Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2024.03.08

Wake up America! What happened to your exceptionalism?

Election chaos and unprecedented trends in the 2024 U.S. presidential race

The Japan Times on Feb 29, 2024

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A.

Once again, the U.S. presidential election cycle is in full swing. What would have been inconceivable just a decade ago is actually happening this year.

I have been following U.S. presidential elections for nearly half a century — first as a student and then as a diplomat. Surprisingly, the 2024 primary is almost devoid of presidential debates in which the leading candidates participate. The Democrats may have reason to have no such deliberations since Joe Biden, the incumbent president, is running again. Donald Trump, however, who lost the 2020 election, but is seeking a second term this year, has not participated in any of the Republican presidential debate gatherings. This means that the average voter may have no idea about what specific policies the presumptive Republican presidential candidate has in mind for the presidency.

And astonishingly, a man currently standing trial in multiple cases is the Republican front-runner. Trump is not only involved in cases involving hush money allegedly paid to a porn star, but also ongoing court battles as a criminal defendant under state and federal laws. Normally, such a candidate wouldn’t even be considered as a serious contender.

What is even more tragic is that both the Democratic and Republican parties effectively decided on their final nominees long before the primaries began. This means that, despite all the money and time spent for primaries across the United States, American voters may have no real opportunity to compare and examine each candidate's qualifications as U.S. president. If so, there is little point in holding primaries in the first place — raising the question whether American voters understand the gravity and true nature of this tragedy.

This nature of the coming presidential election will only lead to a further deterioration of American politics. Remarks made by Republican politicians at Trump's victory rally in North Carolina recently were shocking, revealing the lack of intellectual depth in such political rhetoric. Still, let's not begrudge "Trump supremacist" politicians, who obviously would not have been elected without the support of the former president and his supporters.

What’s unnerving is that even a politician like Sen. Lindsey Graham has enthusiastically and openly supported Trump. Graham was one of the famous "Three Amigos" in the Senate, along with the former Republican presidential candidate John McCain and independent Joe Lieberman. Politics in the U.S. has deteriorated to the point that even someone like Graham now seems to be forced to praise Trump.

Many other U.S. presidential election watchers in Japan may feel the same way. In fact, they must be feeling troubled, because there are too many unprecedented elements in this election that the forecasting know-how they have cultivated over the years is hardly going to work. If this situation continues, this year's U.S. presidential election will likely be one of the worst in history.

Such developments compel me to say: “Wake up, Americans! You are not exceptional anymore.” Remember, some U.S. pundits once advocated the idea of “American exceptionalism.” This concept has generally been defined as an American belief that the United States is qualitatively different from other industrialized nations because of its national motto, historical evolution and distinctive political and religious institutions. I am afraid that Americans may eventually be losing this kind of exceptionalism — perhaps for good.

That said, the real American exceptionalism is somehow different. In my opinion, it is the creed of a nation composed of people who are so naive, simple and outspoken that, when coaxed and called upon to be a world leader, they are willing to use their national power for the common good of the international community.

No other country in the world is willing to do such a thing except the United States. In this sense, America has been an exception and its allies have welcomed and taken advantage of that exceptionalism for decades.

Today, however, the United States is no longer the "exception.” With the upcoming presidential election and blind political support for "authoritarian-leaning" politicians like Trump, the United States may be undergoing a transformation into just another "ordinary country," where politicians prioritize their own interests or biases over those of the international community. This would be to the tremendous detriment to not only the U.S., but also its allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia — and in the long run, to the entire world.

If the United States loses its exceptionalism, other nations will begin to treat the U.S. as just another ordinary state. I wonder if Trump and his supporters understand the long-term costs this could have to U.S. national interests. Since the founding of the nation, moderation, internationalism and centrism have triumphed in the United States at every critical juncture of its history, including the Civil War, World War II and during the civil rights movement. If this tradition disappears, so too will American exceptionalism.

Now, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, not to mention America's allies, will all be watching closely during this presidential election cycle to see which way the U.S. will head, If the U.S. falls back to being just an ordinary country, other powers in the world will be forced to maintain the status quo "without Americans." The revisionist powers, in contrast, will highly appreciate the second Trump administration while biting back their laughter. By then it will be too late.

Wake up, America!