America was settled, founded and built by people who believed they were doing something exceptional. Other nations were defined by their history, but America was defined by its future, by the people who weren’t yet here and by the greatness that hadn’t yet been achieved.
American founders like Alexander Hamilton were aware that once the vast continent was settled the United States would be one of the dominant powers of the globe. There was also a religious eschatology – a belief, dating back to the Puritans, that God’s plans for humanity would be completed on this continent, that America would be the “last best hope of Earth,” as Lincoln put it.
Herman Melville summarized this version of American exceptionalism in his novel “White Jacket”: “The future is endowed with such a life that it lives to us even in anticipation. … The future [is] the Bible of the free. … God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls.”
Today there are some conservative commentators and Republican politicians who talk a lot about American exceptionalism. But when they use the phrase they mean the exact opposite of its original meaning. In fact, they are effectively destroying American exceptionalism.
These commentators and candidates look backward to an America that is being lost. Ann Coulter encapsulated this attitude perfectly in her latest book title, “Adios, America.” This is the philosophy of the receding roar, the mourning for an America that once was and is now being destroyed by foreign people and ideas.
Out of this backward- and inward-looking mentality comes a desire to exclude. Donald Trump talks falsely and harshly about Hispanic immigrants. Ben Carson says he couldn’t advocate putting “a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
During George W. Bush’s first term there wasn’t much difference between how Democrats and Republicans viewed the overall immigration levels. Republicans were about eight percentage points more likely to be dissatisfied with the contemporary immigration flows. But now the gap is an astounding 40 percentage points. Eighty-four percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats are dissatisfied with the current immigration level, according to Gallup surveys.
As Peter Wehner, a longtime conservative writer who served in the Bush administration, wrote in the magazine Commentary: “The message being sent to voters is this: The Republican Party is led by people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the changing (and inevitable) demographic nature of our nation. The GOP is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future. It is a party that is characterized by resentments and grievances, by distress and dismay, by the belief that America is irredeemably corrupt and past the point of no return. ‘The American dream is dead,’ in the emphatic words of Mr. Trump.”
It’s not exactly breaking news that this is ruinous to the long-term political prospects of the party. In his book “2016 and Beyond,” the veteran pollster Whit Ayres, now working for Marco Rubio, points out that given the composition of the electorate, if the Republican candidate won the same 59 percent share of the white vote that Mitt Romney won in 2012, he would have to win 30 percent of the nonwhite vote to get a majority. That’s a daunting number, given that, as Dan Balz of The Washington Post points out, Romney only won 17 percent of that vote.
But it’s also bad for the spirit of conservatism. American conservatism has always been different from the conservatism found on continental Europe and elsewhere. There it was based on blood and soil, here on promise.
American free market and religious conservatives have traditionally embraced a style of nationalism that is hopeful and future minded. From Lincoln to Reagan to Bush, the market has been embraced for being dynamic and progressive. The major faiths uplift in part because they are eschatological – they look forward to a glorious future. They preach an ethos of generosity and welcome. As the researcher Benjamin Knoll has found, religious parishioners of all political stripes are more likely to support more open immigration policies than others.
But this hopeful nationalism is being supplanted in the Republican Party by an anguished cry for a receding America.
This pessimism isn’t justified by the facts. As a definitive report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently found, today’s immigrants are assimilating as fast as previous ones. They are learning English. They are healthier than native-born Americans. Immigrant men age 18 to 39 are incarcerated at roughly one-fourth the rate of American men.
Instead the pessimism grows from a sour, overgeneralized and intellectually sloppy sense of alienation. It is one thing to think Democratic policies are wrong. It is another to betray the essential American faith and take a reactionary attitude toward life. This is an attitude that sours the tongue, offends the eye and freezes the heart.