In order to support a strong hypothesis – that the American public has been fed a “Big Lie” about the President being an “anti-American hyper-leftist… spending the US into oblivion,” Andrew Sullivan proposes – or, rather, conducts and concludes – a “thought experiment”:
If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector’s in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don’t think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.
Sullivan proceeds to examine a particular charge against Obama that, as he demonstrates, has filtered throughout the rightwing media, appearing over and over again in nearly identical form, from talk radio shouter to “responsible” center-right explicator, from Limbaugh to Barone and back again – by now having taken on the form of dogma for “everyone in the conservative movement.”
It has to do with a by now notorious statement regarding American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Sullivan provides the full context, and takes it as obvious that the extended remarks support his contention, flatly contradicting the rightwing-fostered “Big Lie.”
I think Sullivan gets the better of this argument, but, in his desire to set the record straight, ignores the real difference between Obamist Americanism and the hyper-patriotic version asserted by contemporary American conservatives. For the latter group, a president should always, everywhere, uniformly, and unambiguously declare the exceptionally exceptional exceptionalism of America. In this view, that Obama’s remarks were being made to foreigners, on foreign soil, imposes even more stringent requirements: The more foreign the audience, the more exponentially exceptionalistically he should express himself, by way of compensation, and in the hope of getting through, even a little bit, to those whose benightedly unexceptional origins (like Sullivan’s as a matter of fact) make acknowledging and accepting the exceptionally exceptional difficult. Any modulations, any polite concessions, any recognitions of other perspectives are despicable, against our interests and virtually treasonous.
At the risk of committing my own crime against exceptionalism – or yet another in a long line of infractions against the right and good – I’ll add that neither Sullivan nor the Big Liars seem to have noticed that Mr. Obama’s references to the Greeks and the Brits could be taken as rather well-chosen for those who are earnest about collecting historical accolades for Team America. Greece stands for the cradle of Western Civilization and the birthplace of democracy, while Britain stands for America’s mother country, the great tradition of parliamentary democracy, and the world-historical power that America eventually replaced. We could go on and on about the glories of Greece and Britain – not least as vacation spots! Suffice it to say: Neither those Doric columns in Washington, DC, nor the language in which we the exceptional happen to describe them just popped up at random – though I recognize that any comparisons at all may be taken as culpably diminishing of American grandeur. The sheer gall – to suggest that America did not give birth to itself and on a higher plane, surpassing understanding!
Sullivan includes a quote from the National Review‘s Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in which they ask whether it is “just a coincidence that [Obama] reached for examples of former hegemons?” There, in a nutshell, is the paradox of “common sense conservatism.” They want their hegemony and to decry it, too – as though the Exceptional States of America could represent moral and cultural super-superiority, as validated in America’s exceptionally incredibly exceptional wealth, power, leadership, accomplishments, and influence, never to be other than uniformly and exceptionlessly celebrated, and at the same time represent and exercise anything other than hegemony in a world otherwise populated by cultural, moral, historical, military, and economic super-inferiors.