Two decades later, I returned to the city as a graduate student, and things were dramatically different; my ethnicity was now just one more ingredient in the melting pot of diversity the city had transformed into.
So nothing could have prepared me for the coarse nativism and abuse I witnessed during the recent election campaign. My friends and I were in a tonier neighborhood of Philadelphia walking to our cars after a late-night dinner when a white man emerged from one of the adjoining bars. He recognized me to be Indian and started a conversation about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Not having a vote in the United States made me feel freer to respond to his question about who would make the better president. The man went into a paroxysm of rage. “You Indians, first you take our jobs, now you are defending that monster b––––. Shame on you! From the world’s largest democracy. And you can’t even speak English!” Holding back a childish post-colonial impulse to argue about whose grammar was more polished, I wondered to myself whether this was the undercurrent the liberal media had entirely failed to read. Like a crazed stalker, the man followed us around, aggressively shouting out the virtues of Trump as I walked faster to avoid him. “Suck my d–––, you Indian,” he yelled, pressing his face against the car’s rear window as we tried to extricate ourselves from his poison. His toxic rage in 2016 felt starker and much worse than the racist taunting of my schoolmates from Queens 40 years ago.
The experience — and the eventual election verdict — left me asking what many across the world are wondering after the Trump victory: Is American exceptionalism now the stuff of history?
The term, ironically first used disparagingly by Joseph Stalin, came to be shorthand for what Americans argue is a creed of liberty unique to their country. Not just in the nationalist way that we all think our countries have characteristics that set us apart from the crowd, but in the constitutional premium placed on preserving certain freedom — the very idea of an open society around which the nation is constructed. We in the “rest” of the world have pretty much bought into this narrative of the United States. Even when we have fiercely resented Americans hectoring us on gender rights and religious equality (and then supping with the Saudis straight after), we have accepted that the United States is the freest country in the world. We have measured ourselves often against this imagined gold standard on a slew of issues (gay rights, equality for women, affirmative action, media freedom and even the right to offend), angered by the American sense of superiority and yet grudgingly admiring of how truly liberated some of its institutions are.
But is America exceptional now in exactly the opposite way? At the moment, American exceptionalism seems to be defined by the junking of basic norms of social decency. Combine the stubborn sexism of Trump’s campaign with the pathological anti-Muslim sentiment of his growing core team (his national security adviser has compared Islam to “malignant cancer,” and there are whispers of a possible Muslim registry), and I suspect Americans may lose their talk-down-to-the rest-of-the-world rights for the next four years or more.
While the resurgence of right-wing politics and a muscular nationalism is a global phenomenon — India’s elections in 2014, the Brexit vote, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, the consolidation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and finally the Trump victory — what has come to be bizarrely acceptable in American politics would never pass muster in India, even though so many of our institutions are less free than America’s.
I still remember TV anchor Norah O’Donnell quizzing me at Tina Brown’s Women in the World conference after a horrific 2012 gang rape of a young woman in Delhi. She described my home city as the “rape capital of the world,” even as I pointed out that Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had statistically shown that the rape rate in the United States was higher than in India, even after factoring in underreporting.
Those of us from “developing countries” have long tried to explain to Western activists that gender is a universal conversation and that several of their assumptions about us are misplaced caricatures. But even with all our entrenched misogyny, spiraling sexual violence and the horror of female feticide, no candidate in India could have ever run successfully for prime minister if he openly called a woman he disliked a “fat pig.” Or made a menstruation gibe about a television anchorwoman. Or if one of his aides said what former chief of staff to George H.W. Bush did in New Hampshire when he joked that Bill Clinton might have been talking of Hillary Clinton when he famously declared “I did not have sex with that woman.”
That’s not because terrible things are not said about women in India, but because there is an expectation of minimum civility in political discourse — yes,with all its residual hypocrisies — that could not be breached by any man or woman running for high political office.
There is one thing, however, that still remains exceptional about America — the freedom of its media. That Trump is compelled to engage with the very media that has been so scathingly critical of him, and whom he openly vilified, underlines how strong the tradition (legal and cultural) of guaranteed media freedom is. That the U.S. media got the election story wrong is the subject of a different debate. But after all the name-calling, president-elect Trump is still compelled to give access and open himself to free-ranging questions from adversarial journalists. This is truly American and must be applauded.
For everything else, however, the next time an American friend wants to know about arranged marriages in India or whether it’s safe for Indian women to wear shorts or whether Hindus and Muslims are able to live peacefully together or anything equally oversimplistic, I shall just hiss back two words: Donald Trump.
After all, he is the ultimate American exception.