If you didn’t learn about American exceptionalism in school, chances are you understood the concept socially or from the media. The term defines a political ideology that the United States is inherently different from the rest of the world and holds a special place in world affairs.
Former President Donald Trump has been contradictory in his comments on American exceptionalism.
“I don’t like the term, I’ll be honest with you,” Trump said during his 2016 campaign. “I don’t think it’s a very nice term, we’re exceptional, you’re not… I never liked the term.”
Three years later, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found no evidence of collusion, Trump called America “the greatest place on earth.”
Regardless of Trump’s opinion of American exceptionalism, his presidency brought the term and its validity under scrutiny both nationally and internationally. U.S. relations with foreign countries have soured, and tensions with other global powers have risen, while American participation in global programs – the Paris Climate Accords, the World Health Organization – declined. Broadcast political correspondents questioned how American exceptionalism could recover. Foreign leaders condemned events in the U.S. that the U.S. had often condemned in foreign countries.
For international students at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), a combination of U.S. and international perspectives shape their view of the concept.
UNH senior Soleha Patel, who grew up in India, said she doesn’t have a bad view of American exceptionalism.
“I also don’t necessarily agree with it because I think every country is different in its own way,” Patel said. “If someone does come up to me and says, ‘America’s different,’ I would be like ‘Yeah, for you, and for me my country’s different too.’”
After four years of college in the U.S., she said she plans to attend graduate school to become a health care professional.
Patel said before coming to UNH, her main exposure to the U.S. was through the media.
“Because American TV shows are so high in showing teenage pregnancy and drug abuse, and racial profiling… if I go back home and speak to my parents, if they’re describing America, that’s the first thought that comes to their mind,” Patel said.
She also remembered hearing about certain policies during Barack Obama’s presidency that she supported, such as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and immigration policies, that made her views on America more positive. “I knew America was the emerging superpower nation that had opportunities for people,” Patel said. “I knew that it wasn’t in the best state, but it wasn’t in the worst state either.”
Patel said this view of the U.S. changed once she arrived in the U.S. and the Muslim ban began affecting her and her family.
“I had to put my religion on my visa papers, and so I think that changed my view on what America was,” Patel said. “When I came here to study my idea was: I want to study, I want to work, I want to live here, but with all those policies being ripped off one by one, my dream just dwindled down to the fact that I would only be able to get my degree, maybe, at the most.”
According to the ACLU, the Muslim ban signed in 2017 prevented citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. Two months later, this was replaced by a similar executive order that excluded those with visas and green cards from the ban. After various court battles, the Supreme Court upheld the executive order in June of 2018. President Joe Biden has since repealed the travel ban.
Since 1973, many American children have watched “Schoolhouse Rock!: America” sing about the United States as a great melting pot of people and cultures. This isn’t just a creation myth of America’s national identity, according to Patel; she also saw the U.S. as a nation of immigrants that welcomed anyone and everyone. When the Muslim ban and the family separation policy went into effect, she said she began to realize the world she knew was changing.
“They took away parents and children from each other,” Patel said. “I think that’s inhuman enough to be like, ‘I don’t like America anymore.’”
Patel said many of her friends from India who were initially planning on joining her in the U.S. to study have since changed their minds because they are scared of being international students in the U.S. and scared of being Muslim in the U.S.
Despite her fears, Patel said she’s hopeful about the future of America, especially since there is now a woman of color in the White House.
“There’s so much debris,” she said. “I think Joe Biden is going to have to work really hard to scrape everything off and I don’t think four years is enough for that. In some parts of the world, so many people still think America is that one scary nation that people don’t want to go to.”
Like Patel, UNH junior Surya Ari is also an international student from India. Born in the United States, his family moved back to India when he was nine. Ari said he knew he wanted to return to the U.S. for college.
“I think one point to make was that [when I moved to India] I had realized who I was, so I was aware of my identity as an American Indian,” Ari said. “When I went there, it wasn’t a place that I was 100% comfortable with, so I stuck to my identity as an American, to comfort me or whatever. It’s the same old diaspora story of ‘you’re an American in India but you’re an Indian in America.’”
Before November of 2016, Ari said he thinks his thoughts on the U.S. were similar to those of many in India. Ari said he would think, “‘oh wow, they’re the superpower, they get to do whatever they want, but they’re not 100% evil. They are evil, but like, compared to Russia or China’—we couldn’t imagine Russia or China being at the top, unlike now where there is a distinct possibility where you could see a China-led world order.”
“It’s become evident that the benign superpower isn’t just a creation of America,” Ari said. “Other countries really needed America to play that role.” He said he thinks the strength of the United States has allowed other countries to deflect important issues, citing the example of France condemning racism in the U.S. while battling race issues of its own.
Ari said that Trump’s presidency has showed him that the U.S. system of democracy was “both flawed and working at the same time.”
“As for American Exceptionalism, it showed the weakness of it,” Ari said. “Is American exceptionalism dying? Yes. Is it dead? No.”