We all know the story of the slim, constitutional lawyer with a Kenyan father. He strides confidently, smiles broadly and is perfectly willing to explain the profound divisions in this country that put Donald Trump in the White House.
This is not that story. Rather, I’m sitting outside an office at Stanford University, waiting to speak with a man who shares a similar path to Barack Obama, law fellow Mugambi Jouet. Much like the previous president, Jouet spent a good deal of his youth in another country—Obama in Indonesia, Jouet in France—which provided a cultural immersion that deepened and broadened both men’s perspectives on America.
Bald and clean-shaven, Jouet wears a violet-and-white-checked shirt and indigo slacks.
His small, tidy office sits in the basement of the grand Robert Crown Law Library on the Stanford campus. A little natural light beams in on the blond wooden office furniture. A framed photo of Rodin’s “The Thinker” hangs on a wall.
Jouet began working on his new book, Exceptional America: What Divides Americans From the World and From Each Other, well before Trump’s globe-stunning election win, which the professor admits he didn’t foresee. But Trump’s victory has amplified the book’s themes and timeliness beyond anything imaginable had Hillary Clinton taken more than just the popular vote.
Jouett's book painstakingly attempts to answer a question on the minds of people from Pasadena to Pittsburgh to Paris: WTF is happening to America?
“Most people tend to think American exceptionalism means a faith in American superiority, the notion that the country is exceptional in the sense of ‘wonderful’ or ‘outstanding’ or ‘phenomenal,’” Jouet says. “But historically, American exceptionalism has mainly meant something else, which is that America is an exception objectively and descriptively, especially when compared to other Western democracies.”
Jouet’s book examines how the growing dark side of “American exceptionalism” has driven the polarization of U.S. politics, its effect on other parts of the globe and the changing meaning of the phrase.
“It was not before the Obama era that the term was redefined as a political weapon to impugn Obama’s patriotism,” Jouet says. “People began talking about American exceptionalism at the same time as there was this debate, that still exists today, about the great divide within American society. But people did not connect the two together as I did in my book, arguing that the great polarization of modern America is a dimension of American exceptionalism in that it’s very peculiar by international standards.”
During Mitt Romney’s run to unseat Obama in 2012, the challenger accused the president of not believing in American exceptionalism, of not considering it “the greatest nation in the world and a force for good.” GOP candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, as well as Dick Cheney, repeated the rhetoric in what took on the form of a coordinated line of attack.
Their goal, Jouet says, was to challenge Obama’s legitimacy not merely as president but as an American, someone who might even harbor jihadi sympathies. Trump, a vocal force behind the birther movement that dogged Obama, played off the same page in last year’s election by promising to “make America great again.”
That’s a very different take on the original meaning of American exceptionalism.
The term didn’t really come into use at all until American Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone began using it in the 1920s. He used it as an excuse to to explain to Soviet leader Josef Stalin why the “so-called universal laws of Marxism” weren’t taking hold in the United States.
“In fact,” Jouet said in a recent interview, “that did not sit well with Stalin, and this contributed to Lovestone being kicked out of the Communist Party.”
Academics went on to use the term to describe how U.S. history, culture and society make the country so different from other advanced nations—from the legal and political systems to economics, race relations and religious attitudes, Jouet says.
He traces Trump’s rise to the full flowering of Christian fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, radical anti-governmentalism and racial resentment — themes that were not new but until more recently were much less prominent.
The more celebrated aspects of this nation’s exceptionalism, adopted by other democracies —freedom of religion, women’s rights and demographic diversity, social welfare—started to be dismantled in the U.S. around the Reagan years, Jouet says. The result is the rise of a strengthened nativism, nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, distrust of institutions, lack of empathy for the poor, disdain for education and the rise of “alternative facts.”
“For example, today America is the only Western democracy to have the death penalty, and the only one to lack a universal health care system,” Jouet says. “These are not inherently good or bad things. It depends on how people think of the death penalty and universal health care.
“What I argue in my book is that the extraordinary polarization of modern America is a dimension of what American exceptionalism has historically meant.
“America is an exception because Americans are clashing over a broad range of issues that are either not controversial or are much less controversial in the modern Western world, such as whether people should have a basic right to modern health care, whether special interests should be allowed to spend unlimited money on political campaigns and on lobbying, whether climate change is a hoax or a scientific reality, whether women should have a right to abortion, whether contraception should be covered by people’s health insurance, whether creationism or evolution should be taught in public schools, whether people should have an unbridled right to bear arms, whether to have the death penalty, whether to have mass incarceration, whether it’s appropriate to introduce torture into Western civilization as a means of fighting terrorism.”
Europe has seen its own nationalist movements in the last year—from Brexit in the United Kingdom to Marine Le Pen’s near victory in the French presidential election—but Jouet notes that even the far-right parties in Western Europe aren’t fighting over a person’s right to health care.
Jouet's book offers little solace to those uncomfortable with Trump’s vision of America’s return to greatness. He does, however, offer one positive, albeit tinged in irony.
