But more interesting, I think, is what Trump himself actually meant by this. His full quote shows that all he really meant is that America is losing big time, and that claiming to be “exceptional” in that context only makes us look like bigger losers, compounding the embarrassment. Needless to say, this is a rather comical oversimplification of what the “American exceptionalism” debate is all about.
Here’s the full diatribe in all its Trumpian majesty:
“I don’t like the term. I’ll be honest with you. People say, ‘Oh he’s not patriotic.’ Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, ‘Why are you exceptional? We’re doing a lot better than you.’ I never liked the term.“And perhaps that’s because I don’t have a very big ego and I don’t need terms like that. Honestly. When you’re doing business — I watch Obama every once in a while saying ‘American exceptionalism,’ it’s [Trump makes a face]. I don’t like the term. Because we’re dealing — first of all, I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much. On top of taking it back, I don’t want to say, ‘We’re exceptional. we’re more exceptional.’ Because essentially we’re saying, ‘We’re more outstanding than you. By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you.’ I don’t like the term. I never liked it.“When I see these politicians get up [and say], ‘the American exceptionalism’ — we’re dying. We owe 18 trillion in debt. I’d like to make us exceptional. And I’d like to talk later instead of now. Does that make any sense? Because I think you’re insulting the world. And you, know, if you’re German, or you’re from Japan, or you’re from China, you don’t want to have people saying that. I never liked the expression. And I see a lot of good patriots get up and talk about Amer — you can think it, but I don’t think we should say it. We may have a chance to say it in the not-too-distant future. But even then, I wouldn’t say it because when I take back the jobs, and when I take back all that money and we get all our stuff, I’m not going to rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. But I never liked that term.”
Perhaps the most obsessed-over entry in the “American exceptionalism” debate in recent years came from President Obama, who addressed it at a press conference in France in April of 2009. Republicans cited this quote for years as proof of Obama’s suspect commitment to America. But in it, Obama actually did proclaim a belief in American exceptionalism, albeit a somewhat qualified one. He spoke about the pride he felt towards America’s history and international leadership role, as well as the nation’s core values, while allowing that in practice we have not always lived up to them, and allowing that other countries also may view themselves in similar terms. Obama also did note in passing that America’s economy and military are the most formidable in the world. But for him, the question of whether America is “exceptional” was one about the nation’s history, meaning, values, and role in the world.
Trump’s focus here is decidedly different. He doesn’t like the term “American exceptionalism” because, in his view, we’re not doing exceptionally at all; we’re getting our asses kicked by other countries. By way of clarification, Trump noted that he “wants to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them,” whatever that means. After that, Trump continued, maybe then we might be within our rights to proclaim ourselves exceptional.
In other words, Trump simply meant that we should not trash talk when we’re actually getting our clocks cleaned. We should save the boasting for later, when we have something to boast about. And then Trump suddenly thought the better of this. In an uncharacteristic moment of decorum and modesty, he added that, once he had made America a winner again, he would not then want to declare us “exceptional” because it would mean rubbing the faces of other countries in his display of dominance over them. Trump is classy in victory, you see.
I don’t have any idea whether Trump thinks our history, values, legal and constitutional system, and so forth, are distinguishing features. It seems obvious that he takes a dim view of our role in the world — he thinks we’re getting played by other countries. But Trump probably does not object to the idea that we should be superior to all other countries, or to the idea that we should ideally be able to see ourselves that way. He just thinks we aren’t cutting it. Trump really wants America to be exceptional. It just isn’t going to happen until he is made president.