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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

The ideals of America are exceptional

Students in New York City planned to protest

Students in New York City planned to protest President Donald Trump's ban on refugees and immigrants on Feb. 7, 2017. Above, demonstrators protest the ban at Kennedy Airport on Jan. 28, 2017. Credit: Steven Sunshine

A quick look through what journalists have written in the past two years about Donald Trump shows why they know the United States is better than Vladimir Putin’s Russia: If, as Russian journalists, we had written about Putin in the same way many of us have about Trump, there’s a chance some of us would be dead.

The United States is far from perfect, but comparing it to Russia is ignorant. And when the comparison is made by a U.S. president who at times seems to idolize Putin, it’s scary.

On Sunday, Trump was pressed by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on positive statements he’s made about Putin. Trump said “I do respect him.” O’Reilly responded with “But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer,” and Trump said: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

But Trump’s election win came about largely because he preached an unusually virulent American exceptionalism. It struck a tremendous chord with the kind of voters who enjoy chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” often for no clear reason.

Some journalists hit him for arguing that the United States was so much more important and special than other nations and should always have its way. Now they are hitting Trump because he’s asserting America is no better than Putin’s Russia.

Trump needs to understand what is exceptional about the United States, and what isn’t.

As Trump said, our country isn’t so “innocent.” No nation is. Believing that your nation is the good country, full of good people, and other nations are bad countries full of bad people is the most dangerous form of nationalism. The United States has enslaved and subjugated millions of people, toppled governments, participated in the killing of leaders, started ineffective and pointless wars and generally been imperfect. It’s good to face this honestly.

But the United States — almost unique in its purposeful founding as a land where people could be free and self-ruled and have such noble rights and dignities — is indeed exceptional. It’s exceptional in its aspirations. Often, even its mistakes are made with noble intentions.

North Vietnam really was a despicable regime, and Communism really is a horrifying system. Failing in our attempt to aid those people doesn’t mean they didn’t need the help. The invasion of Iraq after 9/11 was a terrible mistake that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. However, George W. Bush truly did want to save people from Saddam Hussein and give them democracy.

We don’t kill our journalists or our dissidents, or invade nations strictly for money and power, as Putin has done in Ukraine. We are a nation that had slavery, but also one that abolished it. We are a nation that subjugated women by law, but also one that changed those laws. We are a nation where opponents of the government have the same rights as supporters.

And we are a nation that has helped other people with food, shelter and medicine, again and again, simply because it is right.

The people of the United States are not more important than the people of other nations. We do not have some right, as Trump asserts, to always have our way and force other countries to toe our line.

But we are, in our ideals and our history and the conduct of our leaders, far better than Russia and Putin. That our current leader doesn’t understand what is special about our nation, or how our leaders are and must be different from Putin, is deeply disturbing.

There is a dream that is America. Few other nations can match the valor of that dream. We do not always live up to it, but we should always strive to. It is what makes us exceptional.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.