American social problems “partly have roots in admirable aspects of American society, such as its tradition of religious liberty and egalitarianism, as well as the country’s remarkable demographic diversity,” Jouet says. “But these positive aspects of American exceptionalism can manifest themselves in inspiring, contradictory and self-destructive ways.”
Thanks for telling us what Mr. Jouet was wearing. It was the highlight of the piece.
Perhaps Mr. Jouet might consider that the USA is exceptional because it has not fallen for all this “Universal European Dictatorial Democratic Socialism.
It flat doesn’t cut in a place where we pride ourselves as individuals and not automatons directed by a god like dear leader.
How many black presidents have ascended to the throne of France, Germany, England, Russia, China etc. Obamaism a truly novel experiment that has failed the economy of America and has not impressed us as a winning solution to running the country, or helping the rest of the world that has now devolved into socialist anarchy.
When is the rest of the world going to join America in free, thinking, free choice, freedom to make your own way and not to rely on a hand out from government. Why should rich people be limited to basic government health care. You have a right to buy health care just like you have a right to buy a gun for self defence. The second amendment doesn’t not guarantee the government will provide you with a firearm, nor will it provide food, a home, a car, or an Obama phone.
If you want all that stuff go to work or join the army!
> The term [American exceptionalism] didn’t really come into use at all until American Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone began using it in the 1920s. He used it as an excuse to to explain to Soviet leader Josef Stalin why the “so-called universal laws of Marxism” weren’t taking hold in the United States.
American Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone was probably right. The exceptionalism of America was that America was exceptionally capitalist.
The attraction of America to eighteenth and nineteenth century immigrants was that they could become farmers [property owning producers} and small business owners.
“… issues that are either not controversial or are much less controversial in the modern Western world…”
“whether people should have a basic right to modern health care”
The U.S. provided the template for “basic rights” in the Bill of Rights, which guarantees the people many freedoms and protections, not a one of which might be confused with the delivery of a service at the individual level. Whether provided free or in exchange for money, health care is a service. Given a choice, I’d prefer my rights be defined by the Founders and not by another socialist posing as a Constitutional scholar.
“whether special interests should be allowed to spend unlimited money on political campaigns and on lobbying”
The most destructive special interest in the country is the media and President Trump is the first president with the courage to try to save us from it. GO TRUMP!
“whether climate change is a hoax or a scientific reality”
The climate is and has always been changing to some degree. The degree and direction of that change is a legitimate question of science, one that is rightly controversial and should not be subjected to a contest of politics or popularity.
“whether women should have a right to abortion”
Because it is a moral question, it is perfectly natural and healthy for America’s views on abortion to differ from those elsewhere (this includes this scholar’s favorite foreign states). To criticize a sovereign state for its right to disagree on questions of morality is to question its right to sovereignty, which I suspect is exactly what Mr. Jouet has in mind.
“whether contraception should be covered by people’s health insurance”
What he really means here is whether a religious organization should have a right to conduct itself as such, or should its practices be ruled by the heavy-hand of Big Government.
“whether creationism or evolution should be taught in public schools”
Creationism is junk science, but then so is the Theory of Evolution as taught: a Disneyesque version of nature where all the peoples of the world are equal, having been magically spared the effects of natural selection’s interaction with the environment.
“whether people should have an unbridled right to bear arms”
Americans have a right to bear arms, but it is heavily bridled.
“whether to have the death penalty”
Another moral question Mr. Jouet wants answered for us barbarians by foreigners.
“whether to have mass incarceration”
We have mass incarceration because two of the many populations that make up this nation are disproportionately criminal, just as are, on a much smaller but growing scale, some of Europe’s immigrant populations. I predict medieval dungeon rehab as Europe’s next growth industry.
“whether it’s appropriate to introduce torture into Western civilization as a means of fighting terrorism.”
Another moral question, asked by a man whose own nation fights terrorist acts with lit candles, tearful unity, and commitments to absorb even more horror.
When can Mr. Jouet expect his Nobel Prize?
Excellent dialectic, Finny.
Treat yourself to two scoops of ice cream.
Just because he’s from a foreign country doesn’t mean we should automatically credit Mr. Jouet with having a broad perspective. It’s pretty easy to move from a tour d’Ivoire to an ivory tower without ever having to leave the comfortable confines of the elitist academia bubble in which his “perspective” has been assembled.
Jouet, as a liberal scholar, has studied, pondered, and thought oh so hard to discover the reason for the extreme political polarization in America and, true to form, he has determined that the problem lies with conservatives. What a surprise.
“Just because he’s from a foreign country…”
Given the desperate situation on the Left, with Jouet’s, um, obvious credentials, he’s only one forged birth certificate from making the ticket in 2020.
