American exceptionalism asserts a unique history and destiny for this nation. It is usually based on a story with divine overtones, a narrative which arcs toward freedom and justice. In this story, God in his providence founded the United States to lead the world into civil and religious liberty. American exceptionalism, in other words, is first and foremost collective history.
America First, in contrast, has little interest in history. Instead, it offers a national philosophy. It claims that all countries are essentially alike, including the United States, and all share the same fundamental goal: to win.
Both forms of rhetoric have their own particular hazards. The idea that our country has a distinct history and unique purpose has always implied both a higher morality to guide us and a sense of God’s election. And a belief in special election, for nations at least, can be quite dangerous. John O’Sullivan, who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” declared that the United States would “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world … has America been chosen.”
That mission, expressed in Manifest Destiny, involved a brutal confiscation of land, an unwillingness or inability to recognize the civilization, culture, or contributions of other peoples, and an extension of American interests frequently dressed up in the guise of being good for all the world. If we call or consider our nation the special messenger of God, we are not likely to be found listening to, or learning from, others.
The hazards of America First, in contrast, come not from a sense of divine election, but from a worldview based in the utter absence of any higher moral good. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest, where winners make losers and losers have no claim to sympathy. The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind.
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