We are not exceptional. The myth of American Exceptionalism has to go. It’s existed as the basis of a xenophobic and racist foreign policy for decades, replacing naked white supremacy. Meritocracy, itself an offshoot of American Exceptionalism, kept them alive domestically. Today, American Exceptionalism still exists to allow a foreign policy based on might makes right, and the belief that the interests of “American business” are equal to being the interests of the people in the nation, but it’s now serving another purpose domestically.
It’s now the foundation of the most pervasive threat to the well being of the people who live in and make up The United States. The argument that Trump and the various henchmen that enable him are the most important threat we face is one that itself is based on the belief of American Exceptionalism. The constantly repeated idea that Trump is the fount of danger, by everyone from the center right to a good deal of the left looks right beyond the problem chewing at the legs of the chairs they’re sitting in.
It is the belief that somehow, America, The United States, is just fundamentally different, that as a people, we are somehow fundamentally, by virtue of our existence, more than any other people who do exist or have ever existed. It’s a belief that there is an innate goodness, that though we have made some terrible mistakes in the past, we are, as a nation and as a people fundamentally, irrevocably virtuous in a way that places us above. For those of some religious backgrounds, it extends to believing quite literally that we are a land and a people chosen by a God.
There’s ample historical evidence to suggest that this is all bullshit. Individually, the people of the United States do tend to be decent, generous and no less honest than people in any other place in the world. As a collective political and social entity, we are also not at all unique in that having reached a place of economic and political power that power was used for exploitation, deadly opportunism and greed.
Anyone with even a passing understanding of US foreign policy and interference in South America and/or the Middle East alone can explain it. There are many years of research and writing decrying American Exceptionalism as a weapon of xenophobia, racism, classicism, ableism and the like. Scholars and academics have viewed it through the lenses of colonialism, racism, sexism etc. Their diagnosis is now proving true, as we watch it being employed by ultra-nationalists and the “moderate right wing” that is being revealed as no different from what was not long ago considered the “far right wing.”
The historic record is important, but it’s not necessary to go through in detail now. What is important now, is to understand that this sense of Exceptionalism has been the foundation of our current domestic crisis. This domestic crisis doesn’t just threaten us, but necessarily threatens the safety of billions of other people in many other countries, specifically because that history, and now as well, because of the catastrophe of climate change that looms on the near horizon.
What we’re facing is the ascendancy of fascism. It takes no more than stepping back to look at the last few years of its development to see it clearly. It’s there. It’s clear, and it’s not even attempting to hide anymore. All that’s necessary to be able to see it is to not be terrified of recognizing it.
Yet, in our political leaders and the overwhelming majority of the press, we refuse to call it what it is. We won’t give it the name it has rightfully earned. We’ll argue the finer details of whether or not it meets the exact same historic blueprints of fascism. We’ll argue whether or not fascism is even a perspective that deserves genuine consideration in the “public debate,” while this ascending fascist movement recruits through our misunderstanding of their interest in public debate. We’ll argue about what level or particular degree of xenophobia, nationalism and racism have to be present to properly call it fascism. We’ll argue all around the many excuses we have for why we don’t want to call it what it is, in order to avoid just calling it what it is. We’ll argue about the dictionary definition, and ignore the simile it’s expressing itself through in accordance with modern norms and methods of communicating.
We refuse to properly call this far right exertion into our politics and our society fascism, and recognize it’s genuine ascendancy because we can not allow ourselves to believe it can happen here. We are, after all, Exceptional. Where American Exceptionalism is one of the primary drivers of fascist identification on the right, it’s the primary enabler of fascist ascendancy among even those who do not identify with anything we traditionally consider as right wing in American politics.
The political leadership who it would even most benefit to be able to call this far right movement by its correct name, fascist, refuses to do so. The Democratic Party is still couching their vocabulary in conciliatory, accommodating language. Even the press, who have also been the targets of this fascist movement, refuse to use the word to label what is plainly and openly fascism. It is as if to name it would make it real, when it has been very real now for a few years (in even the most generous interpretation of when the right wing of US politics started to become openly fascist, it extends to before Trump). Naming it doesn’t make it real, because it is real, whether or not you do name it. Gravity doesn’t care what you call it, and a giraffe does not lose it’s spots or become a horse because you call it an unusual, mutant, horse.
Refusing to name it does is allow us to continue believe that we are inherently special, that we could never fall under the spell of authoritarianism, much less it’s most sadistic offspring, fascism. Even many of us who have begun to realize that the far right has fallen under it’s spell, have yet to realize that we too are under it’s spell. We continue to believe that tomorrow will bring the solution. We continue to be desperate to believe that the “right leader” will be able to turn back this rising tide, and at the same time are unable to realize that this idea is, in itself, in service of authoritarianism. We refuse to allow ourselves to believe it can happen here, even when we recognize the pure fantasy among its adherents that it is not fascism when they say, “It’s MAGA!”