This guy was born in Kenya, his father is Kenyan and his mother is a French citizen. He admitted this during a recent interview at USC where he was touting his book and bashing America; (Sound familiar?). He moved to Paris when he was about 8 years old, then when he was 17, he moved to the U.S and lived here until he could nurture and develop his self-important sense of condescending credibility for America-bashing. *Sigh* Just another privileged , foreign born America-basher.
Go back to France and fix their problems before coming here and telling us what to do. Please, tell us, how are all those enlightened European economic and social policies are working out for you?
Once again, the comments are a better read than the article.
After a strange opening paragraph describing President Obama (with inexplicable links), author Chuck Carroll began his next sentence with: This is not that story.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?? Mr. Carrol’s flowery but pointless prose reads like a high school debutante’s submission to Vogue. Sorry, that’s petty. So let’s MovOn to Mugambe Jouet’s attempt to turn himself into a pretzel with his wacky assumptions, followed by conclusions that are really just his belief-based assertions.
Here’s just one example of Jouet’s upside down and backward world view, in which he opines that the goal of Obama’s challenger (and of conservatives in general), is…
…to challenge Obama’s legitimacy not merely as president but as an American…
Mr. Jouet seems to have missed the pictures showing Barack Obama with his hands over his crotch during the National Anthem, when everyone else had their hands over their hearts. That’s some American, eh?
And M. Jouet says that conservatives see Obama as…
…someone who might even harbor jihadi sympathies.
Obama might have jihadist sympathies? Ya think?!
Maybe M. Jouet doesn’t recall President Obama taking sides with jihadi militia groups against Syrian President Bashir Assad. Jouet should turn on the news, because that’s still happening.
And Obama certainly demonstrated his sympathy with jihadi groups in Libya, because it was Obama who instigated the “Arab Spring” uprising against President Muammar Khadafi (who famously said, “After me, the Jihad.”)
M. Jouet also ignores Obama deliberately siding with Chechen jihadi groups against Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s still going on, too…
Apparently neither Jouet nor Carroll sees the pattern; the M.O. But most folks know that Obama has expressed some pretty strong “jihadi sympathies”. Maybe Mr. Jouet should have read Obama’s book before writing his own.
In his book Jouet explains to his readers that when “exceptional” refers to America, it really means that America is “very peculiar”.
However, regular Americans see America as a special country, with more opportunities than anywhere else. And refugees see America the same way. Furthermore, refugees don’t try to escape from America. They don’t crowd onto leaky boats in a desperate attempt to get to Tuvalu, or to Japan or Khazakstan or Botswana.
What country do most refugees dream about getting to? If Jouet doesn’t know the answer, he’s certainly an exception. Because we know the answer: refugees dream about getting to AMERICA! So maybe M. Jouet is the peculiar one. He certainly sounds peculiar, doesn’t he? His assertions are peculiar, and his conclusions are peculiar.
Unfortunately, Chuck Carroll never questions M. Jouet’s assumptions or his assertions.
George Orwell would understand that our language is being perverted by people like M. Jouet, who explains that “exceptional” is actually used as “a coordinated line of attack” against Mr. Obama. Never mind that ‘American exceptionalism’ was being discussed well before Obama was running his Choom Gang. They both think our country is peculiar—and Mr. Carroll is on board with that.
M. Jouet’s comments are a study in psychological projection: imputing one’s own faults onto the person or group being criticized. But in reality Mr. Jouet is just expressing the curse of all liberals: the green-eyed jealousy of everyone who has succeeded on his or her own, without any help from the government. To liberals, that is un-possible!
Like his hero Barak Obama, Mogumbo Jouet was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He parlayed his ethnicity, his exotic name, and his friendly smile into a promtion to Stanford Law Fellow—and from that, to being an author of this nonsensical book. But I would give good odds that if either M. Jouet or B. Obama had to compete on a fair playing field for the lofty academic titles conferred upon them, that they would end up where they rightly belong: in the bottom quintile compared to Kansas hayseeds or Asian immigrants sporting 4.0 GPA’s (and BTW, what was Obama’s GPA? Mr. Carroll? M. Jouet? Bueller? Anyone… ?)
It’s a good thing for them that our peculiar country generally ignores the juvenile tantrums expressed by liberal superstars like Obama and Jouet. We know they’re academic fakirs who were excused from competing with the cream of the crop of America’s exceptional high schools. Because if they did have to compete, they wouldn’t be Stanford grads, would they? Based on M. Jouet’s book, he’d be more likely to matriculate at San Jose City College.
Excellent analysis, Mr. Smokey.
I was trying to decide whether Mr. Carroll’s essay was “jejune” or merely “banal”. Whichever is most apt, it certainly was sycophantic.
Carroll must be plumping for tenure at whatever government junior college holds his timecard.
If Professor Jouet had just asked me, I could have saved him all the time and energy he invested in his tortured and constipated analysis.
The “the extraordinary polarization of modern America” is just the eternal and permanent division between “paleolithic peoples” and “neolithic peoples” which is the main social consequence of the Neolithic Revolution.
Just “tribalists” versus “capitalists”.