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. ...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. ...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.
Trump also praised none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin back in 2013 when Putin dismissed the idea of American exceptionalism in response to President Obama's speech about Syria.
Putin said at the time: "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is 'what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.' ... It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Appearing on Fox News with Greta van Susteren at the time, Trump said he agreed with Putin, as noted by BuzzFeed:
And when he criticizes the president for using the term "American exceptionalism," if you're in Russia, you don't want to hear that America is exceptional. And if you're in many other countries, whether it's Germany or other places, you don't want to hear about American exceptionalism, because you think you're exceptional. So I can see that being very insulting to the world.And that's basically what Putin was saying — is that, you know, you use a term like "American exceptionalism," and frankly, the way our country is being treated right now by Russia and Syria and lots of other places and with all the mistakes we've made over the years — like Iraq and so many others — it's sort of a hard term to use.But other nations and other countries don't want hear about American exceptionalism. They're insulted by it. And that's what Putin was saying.
So Trump's take on this is crystal clear. And in the bizarro world that has been the 2016 presidential campaign, a Republican nominee bashing the idea of American exceptionalism and a Democrat attacking him for it ranks up there.
Despite Obama's nod to American exceptionalism in that 2013 speech on Syria, Republicans have often attacked him for believing insufficiently in the idea.
"This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt," Mitt Romney wrote in a book released prior to his 2012 campaign. In his book, Newt Gingrich went further, saying Obama "simply does not understand the concept of American exceptionalism.” Sarah Palin's book had a chapter titled "America the Exceptional."
(Karen Tumulty did a good job summarizing all of these comments back in 2010. Actually, about the only potential GOP presidential candidate back then who seemed to suggest America wasn't quite exceptional anymore? Mike Pence, who is now Trump's running mate. In a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Pence argued for "renewing" American exceptionalism.)
And the attack made political sense. A Gallup poll at the time showed 61 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of independents thought Obama didn't believe that the United States "has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world" — a pretty solid summary of the American exceptionalism. And Republicans were more likely to subscribe to the idea that the U.S. was exceptional, with 91 percent saying they agreed with the statement. Among Democrats, 73 percent agreed.
More recently, Pew polling showed declining belief in the sentiment, with Republicans still more likely than other groups to buy into it.
It asked a slightly different question: whether people thought the United States "stands above all other countries." In 2011, 52 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats agreed with that statement. In 2014, those numbers dropped to 37 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
So support for American exceptionalism varies widely depending upon how you define it. If it's merely about status in the world, people are less likely to buy into it these days; if it's something unique about our character, it's been pretty universally embraced.
But however you define it, Trump is on the record in opposition to it — in contrast to basically every other national Republican political figure in recent years, and in contrast to much of the GOP base, which once criticized Obama for not believing in it.
On Wednesday, Clinton will truly try to flip the script.