In 1835, when Andrew Jackson was in the White House, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote an essay called “Democracy in America” which has come to define how American people see themselves. It was an analysis of why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing elsewhere. Tocqueville, sent by the French government to study the American system, wrote that “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” America was seen as a land of special moral purpose and manifest destiny. The McGuffey Readers, a series of graded primers for children based on Tocqueville’s thinking sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students from the late 1840s to the late 19th Century.
All of this is to say that the notion of America as having a special mission and manifest destiny to bring liberty and democracy to the world is deeply rooted in the American psyche. Donald Trump came to power promising on the campaign promise to ‘Make America Great Again.’ On the surface, this seems like a promise to restore American exceptionalism, but in practice is something quite different. Trump’s argument during his campaign wasn’t that Obama had a patchy record on upholding the rule of law, but that America should have an altogether different set of priorities. Making America Great Again wasn’t an argument to restore America’s moral standing in the world, but a call to improve conditions at home.
This was reflected in the contrast between Obama’s farewell address and Trump’s inaugural. Obama made explicit mention of American exceptionalism and invoked ideals of Republicanism, democracy, and the long arc of justice at home and abroad. Trump struck an altogether different note. Trump’s ‘American Carnage’ inaugural was long on anger and dystopia and, as the Washington Post pointed out, used many words that had never appeared in an inaugural before, such as carnage, disrepair, rusted, stealing, ripped, tombstones, and trapped. It spoke of Americans being left behind by the ravages of globalisation, particularly those in the Rust Belt and the Appalachians. Obama’s genius was his ability to focus the minds of voters in of all backgrounds on shared goals and challenges, while offering voters in the Rust Belt the hope that their lot would improve. With Obama gone, that coalition collapsed.
A lot of political research over the last forty years has focused on public choice theory: how voters come to make decisions in elections, and whether, when they vote, they get what they think they’re getting. The 2016 election was unique in that it was contested between two uniquely unpopular and in many ways, deeply compromised candidates. In these situations, voter choice theory says that voters will choose the lesser of two evils. In America’s case this is complicated again by the American electoral system, which offers no guarantees that the candidate with most votes will win. We appear to have a situation where Trump has been carried to victory by a coalition of “true believers” in his vision, people in swing states who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton and establishment Republican voters.
While elements of Trump’s domestic policy, such as restoring America’s manufacturing base, seem to enjoy broad support, we haven’t yet seen the popularity of Trump’s vision of America as a diminished player on the world stage put to the test. In part, this is due to the hedging behaviour of Trump himself. Trump has spent his early days in power talking tough with leaders in Mexico, hanging up on the Australian Prime Minister, and appearing to imply that Taiwan was now on the table with China.
Now, though, we’re seeing the first effects of Trump’s more isolationist approach. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump appeared to equate American Foreign Policy with that of Vladimir Putin, saying “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think – our country’s so innocent?” Some on Twitter have pointed out that if Obama had made such a statement, people would be calling for his resignation, and while that’s true it misses the point. Suggesting that America somehow lacked moral leadership – or exceptionalism – would have been anethema to Obama. Whether he always put the ideas into practice or not, Obama was a firm believer in the American project, the idea of America as the shining beacon on the hill.
To Trump, America’s moral leadership in the world is something that can be traded away for a more realpolitik approach. If projecting force, threatening trade wars or using torture as a weapon proves more effective, Trump seems happy enough to use those instead. Trump either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about America’s obligations under the Geneva Convention enough to realise that his refugee ban probably is illegal under international law. The question is: do Republican voters fully back his programme. Did they vote for Trump because of his economic programme, because they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, or because they want America to adopt a more realpolitik approach.
If it’s the latter, it would be a profound break indeed. The American voter would have taken a conscious decision to depart from 200 years of thinking that America was “bound to lead” the world, of manifest destiny. America would be less able to raise these issues with partners around the world. It would mark the biggest change in relationship between America and the Rest of the World since the days of Wilson. Whatever happens, we’re about to find out.