Obama Had Disdain for American Exceptionalism. President Trump Should Not

The president should not impugn America's goodness in deference to killers.

By Steve Berman Published on February 7, 2017

What President Trump told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly in his Super Bowl interview was not only indefensible, but contrary to his promise to “make America great again.” 

In case you missed it amid the chips and dip, O’Reilly probed Trump about his respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump replied, “I do respect him. Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get along with them.” An evasive answer, but acceptable in a political forum. 

But then things went south.

“Putin is a killer,” O’Reilly countered.

“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

A False Moral Equivalence

Our country is surely not innocent. We can easily construct a litany of evils that have befouled our history. But President Trump could easily have made that point without identifying our republic with Mr. Putin’s kleptocracy. This is just the error for which conservatives rightly criticized President Obama.

Obama spent eight years apologizing for all of America’s transgressions to leaders and countries that have no business preaching a morality in which they neither believe nor practice. From his “Cairo speech” to his farewell address, Obama ensured that nobody would mistake his views for anything approaching American exceptionalism.

Obama maintained that America must step back from being the moral leader of the world, and submit to “shared values” through globalization. Unfortunately, no other responsible party was prepared to step forward when America stepped back. That lack of leadership resulted in terrible consequences and suffering worldwide.

Now Trump has engaged in the same sin as Obama, by in effect treating America as the moral equivalent of Putin’s Russia.

It’s no surprise that Trump’s statement was condemned by conservative Republicans. “There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America, the greatest freedom-loving nation in the history of the world,” said Senator Ben Sasse, “and the murderous thugs that are in Putin’s defense of his cronyism.” Even Vice President Mike Pence tried to soften Trump’s remark. “American ideals are superior to countries all across the world,” Pence said.

The Key to America’s Greatness

In his 1835 book Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville explained what makes America great. “America is great because she is good,” he wrote. “If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” Our goodness is not so much the virtue of individual Americans, as it is our commitment to freedom, individual rights and dignity — ideals we aspire to even when we fail to uphold them. This is what makes America great.

Conservatives opposed former President Barack Obama in part because of his disdain for this American exceptionalism. This manifested itself almost every day, but mostly when Obama had the opportunity to speak at events like the National Prayer Breakfast, where he shamefully told Christians to “get off your high horse.”

It’s especially worrisome to see President Trump make the same kind of argument. To quote Senator Sasse again: 

Putin is an enemy of freedom of religion, the U.S. celebrates freedom of religion. Putin is an enemy of free press; the U.S. celebrates free press. Putin is an enemy of political dissent; the U.S. celebrates political dissent and the right for people to argue free from violence about places where ideas are in conflict.

Defend America’s Goodness — Even When Dealing With Foreign Killers

Based upon his campaign and general outlook, Trump surely doesn’t want to diminish American greatness. So how do we explain his comments to Bill O’Reilly, which echoed similar comments he made in 2015? Perhaps Trump wants to avoid denouncing Mr. Putin in order to reset relations with Russia, or at least form an alliance in order to defeat ISIS. If so, he doesn’t need to throw the US under the rhetorical bus to do it.

As Jonah Goldberg noted, “There are plenty of ways Trump could rebuff criticism of Russia without impugning the United States or compromising his apparent desire for a rapprochement.” For example, notes Arnold Steinberg at the American Spectator, Trump could have simply cited history. “Bill, President Franklin Roosevelt dealt with Stalin, 50 million, President Richard Nixon dealt with Mao, another 50 million. That’s 100 million, and I don’t mean accidental deaths.” We sometimes have to make alliances with unsavory characters, in other words. But we should not equate ourselves with those characters in doing so.

President Trump’s interview with O’Reilly was a costly fumble on Super Bowl Sunday. Let’s hope it was just a rookie mistake.


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