemplified by our former landlord, President Trump.
How we talk about the United States matters. I just finished a book (We Are Kings: Political Theology and the Making of a Modern Individual) that traces a line of continuity from the thought of Dryden to that of major American politicians and newspapers today. When Biden delivered his victory speech four days after November’s election, he included an imperial truism that could have been the epilogue to my argument: “America is a beacon for the globe.” If only this were merely rhetoric and not a theory of manifest destiny as presumptuous as it has been deadly.
Spencer Jackson is a literary critic, labor organizer, and long-time anti-war activist, whose recent book, We Are Kings (University of Virginia Press, 2020) traces the origins of American exceptionalism in the literature of the early British Empire. Other recent work includes an essay on the conservative anti-capitalism of Phillis Wheatley and Alexander Pope. On Twitter @SpencerDavidJ.