Disillusionment and the Demise of American “Exceptionalism”
It has been just more than 50 years since Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “Five Stages of Grief” theory in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Through the decades those stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—have suggested how most people come to terms with the passing of a loved one. In fact, Kübler-Ross actually developed the concept to describe how terminally ill patients struggle to cope with their own impending mortality. Many psychologists have since posited that the five stages can affect people in random order, although it’s difficult to imagine “acceptance” being the initial stage for anyone.
Acceptance certainly wouldn’t be one of the stages of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” or “TDS,” the term FOX News-brainwashed supporters of the former occupant of the Oval Office came up with during 45’s Presidency to derisively describe the genuine emotions of millions of Americans who have feared for the demise of American democracy as we’ve known it since November 8, 2016 and even more so since January 6, 2021. Anger and depression would certainly fall in the TDS diagnosis mix, and while perhaps not exactly analogous to the Kübler-Ross five, other stages of TDS would include helplessness, frustration, and varying levels of outrage.
But if there is one member of the alphabet that begins the largest number of appropriate words to characterize not only the symptoms of TDS sufferers, but the Dystopian Disaster (hint, hint) that defined the Trump Presidency and describes the current collection of his sycophants in the Congress, it would by far be the letter D—and “Derangement” isn’t one of them. Before, during, and post-January 6, 2021, the former President and his Depraved Republican Party enablers, have Degraded, Defamed, Debased, Defrauded, and Desecrated the Office of the Presidency. Trump’s brand of Deceitful, Disgraceful lying and Disgusting Demonization of any adversaries are qualities that only his Delusional, Detestable, and Deplorable cult followers could love. In a nutshell, Trump’s odious “Presidency”—and it pains me to use that term—was defined by Distraction, Diversion, Distortion, and Destruction. Hence, over the past six years, those of us suffering from TDS have experienced a constant sense of Desperation and myriad blood-pressure raising emotions including—in no particular order—Demoralizing Disappointment, Debilitating Despair, and Despondent Desolation.
You’d think there couldn’t be any more D-words left to describe what for me has been the most soul-crushing feeling during the past six years . . . but you’d be wrong. In flashing lights on my mental marquee would be the letters that form the word . . . DIS-IL-LU-SION-MENT.
Just one year after turning Medicare-eligibility age, I’ve been pondering whether it’s worse to feel profoundly disillusioned when you’re 66 or when you’re 16 or even 26. I’ve wondered whether losing faith and trust in previously held beliefs—however naïve those might be—is more painful when you’ve long seen yourself as an idealist. Novelist David T. Wolf once wrote that, “Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.” I’m not quite ready to spend the rest of my life on a recliner or the corner bar stool spouting the jaded ravings of a cynic. I may not be a cockeyed optimist, but I still like to think of myself as a hopeful romantic. Realizing that disillusionment could be the creaky bridge between idealism and cynicism is a Discouraging thought.
As I was transitioning from adolescence to teen-hood in the late 1960s—and became just a tad independent and rebellious in the process—my father frequently admonished me for “never being satisfied.” This apparent flaw in my young character had much less to do with being materially spoiled (we were a financially struggling middle class brood in the Bronx) than with my tendency to be a perfectionist and constantly campaigning for my immediate family situation to be a bit more stable. But youthful Dissatisfaction can be outgrown, overcome, and ultimately become empowering if it’s a motivator for achievement.
What I’ve been feeling over these past six years in Trumpistan is more akin to what John Adams expressed in one of the hundreds of letters he exchanged with his wife Abigail during the period of the American Revolution: “I’ve always been dissatisfied, Abigail. I know that. But lately I find that I reek of Discontentment. It fills my throat, and it floods my brain. And sometimes I fear there is no longer a dream, but only the discontentment.” John Adams battled his profound unhappiness, helped form a new country, and became the 2nd President of the United States. He was way too busy to be disillusioned, but I hate to think what John Adams would feel now if he knew that the American Democracy he helped create was, as the pundits constantly say, “under existential threat.”
I ultimately determined that disillusionment has been more psychologically debilitating during movie theater-discount age when I thought about what I observed of America writ large as a child. Between the ages of 8–13, I experienced the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr., watched Black people beaten and imprisoned fighting for civil rights, saw protests crushed during a major political convention, viewed footage of young Americans being killed in a misguided war in Vietnam, and was constantly reminded a nuclear bomb could drop on my head at any moment. And before I was even eligible to vote, a corrupt, power-mad President was forced to resign. All of that might be enough to render anybody cynical or disillusioned for life.
