Donald Trump ran on a simple slogan: He would Make America Great Again. But what’s clear from his reaction to threats from Iran in the wake of the killing of Qasem Soleimani is that he doesn’t really get what made America great in the first place.
In the wake of the American drone strike that killed Soleimani, Trump tweeted that if Iran retaliated, they should know that he (and the United States) had already “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to walk back that threat — of hitting cultural sites, which the International Criminal Court has judged to be a war crime — in a series of interviews on Sunday. But Trump was adamant on the way back to the White House Sunday evening that he would do exactly what he said he would do.
“They’re allowed to kill our people, they’re allowed to torture and maim our people, they’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites?” Trump told reporters. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Don’t dismiss this as just more bluster from the President of the United States. It is bluster, but it’s also revealing about how little he understands the idea of American exceptionalism that he ostensibly ran and won on in 2016.
In Trump’s worldview — such as it is — is what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Because there is nothing off-limits to the Iranians, there should be nothing off-limits to America. Might makes right. Dominance is the only measure of success. If you can do it, you should do it.
He’s exhibited this sort of mentality before. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly expressed his support for waterboarding, which some elected officials — including the late Sen. John McCain — expressed significant reservations about due to their conclusion that it amounted to torture.
“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works,” Trump said in February 2016. He added of waterboarding: “Some people say it’s not actually torture — let’s assume it is. But they asked me the question: ‘What are you going to do on waterboarding?’ Absolutely fine, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding. That’s the way I feel.”
And how did he justify his support for going “much stronger than waterboarding?” This way: “They’re chopping off our heads in the Middle East. They want to kill us, they want to kill us. They want to kill our country. They want to knock out our cities.”
What Trump’s logic misses is the essence of American exceptionalism — that America is different from the rest of the world not solely because we are so powerful but also because of our commitment to taking the moral high road, refusing to lower ourselves to the conduct of our enemies.
McCain, who himself was tortured by the North Vietnamese when he was a prisoner of war, articulated that distinction better than anyone else in public life. In a 2014 speech on the Senate floor in support of publicly releasing the CIA torture report, McCain said this:
“I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.
“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.
“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”
Consider how radically different McCain’s words are from Trump’s recent utterances about what would happen to Iran if they retaliate for Soleimani’s death. Then consider that both men ran for president — just eight years apart — on the idea of American exceptionalism. The difference? McCain knew what those words actually meant. Trump has twisted them to mean something along the lines of winners write history. Or: If your enemies do it, then you can (and should) do it too.
That’s not American exceptionalism. It’s the opposite.