Segment from City Upon a Hill

We Are Number One

BackStory talks about the ways American “exceptionalism” shows up in modern politics, from Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

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BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: Earlier this month, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. He used the speech to tout his Administration’s various accomplishments. But he also gave a shout-out to the American people.

BARACK OBAMA: Our unique strengths as a nation—our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law—these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come. <optional: In fact, it’s in that spirit that we have made the progress these past seven years.>

BRIAN: In the official Republican response, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also sang the country’s praises. She called America “the last, best hope on earth.”

NIKKI HALEY: Our forefathers paved the way for us. Let’s take their values, and their strengths, and rededicate ourselves to doing whatever it takes to keep America the greatest country in the history of man. And woman.

BRIAN: Haley and Obama’s upbeat tone stood in stark contrast to the rhetoric from the Republican presidential candidates. In their campaign speeches Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—among others—have argued that America’s greatest days are in the past.

JEB BUSH: Our friends no longer think we have their back, and our enemies no longer fear us.

TED CRUZ: President Obama is not protecting American workers and we are getting hammered.

DONALD TRUMP Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people, and yes I am angry.

BRIAN: But between the lines there is a promise that those candidates can restore the country’s preeminence. Donald Trump claims he can “Make America Great Again.” In fact, that’s his official campaign slogan.

TRUMP: And we’ll do it. We will make America great again, I promise.

OR: If I’m president, there won’t be stupid deals anymore. We will make America great again. We will win on everything we do.

BRIAN: Plenty of American politicians have used this kind of language before. Citing America’s greatness has become as standard as kissing babies and wearing a flag pin. It’s as American as apple pie. We’re special. Unique. In a word…Exceptional. Just listen to this cable news exchange from a few years back parsing this very same language.

MALE SPEAKER: Are we exceptional?

MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, we’re exceptional.


MALE SPEAKER: The truth of the matter is—I mean, we defeated fascism and communism in a single century. That’s pretty exceptional.

PETER: This whole issue raises one pretty basic question. What is American exceptionalism? Until a few years ago, that phrase, if not the sentiment behind it, was mostly confined to academic circles. Microsoft Word still doesn’t recognize exceptionalism as a properly spelled word. But whether or not we can spell it or define it, it’s clearly part of this country’s political culture.