Aboard the Mayflower ideas of exceptionalism crossed the Atlantic. Today, both the United States and England, still partly run on this flawed narrative. This helps explaining the crisis both countries face.
The Anglo-Saxionian world is in upheaval: the United Kingdom is lost in transition, leaving the European Union without a real, sustainable plan for its place in the world order for the years to come. The United States of America on the other hand face a dramatic presidency with a commander in chief who is, only after a few months in office, subject to a number of investigations. Donald Trump is withdrawing the country from international treaties and achievements such as the TTP trade agreement, the Paris accord on climate change and, the latest, from the new policy of the country with Cuba.
Both the Brexit referendum and last year’s presidential election in the US were accompanied by a heralding rhetoric about “taking our country back” and “making America great again”. Such narrative could only flourish for it roots back in times where both, the US and England alike, considered themselves as being favored by history, by a divine providence that made them the “shining city on the hill” or “the land of hope and glory”. As for the UK this self-exaltation is to be observed every year in “The Last Night of the Proms” where “Rule Britannia” exclaims that Britons never shall be enslaved. That it was them who were enslavers for the larger part of their modern history is nowhere really mourned or critically reflected. The British exceptionalism nowadays may not carry any religious or prophetic flavor anymore. It used to, and the devotion to a majesty that is both highest in sacred and temporal matters has enshrined and covered this tiding of religious decent rather well.
Since then, the UK and US have deviated crassly from their rhetoric. The US have taken over the pathos and civil religion of England en total, whilst the latter have removed religious discrepancies completely from their political narrative. The island kingdom once saw itself as the legitimate heir of the twelve tribes of Israel. The colonies on their end, however, envisioned their new state as a republic and found testimony for their belief in the Old Testament as well. The religious narrative crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower. And as it happens often: in the land of origins customs may have long gone whereas the immigrants uphold them staunchly and conserve them – for mostly they convey their original reason for immigration.
A narrative of exception has a mandate as long as it unites a res publica, a statehood. Once it becomes shallow it deploys aggression and eagerness to violence. Both can be seen in the United Kingdom and the United States alike. After the Brexit decision, it became very clear that the supporting party was neither ready nor prepared to take on such an endeavour, a divorce after forty years of a difficult marriage. “Taking the country” back does only make sense when it really has been taken in the first place – which was never the case, regardless which side of the Atlantic we look at. To darken this fact – for the first time after the end of WWII an official, close to the government, shouted “war” in direction of continental Europe. This has been in fact the most outrageous disgrace so far. And in the United States? President Trump’s first visit to a country abroad, Saudi Arabia of all places, was followed by measures against Qatar that, so far, hold all the potential for a violent escalation. Since the US and Turkey have troops in Qatar, a country situated in a region where many other players declare interest, Mr Trump’s actions are catastrophic and, some may say, as apocalyptic as can be.
Make America great again? Surely not like this. The American idea of exceptionalism is as shattered as the English alleged supremacy heralded in the nation’s most pompous singing event. The reason for the debacle in both countries is the abolishment of the middle class and governments that acted in favor of the super rich, always eager to cater to the top percentile rather than to the weakest of society, a quality that, by the way, would deeply deserve the attribute Christian. But these secular narratives of exceptionalism are not really meant to spark charity and care; instead, they intend to separate and blind the electorate as long as possible from the real necessities that policy making should embrace.
(Painting: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)