In 2016, Donald Trump won the White House with a policy of “America First,” which he quickly made the official position of his administration. Such language can sometimes seem like American exceptionalism, offering an updated version of President Reagan’s “city on a hill,” but it actually offers a radically different vision of the nation’s place and purpose in the world.
American exceptionalism asserts a unique history and destiny for this nation. It is usually based on a story with divine overtones, a narrative which arcs toward freedom and justice. In this story, God in his providence founded the United States to lead the world into civil and religious liberty. American exceptionalism, in other words, is first and foremost collective history.
America First, in contrast, has little interest in history. Instead, it offers a national philosophy. It claims that all countries are essentially alike, including the United States, and all share the same fundamental goal: to win.
Both forms of rhetoric have their own particular hazards. The idea that our country has a distinct history and unique purpose has always implied both a higher morality to guide us and a sense of God’s election. And a belief in special election, for nations at least, can be quite dangerous. John O’Sullivan, who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” declared that the United States would “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world … has America been chosen.”
That mission, expressed in Manifest Destiny, involved a brutal confiscation of land, an unwillingness or inability to recognize the civilization, culture, or contributions of other peoples, and an extension of American interests frequently dressed up in the guise of being good for all the world. If we call or consider our nation the special messenger of God, we are not likely to be found listening to, or learning from, others.
The hazards of America First, in contrast, come not from a sense of divine election, but from a worldview based in the utter absence of any higher moral good. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest, where winners make losers and losers have no claim to sympathy. The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind.
Today, nothing captures the rhetoric of American exceptionalism better than the phrase “city on a hill,” a phrase Donald Trump never uses. President Reagan used this expression the most, and the end of his career summarized what it meant to him. In his 1989 “Farewell Address,” he called on Americans to study history, for “if we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” Then he closed by reflecting on John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, who was “an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man.” According to Reagan, he founded America as a “shining city upon a hill,” and many years later, “she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Such statements demonstrate how American exceptionalism works. It ties a sense of what America stands for to a claim about how America began. It tells a story which gives a purpose.
Yet the stories and purposes can be quite flexible, as others have often noted. “It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began,” Barack Obama asserted in 2006. “As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.”
For Obama, that improbable idea meant progress toward a more perfect union. “This union may never be perfect,” he claimed, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” Obama’s American exceptionalism told a story of ever-greater inclusion, diversity, dignity and opportunity: It was not “still a beacon,” but always instead becoming a beacon through history.
In its different forms, American exceptionalism gained strength through the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. By 2012, it had become part of the Republican Party’s platform, which officially embraced “the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.” Four years later, Hillary Clinton agreed, explaining that “we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.” By 2016, it seemed as though we had reached a bipartisan rhetorical consensus on the exceptionalism of the United States.
Enter Donald Trump.
America First, by and large, dispenses with history. Trump tells us that once we were great and now we are not, but offers few details. Instead, he proposes a universal purpose for all the world’s nations: Every nation protects itself, advances its interests, and prospers its own.
For all the ways that words spin out of control when Trump uses them, he is actually very clear about national purpose. In his inaugural address, he announced, “At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” The United States here, as always, is just “a nation”—not “the indispensable nation” or the “nation of nations.” And, Trump continued, “It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” Thus, he said: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
The basic premise of “America First,” in other words, contradicts the main assumptions of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism has always said that because of its unique history the United States must model and spread democracy, religious liberty, freedom, free enterprise, diversity, human dignity, self-government, you name it. A thousand points of light. A candle, a beacon, a city on a hill.
America First claims that such views have caused innumerable problems. According to Trump, “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.” It is “a dangerous idea,” he insists, to believe “that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy.” In the 2005 inaugural, President George W. Bush announced, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” In 2016, Trump declared, “I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them.” According to Trump, American exceptionalism has created the very problems that America First must solve.
