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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > October 2017 > Death of an American myth

Death of an American myth

For good and ill, the US has always believed that it is an exceptional nation. Not any more

Every nation congratulates itself on something—its art, its food, its history, its magnificent landscapes, its strong men, its beautiful women, even its sense of irony. Here in the United States, we have always been convinced that God likes us best. Our prosperity, our technology, our military might, are not by-products of our natural resources, or of the two oceans shielding the country from invasion, but evidence of divine favour. America is the golden land where a poor boy can dream big, work hard, buy himself a pair of bootstraps, and then haul himself up by them.

America isn’t just lucky, America is exceptional. We are convinced— a conviction that is often dangerous—that we are special. Even chosen. A nation founded on Enlightenment principles of liberty and equality. As such, in most of its renderings, exceptionalism implies generosity, too: the US is charged with the responsibility of sharing its exceptional fortune. America is the “Mother of Exiles”—raising her beacon to light the way for the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free. Paraphrasing the Apostle Luke (we have often told our story in paraphrased scripture) President John F Kennedy put it thus: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

That’s the theory. But with Donald Trump in the White House, American exceptionalism is disintegrating. The US finds itself struggling with its place in the world—and its sense of self. Trump’s America isn’t the open, confident country of the imagination, but a scared place, victimised by other countries that have abused its goodwill and ripped it off. While every American president looks away from the oppression in useful autocracies, such as Saudi Arabia, Trump appoints to his cabinet men who openly embrace their dictatorial ways. “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there,” marvelled Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, visiting the Kingdom with his boss. “Not one guy with a bad placard.”

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In Prospect’s October issue: Andrew Adonis, Steve Richards, Gaby Hinsliff, Rachel Sylvester and Jennifer Williams look at the idea that leadership is the only thing that matters when it comes to elections. Adonis leads the cover package arguing exactly that point and outlining his ratings of the leaders who have competed every election in the UK and the United States since 1944—Richards offers a rebuttal. Hinsliff, Sylvester and Williams profile three potential leaders in waiting—Amber Rudd, Jo Swinson and Angela Rayner. Elsewhere in the issue we map out the potential road the UK might travel down to stay in the European Union and explore the relationship between UN Secretary General António Guterres and Donald Trump as the two prepare to meet at the UN. Also in this issue: Philip Collins on the similarities between Britain’s Brexiteers and the Gaullists of yesteryear, John Bercow explains how parliament could function better and our “View from” comes from Nairobi, where the recent election result has been annulled.
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