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.”