The rhetoric of American exceptionalism usually makes me a little uncomfortable. Bragging is unseemly, and generally boasters have trouble getting along with others. President Ronald Reagan called America a “shining city upon a hill,” but a cynic might note that there are other cities on other hills and that the world might not accept that America is the absolute high-water mark of civilization. And it’s only a short walk from a little too much national pride to hubris.
But, really, Reagan was right in significant ways. I’ve been reading biographies of the founders lately — Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and so on — and I recommend them as a reminder of what a remarkable country we have.
The founders had their flaws. Many were slaveholders and Indian killers, and they set up a nation focused on the privileges of white men of property. After more than two centuries of bloodshed and suffering, we’ve arrived at the current work in progress. Our nation isn’t perfect, but it’s very, very remarkable. And the democratic norms that define us are essential to our survival.
The presidency of Donald Trump is putting those norms to the test. It should make all of us a little queasy when Trump talks casually about “retribution” for “Saturday Night Live” because he doesn’t like their skits. It should make us nervous when he pushes away allies who share American values — freedom, rule of law, tolerance — and embraces oppressive autocrats who rule with fear and, sometimes, murder.
Trump’s most avid supporters contend that he’s not an ordinary politician, that he does things his way. Indeed. But the extent to which he can deviate from the bedrock norms of our democracy is limited. Often he pushes up hard against them, and sometimes he goes over the line.
Here’s what concerns me most: Nothing is more characteristically American than the systematic, peaceful transfer of power in response to the will of the people. No matter what you thought of President Barack Obama, it’s worth noting that he did nothing more presidential — or more American — during his eight years in office than gracefully relinquishing his power to Trump.
It must have been difficult. Trump achieved considerable political mileage by suggesting that Obama wasn’t even an American. Obama knew that Trump would do his best to subvert his legacy, and that Trump would continue to criticize and blame him long after he left the White House. Further, Obama already knew that Russians had been involved in an effort to help elect Trump.
But I can’t think of a more emblematic image of American democracy than the scene on Jan. 20, 2017, when a limousine delivered Donald and Melania Trump to the doors of the White House, and Barack and Michelle Obama graciously welcomed them inside.
It’s difficult to imagine President Trump being equally gracious. Well, we can live with rudeness. But Trump has already taken steps to undermine the 2020 election by saying last week that the Democrats “cannot legitimately win.” Trump gets a lot of praise from his supporters for saying what he means and doing what he says. Does this mean that he’s going to contend that a Democratic win in 2020 is illegitimate?
I give comedian Bill Maher credit for being the first to suggest, at least a year ago, that if Trump isn’t re-elected, he will not leave office peacefully. As recently as his last show, he was having trouble getting his guests — from the left and the right — to take that concern seriously.
Not give up power peacefully? Outrageous.
But during his two-hour speech at CPAC last week Trump asserted that “Democrats hate America.” He was cheered wildly. Can we be certain that Trump won’t call on his deeply committed and well-armed supporters to take to the streets to overturn an illegitimate “victory” by America-haters?
We hope that all Americans understand that the concept of America transcends Trump. But he has been planting the seeds of division for more than two years, and he’s found fertile ground. It is a mistake not to take this seriously.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.