When Donald Trump spoke at his inauguration on Jan. 20, there wasn’t even a hint of trying to be magnanimous. Instead, he called for the most narrow-minded form of nationalism. It's tempting to see this as one of the many personal shortcomings of the new president of the United States.
But that’s not the point.
The inconvenient truth is that Trump merely exacerbates "American exceptionalism," that combination of vision and narrative that sees the U.S. as having a special role in the world. This viewpoint is an integral part of the country's DNA; it has been guiding the actions of all presidents since George Washington.
Obviously, some form of ethnocentrism is inherent in everyone to some extent. When people don't make up flattering stories about themselves, they tell jokes that place them higher than their neighbors. But the U.S. embodies this trait in the extreme.
The puritans who founded the U.S. like to describe it as a New Israel, a land that would have a special relationship with the Creator, one nation under God. And Americans aren’t any more subtle when religion isn't mentioned. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, said in his famous Gettysburg address that the U.S.’s special mission was to ensure that the "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Donald Trump's presidential inauguration — Photo: Gary Hershorn/ZUMA
So in the name of that special mission, the U.S. has sought to bring democracy and freedom to everyone on the planet. Different American governments have intervened in the most diverse countries around the world, sometimes bringing freedom but perhaps in a larger number of cases they ended up suppressing it.
Former president George W. Bush went as far as saying that American exceptionalism exempted the country from heeding to international law when it came to the invasion of Iraq.
Exceptionalism based on ethnocentrism is a bit like self-esteem. In reasonable quantities, it's fundamental to forging a healthy national psyche. But too much of it produces narcissistic personalities and even psychopaths. One thing's for sure — Trump cannot be diagnosed as someone with low self-esteem.