GOP candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a self-styled "ideas man," proclaimed after his South Carolina victory that he was running on a platform of "American exceptionalism" -- an intellectually shoal paradigm that makes "Yes We Can!" seem downright Emersonian.
But it would seem any Republican candidate to be taken seriously must accept exceptionalism as an article of faith, so Newt is hardly unique (or exceptional) amongst the field in this regard. What is troubling about Newt is that he's an adroit demagogue skilled in the Rovian art of persuading working class Americans to vote against their own interests, which Gingrich plans on accomplishing by playing identity politics and framing the "secular left" as America-hating radicals who would dare question U.S. moral supremacy.
Make no mistake, when Republicans say America is "exceptional" they really mean "superior" -- not "unique in its own way." One would think Professor Gingrich would be fully aware that the historical record defies such claims. Perhaps religious fanaticism has silenced within Gingrich's head the voice of reason, drowned out by the same rapturous whispers from the beyond that commanded George W. Bush to invade Iraq in an effort to "abolish evil from the world."
Gingrich and his wife have been promoting the documentary A City Upon a Hill whose bromidic title is ripped from a 1630 homily by Puritan John Winthrop who envisioned the Massachusetts Bay colony as a city to be "watched by the world." Winthrop derived his allocution from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which Christ informed his flock that they were "the light of the world" and that they should let their light "so shine before men."
Centuries later Ronald Reagan would creepily use similar phraseology in describing America as a "shining city upon a hill." And now, not only has Gingrich embraced this worn biblical platitude, he has devised the novel strategy of invoking the Gipper's name almost as many times as Rudy Giuliani references 9/11 on any given day.
Religiously inflamed amour-propre has plagued society at large since the country's inception despite the best efforts of America's founding secularist elite who, thankfully, enshrined within the constitution the separation of church and state. Contrary to John Quincy Adams' admonitions against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy," many Americans felt they had been selected by God as the new Chosen people charged with Christianizing the world, spreading freedom and democracy and passing on the virtues of free market Calvinism to "begin the world anew."
What is disturbing about this messianic streak is that it nurtures the chimera of American infallibility and has justified absurdities like Manifest Destiny. I refuse to believe the Almighty sanctioned the annihilation and deculturation of indigenous peoples so the colonists could expand westward and that the fulfillment of such a prophecy happened to coincide with American lust for continental hegemony.
What Gingrich and his ilk ignore is that, if anything, America has been exceptionally lucky in its rise from colony to superpower. In a recent Current History piece David Kanin and Steven Meyer, two former CIA employees, explain the perfect storm that propelled the U.S. onto the world stage:
For more than a century after independence the United States benefited from a unique confluence of uninterrupted access to cheap labor (slave and immigrant), vast amounts of underpopulated land (especially once the natives were expelled and killed), and the Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri waterway system.
They also point out how insulating oceans protected the U.S. from external threats. Far removed from old world balance-of-power instability, the homeland remained untouched until Pearl Harbor which enabled the U.S. to experience unfettered economic growth. Of course, to fundamentalists, the security bestowed upon America by two massive oceans was the result of divine providence, not pure chance.
President Wilson thought the United States was exceptional because it only used force when it elevated "the spirit of the human race." Within the past century the delusion of being a divinely-commissioned benevolent Leviathan made it easier for the U.S. to overthrow several regimes with a clear conscience, including democratically-elected ones in Iran, Chile and Guatemala. How undermining the self-determination of other countries ultimately served the cause of freedom was a utilitarianism that would forever escape those outside U.S. policy planning circles.
Although it undulates off right-wing tongues like patriotic poetry, exceptionalism fosters the crusading impulse that will soon have us bombing Tehran and enforcing regime change (a policy, incidentally, Gingrich fully supports). It discourages compromise, encourages unilateralism and reinforces the conceit that America is above international law, a contempt marked by illegal occupations, renditions, extrajudicial drone strikes, torture and refusals to sign international human rights treaties. Naturally, the U.S. finds it absolutely unacceptable when other countries exhibit these very same types of behaviors.
The catechism of America as exemplar and redeemer seems to personify the candidate himself, given the number of well-documented instances that indicate Gingrich might suffer from a case of inflated self-opinion. Ask Newt how long he has felt like the savior and he won't bristle at such a loaded question. In fact, he will tell you. During a 2005 GQ interview he pinpointed the moment of this epiphany, saying that it was August of 1958 when he first started talking about saving civilization.
The last thing this country needs at this (or any) juncture is a narcissist at the helm whose decisions will be influenced by eschatological interpretations of scripture. Based on America's damaged global standing due to financial mismanagement, unrivaled inequality and destabilizing military excursions, now is not the time for arrogance and hubris from a U.S. president. In sum, Gingrich's platform of belligerent nationalism, dogmatic theism and reckless foreign policy is not only entirely self-defeating -- it is exceptionally stupid.