As a result, during the 2016 election Trump never embraced American exceptionalism and never called America the “city on a hill.” Instead, that phrase was most often used against him. Using Google Alerts, a research assistant helped me read and track the published uses of this phrase in the 2016 campaign, sorting through over 1100 articles, letters, and blogs. Of those publications, nearly 250 directly opposed Donald Trump, while less than 50 supported him.
That usage was true regardless of party. We separated the findings into “right,” “left,” and “unclear.” Focusing only on the 350 cases that explicitly identified as conservative, 85 appearances of the phrase “city on a hill” came in anti-Trump articles, while only 48 supported him. By a margin of almost 2-to-1, conservatives used the slogan of American exceptionalism to oppose the candidacy of Donald Trump.
To put it differently, searching for the phrase “city on a hill” during 2016 was a very good way of locating articles that protested the rise of Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, as American exceptionalism turned against Trump, Clinton embraced it wholeheartedly. Toward the end of the campaign, she declared, “If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this: The United States is an exceptional nation.” Two months later, she lost.
The change from American exceptionalism to America First can be seen most clearly in President Trump’s speeches to foreign nations. Addressing the United Nations, Trump called all countries to “lift the world to new heights” and shape a “better future” by emphasizing sovereignty. This is what set his speech apart from American exceptionalism, though some disagree. “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government,” he explained. “But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
For Trump, the sovereignty of the United States was the same as the sovereignty of all other countries. Therefore, Americans can model their way, but they should never intervene in the ways of others.
The rest of Trump’s speech, however, called for a series of interventions. Yet the cause of intervention turned, again, on sovereignty. According to Trump, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, and Iran do not respect their own people’s sovereignty or the sovereignty of others. Therefore, they do not have a sovereignty anyone must respect.
More recently in Vietnam, Trump repeated these same positions. Opening with a bit of U.S. history, which was unusual for him, Trump quickly pivoted to his national philosophy: “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” he asserted. “I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”
The doctrine of America First asserts, in short, that the whole world will improve if every nation maintains its sovereignty and becomes more, not less, self-interested. Speaking to foreign leaders, Trump envisions “strong, sovereign, and independent nations, thriving in peace and commerce with others.” Speaking to Americans, he calls on us simply to win, which means making others lose. Either way, he does not offer a moral vision of freedom, democracy, opportunity, immigration, asylum, or any other traditional term of American exceptionalism.
It makes sense, then, why immigrants and refugees figure as threats in the rhetoric of America First. Trump never talks about Americans as descendants from those who came here long ago. He offers no story. There is no rise from immigration, no fleeing from oppression in the American past, no historical movement from one land to another. There is only the present day, only sovereignty and self-interest here and now.
That, too, becomes clear in the 2016 usages of “city on a hill.” When the phrase was used to pinpoint a policy, it showed up most often in the context of immigration. And in almost eight times as many articles (80 to 12), the phrase supported the cause of immigrants and refugees, calling for America to be an asylum, to open its borders, to embrace those in search of freedom.
By the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, that fits perfectly. After all, Reagan explicitly compared John Winthrop—the supposed founding figure of American exceptionalism—to a refugee. According to Reagan, Winthrop was one of the first of the world’s oppressed who came here seeking liberty. That, for Reagan, was the essential story of America.
These are the main differences between American exceptionalism and America First. In one form of rhetoric, an American story makes the United States the leading player in a divinely guided history of the world headed for redemption. In the other form of rhetoric, the United States fixes on its present citizens and seeks to make them rich in a zero-sum competition spread out across the world.
In both cases, rhetorical forms mold public perception. They act as frameworks for thought, underlying structures that answer essential questions of national identity and purpose. Each identifies different threats, each offers distinct visions of success, and both fuel passions, policies, and dangers of their own.
Abram Van Engen is associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. His book The Meaning of America: How the United States Became the City on a Hill is under contract with Yale University Press. Special thanks to Jennifer Padgett for help archiving “city on a hill” data from 2016.