I’ve spent a considerable amount of time wondering why Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States. This is not the kind of “why” that is actually asking “how.” I’m not contemplating what did or didn’t get said by the Trump Camp or the Clinton Camp to Rust Belt workers or West Virginia coal miners or disillusioned Bernie-or-Busters.
No, this is a true why. If every development in life has meaning (and I believe it does), then what is the meaning here? If every event has purpose (and I believe it does), then what is the purpose now? In other words, why?
I believe there are probably scads of answers to the why, maybe one for each of us. I may have landed on one that works for me, though.
There is a concept called “American Exceptionalism.” It is the belief that America’s history (including her world-changing Revolution) and democracy (which the rest of the world needs, of course) place this nation in a superior position. It is the belief that the United States is truly exceptional, truly better than the rest of the world. This belief is so widely held in political circles that President Obama was “accused” by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal of not adhering to it, a claim that might be considered “fightin’ words” to many on Capitol Hill.
This sense of American Exceptionalism oozes from the pores of our society. We see it in the cocky strut of an NFL player scoring a touchdown. We hear it in the chants of “USA! USA! USA!” at the Olympics. Any teacher can vouch for the unearned level of confidence displayed by a student population that ranks unremarkably in the middle of the worldwide pack in science and math.
The truth is we’re not exceptional. This is especially true for those, like me, who believe in the unity and equality of all humanity. Yes, we had a remarkable Revolution and established an early model of modern democracy. I know how profound all of that was; I teach it on a fairly regular basis. But we didn’t invent democracy, the Greeks did. And we didn’t win a revolution on our own; the French helped considerably, as did others. And in the midst of lofty ideas of civil liberties were the more base motivators of taxes, trade, and economy.
No, we’re not exceptional. We’re another link in a long chain of human evolution. We have some truly admirable qualities; we also have many that are not.
In 1630, John Winthrop preached a sermon to Puritans on board the Arbella. The sermon was called “A Model of Christian Charity,” and in it he referred to the society they would form in the New World as “a city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but since Winthrop, it has been synonymous with first the colonies and then the nation. The concept maintains that this “city upon a hill” is a model for the world. It was not merely a 17th century idea. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and, yes, Barack Obama all made references to it during various speeches.
And that brings us back to Donald Trump. During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Mitt Romney made this statement about Trump: “His domestic policies would lead to recession; his foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgement to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
And there’s my why. We’ve thought we were hot shit quite long enough. We’re not. We sometimes make terrible mistakes. If we can manage some humility, we might learn something through this. At the very least, we can finally put down that heavy mantle of greatness we’ve lugged around for so long.