Why Trump & his acolytes are wrong about American exceptionalism

It’s an uncertain time to be an American right now. If the multitudes in U.S. streets and airports are any indication, the divide between the country’s governing leaders and we, the governed, has gotten especially stark. President Trump’s executive order altering the United States’ longstanding treatment of immigrants and refugees struck a nerve. Across the country, protesters came together to question what the order says about who we are as a country. “Make America America Again,” one demonstrator’s sign read.

What defines our shared community? These aren’t new questions – Americans have long obsessed over our national identity. We often talk about it in terms of American exceptionalism, those key things that set us apart from the rest of the world.

It can be a fraught conversation. What really makes the United States stand out? We sometimes hear that it’s our uniquely deep religious, cultural, historical and (even) racial roots in Great Britain. But that can’t be it, since we share those with Canada and Australia.

We sometimes hear that our deep faith in private property and free markets writ large sets us particularly apart from the rest of the world. And yet, we largely borrowed our particular brand of capitalist dreaming from a group of Viennese economists known as “The Austrian School.”

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Surely it’s not something as petty as our abnormally stubborn resistance to the seductive appeals of soccer, “the world’s game.”

No. The great American exception is rooted in the panoply of individuals who make up our multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural democracy. It’s our commitment to pluralism, a commitment that begins with simple tolerance of differences, manifests in formal protections against discrimination, and ideally flourishes in celebration of the many creeds that come together to form our shared national unity.

This is not easy for humans, anxious and fearful as we can be. So American exceptionalism is also embodied in our courage, our magnanimity to hold to these values in the face of insecurity, uncertainty and sheer danger. When times are dark, these principles are what can make the United States truly special. Have we failed at this task in the past? Yes – the World War II Japanese internment camps and our less-than-generous policies towards Jewish refugees fleeing fascism come to mind.

And yet, no other country has worked as hard, for as long, to establish a country united in its diversity and pluralism before common laws. There are other wealthy liberal democracies, but none has so thoroughly built racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity into their national projects as the United States. While Germany’s current political leadership has (heroically) worked to welcome refugees in recent years, Chancellor Angela Merkel has also said that immigrant-driven multiculturalism “has failed, utterly failed.” While France – particularly Paris – has long been a beacon of free expression, its politics are largely monoracial. What’s more, the French’s regulations on the acceptable clothing options for Muslim women show that its boundaries of acceptable cultural diversity have grown strikingly narrow. And our ancestral cousins in Great Britain recently allowed a wave of xenophobic populism to lead them to the brink of leaving the European Union.

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There are other diverse countries. But the United States has long taken the lead as the world’s welcoming ground for immigrants – and the breadth of culture that they bring. Properly understood, this isn’t just a duty, it’s also a privilege and enormous national advantage. Immigrant-driven multiculturalism makes our community better and more interesting, however measured. It makes our culture richer, our economy stronger, our conversations better, and our food tastier.

And so, to an important degree, the protests last weekend sparked to such size and prominence because Trump’s executive order aims directly at undermining the most remarkable strand of American exceptionalism. The response reflected the gravity of the executive order’s threat. A United States that no longer welcomes refugees, that effectively accepts religious tests for sorting who amongst the downtrodden ought to have the best chance of coming – that is a United States that has lost sight of itself. It is an America that no longer carries the confidence of its own convictions, an America that is growing weaker, not greater.

Indeed and ironically, those cheering Trump’s exclusionary, cowardly executive order in the name of American greatness sound a great deal more like far-right ethno-nationalists in Europe (and elsewhere). These are men and women who see cultural, religious, linguistic, ethnic, and/or racial diversity as threats to a common social and political life. The entirety of American history has been a slow, sometimes inadequate, experiment designed to prove this view of democracy wrong.

Now, as our new President stokes the public’s fears in service of his divisive politics, it is time to wonder if “Making America Great Again” means leaving behind the things that make America exceptional. If so, then his vision of greatness is neither genuinely American nor is it worth chasing.

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Williams is the founding director of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group, a research team that studies policies affecting multilingual students. Find him on Twitter @Conorpwilliams. The views expressed here are his alone.

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Source: Ny Daily News

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