The United States now has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world, and within ten days will likely have more total deaths from the disease than any other country. A map of the United States showing that many states and regions were, as late as March 27, still failing to adhere to general guidelines of social distancing to “flatten the curve” of the virus is a national disgrace. To be sure, some other countries’ official tallies naturally invite skepticism—does anyone believe the figures China has reported?—but even discounting the statistics from authoritarian regimes and failed states, the United States is at the vanguard of the industrialized world in coronavirus infections. This is a dubious form of American exceptionalism—one intimately related to having a president of the United States who plainly never understood, and proclaims never to have believed in, the concept.
American exceptionalism is often misunderstood (by its defenders and detractors alike) to be a boast, and in some contexts, it certainly is. But it’s also a matter of political theory. In his meticulous investigation of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the young republic was qualitatively different from countries in the Old World. The concept of America’s exceptionalism later came to prominence as a pointed question, as European Marxists began to ask in the early twentieth century: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” According to Marxist ideology, the United States—a nation born of the Enlightenment and an advanced capitalist state—was ideally positioned to carry the cause of emancipation for the working class. It must be counted a supreme irony of history that this was precisely Karl Marx’s expectation. And yet, the United States disappointed them, standing athwart the Western march of social democracy.
In time, this exceptionalism acquired more benign connotations, ranging from a special economic dynamism powered by laissez-faire individualism to impressive social cohesion for a nation of immigrants. Close observers of the American experiment, including Seymour Martin Lipset, noted the concept was a “double-edged sword,” expressing both the burdens and benefits of America’s national attachment to both liberty and human equality. Among the many qualities, good and bad, that distinguished America’s character and conduct was an appreciation of and a commitment to liberal democracy at home and liberal order abroad.
When, after the Second World War, the United States had reached the apex of world power, it swiftly put its unrivaled might and immense wealth in service of a global system that would generate prosperity and peace for a vast swath of humanity. This international liberal order, undergirded by American strength and activism, was not some quixotic attempt to impose democracy on the good shepherds of Tibet, as Henry Luce phrased it. But it was undoubtedly premised on an broad conception of self-interest. U.S. postwar leaders hoped to establish what is sometimes called an “empire of trust” that would produce a more cooperative––and therefore more stable and bountiful––order than could be achieved in a world of states squabbling over their own immediate advantage.
It was this magnanimous mission that Donald Trump has repudiated in word and deed. Despite assurances from his less deranged supporters at the beginning of his term, President Trump never accepted America’s responsibility for world order. His intuitive sense about foreign affairs (and much else besides) is fundamentally Darwinian, and he believes that America can be strong and powerful only when it is alone, not tied to the rest of the world through webs of mutual dependency and responsibility. He rejects U.S. world leadership, preferring to restore a time when America was just a nation among nations. (Such nostalgia rests more on myth than reality: Since its inception, America had been an imperial republic with an outsized role in history by dint of its ideology even before it attained great power. If it ever ceases to be that, America will cease to be itself.)
And so Trump has been undermining the pillars of the American order from the outset. He abruptly withdrew from important treaties, ranging from the flawed to the first-rate––any of which would have profited more from deft diplomacy than Trump’s brutal bombast. He launched devastating trade wars against friend and foe alike––and, worse, evinced deep confusion about which was which. At his first NATO summit, he described the alliance that helped keep the long peace in Europe and beyond as a burden to the United States and willfully frittered away its deterrent force in the face of a resurgent Russia. He betrayed pledged allies under lethal threat, from Ukraine to Kurdistan, and signaled to other partners, from Montenegro to South Korea, that they were not fit for American protection. The American president had abdicated the responsibility to lead.
One might have suspected that the Trump administration, if it could have been pried from its general fecklessness and corruption, would have been well suited for a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. After all, the president is warily antagonistic toward China, and fond of travel bans. His political rhetoric is congested with talk of “bad people” in the foreign world who could hurt America. He is even famously germophobic.
The initial decision to forbid foreign nationals from entering the United States if they had recently traveled to China offended some cosmopolitan tastes, but it was a sensible precaution. Alas, since the Wuhan disclosure, 430,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after Trump imposed restrictions on such travel. But in addition to late controls, there was no unified response from the federal government––let alone collaborating with trusted partners abroad––while the president himself fanned a conspiracy that alarm about the virus was a partisan “hoax” meant to undercut his re-election.
For the same reason that Trump has failed to recognize the benefits that have flowed from internationalism, free trade, and alliances, he could hardly be expected to grasp the “dark side” of globalization that would fester in the absence of American leadership. Among the prudent and informed, there could be no doubt that as the world grows more interconnected, the United States and the civilized world find themselves increasingly imperiled by a host of unusual and asymmetrical threats. Among these were the endemic corruption and dysfunction of states in the developing world that help produce financial crises, or violent ideologies ready for export, or whose feeble militaries lack the capacity to secure loose nuclear materials, or even whose inadequate health systems permit global outbreaks of disease. The fact that some of these regimes were not failed states but potent authoritarian regimes hostile to the overarching liberal order was even more disconcerting.
As technology defeated distance in the age of globalization, immense wealth has accumulated and threats have rapidly migrated from one point of the globe to another. The Trump faction––and that of populist nationalism writ large––believes this reality shows the need for Fortress America: isolation and international predation. This program of beggar-thy-neighbor economics and political unilateralism will of course lead to a shipwreck for globalization and the reversion to an international arena of chaos and conflict––precisely the breakdown of global order that occurred when America last promised not to stick its neck out for anyone. Once upon a time, some pretended that Trump’s pledge of “America first” did not mean “America alone.” After this crisis, that conceit will ring more hollow than ever. America first will inexorably mean America last.
This impoverished understanding of the American interest should not be confused with an elevated patriotism. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the 2015 bestseller Sapiens, wrote perhaps the first viral article about the necessity of a global response to a global pandemic. This is a familiar theme of his work, and the article brims with important insights that still seem out of reach for too many world leaders who seem content to rely only on narrowly national resources and national expertise. However compelling Harari’s analysis, though, it gets some elementary things wrong. Harari asserts that the Trump administration “has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity.”
Unfortunately, the truth is far more sinister. It’s perfectly obvious that Trump cares about neither American greatness nor the welfare of humanity. Hariri does not bother to explain how exactly Trump’s malign incompetence in the face of this pandemic––including weeks of obsequious praise for the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to contain the coronavirus, or empty hype about the market, or wishing ill on a sitting U.S. senator––emanates from any deep emotional connection to the nation. Nor does Harari explicate how Trump’s response to the pandemic serves the cause of American greatness. This false antithesis simultaneously gives too much credit to an inveterate hustler with no higher aims than plunder and corruption while insinuating that global cooperation is somehow possible without American leadership. Those who show more passion for protecting the global commons than for protecting American greatness must recognize that, ultimately, they are one and the same.
American exceptionalism is not the problem in this crisis. It is a potential solution that does not involve outbidding partners and allies to acquire protective masks from the Far East. Instead, it would involve developing and executing a coordinated global response to a lethal global challenge. It would draw on a multiplicity of problem-solvers throughout the world to tame the spread of the virus while bringing the lights of science to bear on discovering a vaccine. What we know for a certainty is that this form of American exceptionalism has gone dormant, and we will await its restoration from a less shabby administration.