American Exceptionalism is bequeathed to us as the promise of a better future. Progress. It’s been treated in our historical education and conversation as the inevitable. We can’t bring ourselves to believe it is not inevitable.
In this disbelief, we rely on the mechanisms, systems, and ideas that brought us here and allowed for this ascension, to protect and save us. Against all good sense, that the masters tools will not undue the masters work, we continue to rely on them.
What we have to understand, critically, and immediately is that American Exceptional fundamentally feeds fascism because it is a promise for tomorrow. Fascism is the promise of a lie you will want to believe tomorrow. Fascism isn’t concerned with the we. It’s openly hostile and dangerous to major portions of what would have to be components of we. Fascism is the promise that tomorrow, it will have the lie you will be desperate to believe. You will want to believe that lie, because we have all spent our lives believing in American Exceptionalism, and the nebulous, vague, better tomorrow it promises.
It’s in this understanding that the far right has been able to lean on American Exceptionalism to push fascism from the fever swamps of the furthest outlying right wing politics and into the halls of power in Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court. Despite the desire of some to believe otherwise, it’s not a Russian far right that has done this, because a Russian far right could never have succeeded in doing so. They can amplify the lies we tell ourselves, but they could never conceive them so well. A Russian far right wouldn’t be able to tell the lies you will want to believe tomorrow, in the correct vocabulary, cadence or accent. It had to be an American far right, because they are Americans too after all, and who better knows the lie you will want to believe tomorrow than your fellow American, born and bred on the milk of American Exceptionalism. Who else is going to tell you these lies in the way that you are most desperately going to want to believe them, but someone who does believe them?
The lie it is telling now is that of compliance and acquiescence. That the expression of dissent toward elected representatives is being conflated with what is now a few years of violent far right gangs in the streets and as of yesterday, attempted bombings, is the stuff of compliance and acquiescence. Never mind that the very Constitution the fascists have used as a cudgel at every opportunity specifically provides for the “freedom of speech”, for the express purpose of criticizing and addressing elected officials of government. It demands compliance in the place, time, method of expression while obscuring the fact that restriction to those places, times and methods is never taken as universal, only for those who care to dissent against fascism. It also conveniently ignores that these restrictions are exactly the room it needed to grow and advance. “You interrupted our burrito dinner, so we sent you a pipe bomb, and if you don’t stop, we’ll do it again,” sounds as absurd as it actually is when you look at it directly, instead of through the smoke and mirrors of other fascist lies.
It is telling the lie that so long as we comply, the violence will end. It’s a lie because even as it promises the violence will end, it promised more violence through the identification of its targets. It says, “The violence will not be for you. After all, if it’s not directed at you, can you be sure it’s really even violence? Even if it is violence, it’s to protect you, and if it’s to protect you, it’s worth it because it can’t really be violence at all. Can it?”
These are the lies we most want to believe, because they’re lies we’ve been telling ourselves for generations already, expanded in context. We can’t have spent the last 40 years using police and courts and jails to institute a racial caste system, because we are Exceptional. It has to be that those people are defective, and we therefore need protection from them, which in turn solidifies that racial caste system. We can’t have been operating under a social structure that protects the perpetrators of sexual violence, because we are Exceptional. Those who are attempting to address the violence of that structure are indeed the threat we must be protected from. They are a “mob” and they are “attacking us” when they strenuously object to this Exceptional quality we possess. The examples could go on and on, and even those of us who believe ourselves immune aren’t. If we are willing, we’ll find the places it has infected us. If any good may come of this fascist ascendance, it may be that we find the motivation to be willing.
It’s this, not the ascendant fascism that is most dangerous to us. The fascism, we can repel. To repel it, we first have to accept that it is in reality fascism, that it is ascendant and that it is going to lead to years of terror and horror that may at first not be focused on you, but is biding its time until it can focus on you.
It’s American Exceptionalism we must face and be done with. We are not special. In the perspective of fascism, you are not special. We are all just as human, just as fallible, just as prone to fears rational or otherwise, that have enabled nations and empires to install authoritarianism and fascism in the past, as well as those who are doing it today.
We are not exceptional. It can happen here. It is happening here. It’s only a matter of time before it’s happening to you. When we accept this, we will stop believing that you will hear the lie you want to believe tomorrow, and begin moving toward a solution that ends the threat that this fascist ascendancy poses to us. We begin to undue the spell of American Exceptionalism by calling the thing we face by its name. Fascism.