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Progressives Doubted American Exceptionalism Long Before Trump

Those who say Trump has destroyed American global leadership never wanted American global leadership in the first place.


In June of 2012, “The Newsroom” written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing” aired on HBO. In a famous scene, Jeff Daniels, playing the lead character, is asked by a student at a panel discussion why America is the greatest country on Earth. At one point during the rambling monologue he turns to his interlocutor and says:

“And yeah, you… sorority girl. Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is: there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”

Throughout his presidency but especially in recent weeks during the coronavirus pandemic, progressives have decried that America is losing its standing in the world. But did they ever really think America deserved much standing? Did they even think that a planet led by American power was a good thing? If so, the last 20 years do not provide many examples.

To be sure, the left flaunted the popularity of Barack Obama around the globe, but it’s easy to be popular when you spend most of your time apologizing and offering to pay for everything. Trump may be less popular in foreign lands because he left the Paris Accord and the Iran Deal, but neither of those were examples of American leadership. In fact both are rather strong examples of the United States “leading from behind.”

In a rather terrified and hysterical article by Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic, she bemoans that China is winning the messaging war and snatching global power from America. She writes:

…when Trump seeks to lead the world against China, who will follow? Italy might refuse outright. The European Union could demur. America’s close friends in Asia might feel nervous, and delay making decisions. Africans who are furious about racism in China—African students have been the focus of heavy discrimination in the city of Guangzhou—might well do a quick calculation and seek good relations with both sides.

First of all this is an awful lot of maybes, but there’s something much more important going on. It turns out that this deep worry that we are incapable of global leadership is nothing new to Applebaum. In 2013, five years into the Obama administration she wrote this in the Washington Post about a potential Cold War with Russia and China. “We are intellectually, economically and militarily unprepared to contemplate Great Power conflict, let alone engage in the hard work of renewing alliances and sharpening strategy.”

So this really isn’t about Donald Trump. And speaking of Donald Trump, his actions towards China have been considerably more aggressive than his predecessor. He angered the communists by scrapping the Trans Pacific Partnership, imposed harsh tariffs on China, and eventually brought them into phase one of a new trade deal more beneficial to the United States.

For progressives, American leadership rarely ever really means American leadership, it means writing the United Nations a blank check and hoping for the best. It means footing the bill and protecting the world while handing decision-making over to unelected international bodies. That’s not leadership, its capitulation. It is exactly the policy that both Trump voters in America and Brexit voters in the United Kingdom rejected.

If you look at the American political landscape the far left think capitalism, hence America itself is inherently bad. More moderate Democrats have for decades sought to diminish American power in favor of global cooperation. The only cohort of Trump loathers who might have some claim to prior belief in American exceptionalism are the “conservative” Never Trumpers. But they have long since chosen to hand power to American apologists because Orange Man Bad.

The best thing to do when those on the left bemoan the demise of American global leadership under Trump is to remind them that they never actually wanted American leadership anyway. If they did, they would have supported moving our embassy to Jerusalem, or unilaterally attacking Iran in response to their aggression, or cutting funding to a World Health Organization that has proved itself to be a sock puppet for the Chinese Communist Party.

The Left is not upset because Trump has diminished American power across the globe; they are upset because he has had the courage to assert it.