There are two traditional prerequisites for candidates for the presidency: They must wear a flag pin on their lapels, and they must believe in “American Exceptionalism” – the idea that the United States is unique among nations and that it has a manifest destiny to transform the world.

American exceptionalism used to lie in the country’s striving, however imperfectly, to model certain ideals for the community of nations, specifically, the democratic principles of free speech, free press and power broadly distributed among the citizenry. So what does one make of the United States today, where President Trump assiduously labors to re-define American exceptionalism in darkly opposite terms?

Take, for example, the routing of peaceful protesters with military force, as happened this past June in Lafayette Square outside the White House. Who, observing us from abroad, would believe that such an action reflects any respect for the principle of free speech? I was not able to distinguish the government’s action from scenes of thuggery in tinhorn dictatorships, where freedom of expression is the exclusive purview of government and citizens dare not speak out for fear of reprisal.

Another aspect of the First Amendment is freedom of the press. The media, long regarded as “The Fourth Estate,” is a critical check on information dispensed by a government seeking to cast itself in the best of lights. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” In short, America’s free press used to be a facet of its exceptionalism; but now, in Trump’s words, it has become “the enemy of the people,” a sentiment that garners thunderous applause from his devotees.

I think that, of all Donald Trump’s utterances, the one that most thoroughly shivered my timbers was his remarking in July, in a speech at Turning Point USA’s Teen Student Action Summit, that the Constitution says he can, as president, do anything he wants. I immediately thought of what Mark Twain said about such arrogance: that a government’s function is to obey orders, not originate them. Again, I stand in awe of those Trump supporters who cheer as our form of government – for which the military of their adulation fought and died – is systematically dismantled and the president declares that his image should be chiseled into Mount Rushmore.

All of this has led to the creation of a truly exceptional country, but exceptional in the sense that, under this president, it is doing great damage to not only itself, but to other countries as well, sundering productive alliances and alienating loyal allies. If the United States were a thumbnail-sized backwater with limited resources, it would be no more than a regional oddity. But it’s not a minor tyranny; it’s a behemoth with an angry leader whose primary impulse seems to be to do as much harm as possible while his followers luxuriate in the destruction. It is a riot mentality, which can lead only to ochlocracy – mob rule. It is the inevitable outcome of blind belief in assumed unlimited authority.

When I was in the Navy my ship often crossed paths with Soviet vessels. I recall remarking at the sophistication of those craft, and how they outclassed the ships in my squadron. It wasn’t until years later, when I visited Russia, that I saw the country for what it actually was at the time: a vast, unsettled, chaotic place with widespread poverty. In short, it was a Third World country with a First World military.

I see something similar in America today. We are indeed exceptional in that we are becoming, well, not yet a Third World country, but certainly a Second World nation. With a First World military. And a fourth-rate leader.

I can think of no more dangerous combination.


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