In the weeks after January 6, an array of publications declared American exceptionalism dead, or nearly so. “American Exceptionalism on the Line,” warned Bloomberg. “The End of the Road for American Exceptionalism,” said the Washington Post. Even Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations — once wellsprings to the cause of American exceptionalism — urged readers of Foreign Affairs to “put an end to the notion of American exceptionalism, of an eternal shining city on a hill.”
As usual, though, it seemed the only way to declare American exceptionalism dead was to use the rhetoric of American exceptionalism: shining city on the hill, beacon of democracy, defender of the free world, something about World War II. On Twitter and television, we heard things like: “This doesn’t look like America,” “This isn’t the America I recognize,” “Is this America?” Others were more direct. Marco Rubio declared that the Capitol riot looked like a third-world country. George W. Bush likened it to a banana republic. Seeing the area locked down and under military occupation, journalists began recalling Baghdad, Kabul, Benghazi, Syria.
What did it mean that even after the financial crisis and rising inequality, after the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror, after four years of Trump and the Black Lives Matter protests, it was still so necessary for Americans to believe that their country was so different from, so much better than, all others? Wasn’t this resilient belief in the country a form of supremacy in and of itself? In the past few years, Americans have been engaged in a deep reconsideration of their racist history, their damaging myths and gauzy national narratives. But to a large degree, that project of interrogation has been a domestic one, eliding the extent to which some myths, perpetuated by conservatives and liberals alike, have been constructed by America’s attitude toward the rest of the world.
The period after World War II was an era of extreme mythmaking, often in ways now invisible to the average person. The idea of American goodness, superiority, and dominance was baked into academic programs, corporations, architecture, literary journals, and films, as well as in the realm of foreign policy. American policy-makers, seeking to distinguish themselves from European colonialists, conceived of the U.S. as a country every other country could aspire to. They believed anyone could be American, especially if equipped with advisers, corporations, and military regimes that forced the American way of life on their people. (As a soldier barks in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket: “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every g**k there is an American trying to get out.”) This worldview had another effect, too: It necessitated that all other countries were defined by what they lacked, by their failures and weaknesses, and ensured the U.S.’s supremacy within a new world system.
These ideas — some of which were known as modernization theory — were discredited long ago in academic circles. Then the U.S. endured defeat and humiliation on the world stage, particularly in Vietnam and Iran. Around this time, American exceptionalism was also declared dead. In his essay “The End of American Exceptionalism,” the sociologist Daniel Bell somberly wrote, “Today, the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future.” That was 1975.
It turned out Bell was being optimistic. The rhetoric of modernization theory and American exceptionalism would return with Reagan, but most destructively with September 11, the invasion of Iraq, and the War on Terror. George W. Bush sought to modernize the Middle East, to bring the Arab people “freedom,” and people from all political backgrounds signed up for this project, enthralled and comforted by the return of their favorite patriotic myth. It was all too easy for exceptionalism to return because it is Americans’ primary way of understanding the world, their country, and themselves. There’s no reason to think that, after January 6, it won’t return again.
The Biden administration has taken steps to undo some of the damage of the War on Terror, but there has been little mention of a reckoning with the ideas that brought it about, or the very real consequences that exist to this day, which, in addition to the death or bondage of thousands of people and the destruction of entire nations, includes the militarization of our own police and the radicalization of our own soldiers — two groups prominently represented among the Capitol rioters. The furious violence we saw on January 6 was a legacy of domestic racial oppression, but also a metastatic outgrowth of the easy violence the U.S. deploys abroad.
A passage in James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street grasps the enormity of the task for an ailing American empire. Baldwin was writing of living in France when Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh. He notices that on the street the Parisian police became more oppressive, “more snide and vindictive,” toward people who had nothing to do with France’s loss of Vietnam: the Algerians. He writes:
This puzzled me at first, but it shouldn’t have. This is the way people react to the loss of empire — for the loss of an empire also implies a radical revision of the individual identity — and I was to see this over and over again, not only in France … The challenged authority, unable to justify itself and not dreaming indeed of even attempting to do so, simply increased its force.
Baldwin’s “radical revision of the individual identity” presents a particular problem for Americans for whom the vast complexity of the empire is rarely acknowledged, and for whom the connection between empire and the individual would have to be made in the first place. What American thinks they have been formed in any way by such a thing? As American power continues to decline, they will have to grapple with what that absence means for their ideas of themselves: their superiority, their strength, their goodness, their self-esteem. They would have to invent a new source of meaning for their lives. That goes for those who attacked the Capitol, and those who tried to make sense of it by invoking the U.S.’s superiority to the rest of the world.
All of it suggests a need not only for a new domestic narrative but also a mythless international one. There are so many delusions to dispel, so many reflexes to counter. But if younger, more diverse generations of writers, thinkers, politicians, and activists — those for whom the Cold War is a distant memory and the War on Terror a catastrophic failure — continue to be given space in political and literary life, we may be finally freed from this prison of American exceptionalist rhetoric, in which the premise that we are no longer exceptional is still based on the myth that we ever were.
Americans might also seek knowledge from those who observe us from afar, and who have been forced to know us so intimately on their own soils: foreigners. What did they see that day? I can only say what happened to me after living abroad for a decade and watching America from a distance, that I saw far less difference between left and right in America, and much more of what both sides had in common: their shared Americanness. Because, to the rest of the world, it is both those who attacked the temple of democracy while proclaiming America’s greatness, and those who sit inside it, having benefited from a century of military and economic might, whose flaws and mediocrities have been sustained and amplified because of that unprecedented power.