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'America First' and the Coronavirus

Historians in the News
tags: politics, Donald Trump, historian, coronavirus



The United States now has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world, and within ten days will likely have more total deaths from the disease than any other country. A map of the United States showing that many states and regions were, as late as March 27, still failing to adhere to general guidelines of social distancing to “flatten the curve” of the virus is a national disgrace. To be sure, some other countries’ official tallies naturally invite skepticism—does anyone believe the figures China has reported?—but even discounting the statistics from authoritarian regimes and failed states, the United States is at the vanguard of the industrialized world in coronavirus infections. This is a dubious form of American exceptionalism—one intimately related to having a president of the United States who plainly never understood, and proclaims never to have believed in, the concept.

American exceptionalism is often misunderstood (by its defenders and detractors alike) to be a boast, and in some contexts, it certainly is. But it’s also a matter of political theory. In his meticulous investigation of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the young republic was qualitatively different from countries in the Old World. The concept of America’s exceptionalism later came to prominence as a pointed question, as European Marxists began to ask in the early twentieth century: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” According to Marxist ideology, the United States—a nation born of the Enlightenment and an advanced capitalist state—was ideally positioned to carry the cause of emancipation for the working class. It must be counted a supreme irony of history that this was precisely Karl Marx’s expectation. And yet, the United States disappointed them, standing athwart the Western march of social democracy.

In time, this exceptionalism acquired more benign connotations, ranging from a special economic dynamism powered by laissez-faire individualism to impressive social cohesion for a nation of immigrants. Close observers of the American experiment, including Seymour Martin Lipset, noted the concept was a “double-edged sword,” expressing both the burdens and benefits of America’s national attachment to both liberty and human equality. Among the many qualities, good and bad, that distinguished America’s character and conduct was an appreciation of and a commitment to liberal democracy at home and liberal order abroad.

When, after the Second World War, the United States had reached the apex of world power, it swiftly put its unrivaled might and immense wealth in service of a global system that would generate prosperity and peace for a vast swath of humanity. This international liberal order, undergirded by American strength and activism, was not some quixotic attempt to impose democracy on the good shepherds of Tibet, as Henry Luce phrased it. But it was undoubtedly premised on an broad conception of self-interest. U.S. postwar leaders hoped to establish what is sometimes called an “empire of trust” that would produce a more cooperative––and therefore more stable and bountiful––order than could be achieved in a world of states squabbling over their own immediate advantage.

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