Donald Trump speaks at a "get-out-the-vote" rally on December 9, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
DON EMMERTDON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The right missed it, but the ‘exceptionalism’ debate flipped in 2016

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, a prominent Donald Trump advisor, repeated a tired line of attack last night, telling Fox News that President Obama “dislikes American exceptionalism.”

We know Bolton’s wrong. The more interesting question is whether Bolton realizes that the president-elect he’s been advising for months is actually the one who dislikes American exceptionalism.

Perhaps someone should let Bolton know about this Mother Jones report from the summer.
In late April 2015, a month before Trump officially announced his candidacy, he spoke at an event called “Celebrating the American Dream” that was hosted in Houston by the Texas Patriots PAC, a local tea party outfit. The mogul sat in an oversized leather chair and fielded questions from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a prominent local businessman. About an hour into the program, McIngvale posed Trump this query: “Define American exceptionalism. Does American exceptionalism still exist? And what do we do to grow American exceptionalism?”

Trump didn’t hesitate to shoot down the premise of the question, saying he didn’t “like the term.” He questioned whether the United States was “more exceptional” and “more outstanding” than other nations. He also said that those who refer to American exceptionalism were “insulting the world” and offending people in other countries, such as Russia, China, Germany, and Japan. It is “not a nice term,” he said, maintaining it was wrong to equate patriotism with a belief in American exceptionalism. He derided politicians who use the phrase.
This was not the only time Trump made clear he has no use for the principle of American exceptionalism.

Bolton may not have noticed, but after years of incessant whining from conservatives about the concept of exceptionalism, the entire fight was turned on its head in 2016: President Obama and Hillary Clinton explicitly embraced the principle, while Donald Trump explicitly rejected it – because he said it might hurt other countries’ feelings.

Try to imagine the reaction from Bolton and other conservatives if a Democrat had made these comments.

As we discussed in August, the debate itself has always been foolish. When the right goes after Obama over “exceptionalism,” as Bolton did last night, the point is intended to question his patriotism and love of country by questioning his perceptions of the United States’ unique greatness. The conservative complaints have never really made any sense, but this line has nevertheless been a staple of Republican rhetoric for nearly eight years. It became a litmus-test issue of sorts: genuine U.S. patriotism, the argument goes, requires a belief in American exceptionalism.

But in 2016, Trump overtly dismissed the idea – and Clinton adopted the usual GOP line as her own.

“If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this: The United States is an exceptional nation,” Clinton said at the American Legion’s national convention. She added, “[M]y opponent in the race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world. In fact, when Vladimir Putin, of all people, criticized American exceptionalism, my opponent agreed with him saying, and I quote, ‘If you are in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.’ Well maybe you don’t want to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

It’s against this backdrop that John Bolton wants to complain that President Obama “dislikes American exceptionalism”? Does Bolton have any idea what Donald Trump has said about the subject?


Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and John Bolton

The right missed it, but the 'exceptionalism' debate flipped in 2016