Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was a message of fear: Fear Isis, fear China, fear Mexicans, be afraid in both public restrooms and private bedrooms, and be afraid on city streets. Be afraid of now, and be afraid of the future. The reason to be afraid is people who are different from us and want our things; people with different languages, faiths, nationalities and skin colors. Safety comes from threat, war, torture, guns, walls, trade barriers and jails.
American exceptionalism has always been defined as a willingness — from strength — to help others for the sake of a common and greater good. It has always been directed toward a greater global connectedness, toward a shared global consciousness. Read the UN Charter, signed in San Francisco on Oct. 24, 1945. The idea is that America is willing to do what is right solely because it is right, and will not be governed by expedience. We have not always lived up to this exceptional view of ourselves, but it has been a constant vision and aspiration.
The new definition we heard in the inaugural address considers Americans exceptional as a birthright; solely because we are American. We, who are a melting pot of the rest of the world, Mr. Trump reasons, are somehow different and somehow better. But claims of nationalist or racial superiority are not new; they were the justification for anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany just 75 years ago. They were also the justification for Jim Crow segregationists and more recently for the murders Dylann Roof committed. And this vision of America is a vision of a mythic past that excludes many Americans.
Selfish fear is not exceptional. Every family, tribe and nation throughout history has been afraid. Every one of them has thought first of its own welfare. American exceptionalism since Dec. 7, 1941, has not been fearful or essentially selfish. American armies liberated most of North Africa, Europe and much of Asia, and in each instance immediately returned sovereign power to native people. American armies conquered Germany and Japan, at frightful cost, and again, returned sovereignty to the people of those countries and even provided aid to rebuild what the war had destroyed.
Thus, America First is the most common and ordinary of ideas — and cowardly to boot. Recently a Kansas legislator from Bonner Springs left a loaded handgun in a committee room. I’m not surprised or even mad about the mistake. People are always dropping things, losing them, leaving them behind. The significance to me is that a legislator thought it necessary to carry a handgun into the Statehouse. The only reason could be fear, and each day that fear is constantly reinforced every time the gun is seen or touched. It is reinforced for all of us by the increasing presence of guns.
As unsettling as 2016 may seem, 1932 was far scarier. The Great Depression had gutted the country, and the world. People were out of work, hungry, and there was no safety net, no Social Security. Many were starving while food rotted on farms. Totalitarianism had captured Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Tojo’s Japan, and was capturing Hitler’s Germany. Wars were raging in Ethiopia and Manchuria. But when Americans elected a president they elected a man who gave a very different inaugural address. In January 1933 Franklin Roosevelt’s message was of courage and faith based upon a belief in the exceptional qualities of the American Republic.
In his first inaugural address FDR said:
“First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
But I am now afraid. I am not afraid of the problems that confront us in the world, but I am afraid that the choice of the man who now leads our country proves we are no longer exceptional. His is not a leadership of frankness and understanding. The next four years will tell the tale. Our exceptionalism must now manifest itself in a vigilant resistance to the message of fear.
— William Skepnek is a longtime resident of Lawrence. He is a lawyer and taught Honors Western Civilization at the University of Kansas from 1991 to 2010.