Volume 31
Issue 3
Spring '17

Against Walls: How President Trump’s Walling Initiatives Undermine American Exceptionalism

Written By: Noah Smith


The administration and resulting policies of United States President Donald Trump are corrupting American exceptionalism.1 “American exceptionalism” has assumed a multitude of meanings throughout U.S. history, but insofar as the term refers to (1) America’s democratic ethos of liberty and political equality; (2) America’s dynamic market economy providing for social and income mobility; and (3) America’s ability to unite common global causes on topics such as democratic rule and human rights through norm creation, agenda-setting ability, and soft-power leadership, U.S. exceptionalism is gravely at risk of deteriorating or warping into a new state of “post-exceptionalism.”

America is a global leader. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, for better or for worse, activities flowing from American exceptionalism have largely shaped the course of diplomatic debate, international trade and capital flows, and norm-promotion. But this paradigm is now shifting, and a new era is taking shape, catalyzed by the rhetoric and resulting policies of Mr. Trump, a great many of which are heretofore unheard of from any sitting U.S. President.

Until now, neither foreign nor domestic U.S. policy has ever incorporated Mr. Trump’s offbeat brand of nationalism, nativism, and protectionism, which I refer to collectively as the “walling” of America. There is, of course, the much-hyped physical barrier Mr. Trump has pledged to erect along our southern border. But walling under the Trump administration has materialized in numerous other forms and is quite palpable in Mr. Trump’s entire approach to national security, immigration, trade, and federal budgeting. Many Trump-era policies have the effect of turning the U.S. (and consequently, other countries) inward toward ourselves, forming barriers between nation-states, cultural groups, and socioeconomic classes.2 While similar policies aimed at walling have been observed all over the world, they gain an alarming new significance, largely due to American exceptionalism, when performed by the United States.

America’s walling is antithetical to established American norms and action plans, which have historically, through the American exceptionalism apparatus, patterned and predicted global norms and action plans. Even beyond Mr. Trump’s early onslaught of executive orders aimed at exerting immense sovereign control over the American domain, his mere utterances (vocal and digital) have never before been heard emanating from the powerful halls of the White House.3 Mr. Trump has thus charted a head-on collision-course with the current globalized neoliberal era. When America goes directly against the grain in this way, shattering the norms of the very global order that America itself primarily established, it creates an obscene double-standard. In the long-term, this double-standard abates America’s credibility, its moral authority, its soft-power norm-setting ability, and ultimately, its “exceptional” nature, all of which the U.S. currently relies on when navigating the global arena.

This research commentary argues that Mr. Trump’s walling initiatives, which have assumed numerous forms to date, are undermining American exceptionalism (those familiar with Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan might even say American “greatness”) in ways that unpredictably distort both the global and domestic order, orienting us further away from peace and prosperity. Part II recounts the scholarship on American exceptionalism and introduces the varieties of exceptionalism theory at greatest risk under the Trump administration. Part III discusses Mr. Trump’s current and planned attempts to usurp sovereign authority by walling off the U.S. from its neighbors. Part IV analyzes the potential and likely impacts of America’s walling and explains how these impacts erode U.S. exceptionalism.

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1. President Donald Trump is hereinafter referred to as “Mr. Trump” or “the Trump administration.”

2. The term “nation-state” (while technically a misnomer because the boundaries of sovereign states do not perfectly overlap with the boundaries of cultural nations) is used to refer to global sovereign entities. This is to avoid confusion between references to sovereign entities and other uses of the term “state” (here, the fifty American “states,” the “administrative state,” and the “state of exception”).

3. See generally Brendan Brown, Archive, TRUMP TWITTER ARCHIVE (Apr. 20, 2017, 2:22 PM), http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/archive (cataloguing Mr. Trump’s activity on Twitter.com).