But young people are nothing if not resilient. As I child, I was the product of an excellent New York public school system that educated me about the inspiring founding of our country, the uniqueness of American Democracy and its brilliant, if flawed, Constitution, our open doors to immigrants from all nations, and how we helped save the world from fascism during World War II. I was at the impressionable age of 13 during the March on Washington, the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the Moon landing, the development of Motown, and when my two favorite sports teams (the baseball Mets and the football Jets) won championships. At the same time, I was being taught about Black Slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, I was also conditioned to believe in the concept of “American Exceptionalism” and I was intent on being a patriotic member of the Exceptional Brigade. After all, no country can be perfect, right? As an adult, I’d made it through Ronald Reagan, two stolen Bush Presidencies, record levels of childhood poverty, racial inequality, the Iraq War, and Reality Television without extreme disillusionment rearing its head. In the early 1980s, America’s capitalist system of free enterprise enabled a 27-year-old (Me) and his wife to launch their own magazine. And when at the start of the 21st century, my country elected a Black Man as President—Twice!—how could I think that America was anything other than “Exceptional?”
Speaking of Barack Obama, of course it would take our first Black President to see through all the “American Exceptionalism” malarkey and put it in some perspective. During his re-election campaign against Republican Mitt Romney in 2011, President Obama said that while he believed in “American Exceptionalism” (with dangerous White Supremacists lurking throughout social media, a Black man in the White House certainly couldn’t poopoo the idea that the US was freaking awesome), he offered that it was no different from “British exceptionalism,” “Greek exceptionalism,” or any other country’s brand of patriotic chest-thumping.
Harvard University Professor of International Relations Stephen M. Walt cited Obama’s observation in an epic October 2011 piece in Foreign Policy Magazine, in which he outlined the “Top Five Myths about American Exceptionalism,” including the misguided notions that: There Is Something Exceptional About American Exceptionalism; The US Behaves Better Than Other Nations Do; America’s Success Is Due to Its Special Genius; The US is Responsible for Most of the Good in the World; and of course, God Is On Our Side.
You can remove your finger from your throat now.
“Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an ‘empire of liberty,’ a ‘shining city on a hill,’ the ‘last best hope of Earth,’ the ‘leader of the free world,’ and the ‘indispensable nation’,” wrote Professor Walt. “These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America’s greatness” [and why at the time Obama was criticized for equalizing exceptionalism by Right Wing nationalist and religious zealots like Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Michele Bachmann]. “Most statements of ‘American Exceptionalism’ presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the US is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage . . . Despite America’s many successes, the country is hardly immune from setbacks, follies, and boneheaded blunders. If you have any doubts about that, just reflect on how a decade of ill-advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown  driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position the US enjoyed at the end of the 20th century . . .”
During the three-and-a-half decades after World War II, and especially since Ronald Reagan’s Presidency began 40 years ago, the concept of “American Exceptionalism” was primarily predicated on the US dominance—militarily, economically, and morally—over the Soviet Union/Russia. How quaint is that notion looking now? One definition of disillusionment? Knowing that during more than half a century, this country fought multiple foreign wars, lost thousands of young lives, spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on nuclear weapons and a massive military machine (instead of on infrastructure, education, and social programs), to fight what was often a tinderbox Cold War with the former Soviet Union/Russia. It seems hardly worth it now that we watched an autocratic American President allow Russia’s authoritarian ruler to manipulate the minds of millions of our people and attempt to trash our Democracy through social media. Just writing those sentences leaves me breathless. By the way, if you’re wondering what Professor Walt has been writing nine years and one Trump Presidency later, last February he published a second update of his post-2016 election essay, “10 Ways to Tell If Your President is a Dictator.”
I recently discovered two past observations regarding the fallacies of “American Exceptionalism” that seem positivity prescient given our current self-inflicted catastrophes.
Fifteen years ago, Howard Zinn, a decorated World War II veteran who became a renowned historian, political scientist, and civil rights activist, gave a lecture on “American Exceptionalism” at MIT. Zinn acknowledged that America was “Very good—really, very good—in many things.” But according to Zinn, that didn’t tell the whole story. “If we only dwell on what we all acknowledge are some of the remarkable things about the United States,” he observed, “we will be missing something very important—something, in fact, so important that we’ll be shocked if something happens one day that arouses us from our complacency and that makes us wonder how it is that a country so gifted, so special, so superior, should experience suddenly a disaster that nobody can explain.”
In a May 2011 piece for the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Richard Cohen linked the historical connection between “American Exceptionalism” with religious zealotry and how that has long been a potent brew for Right Wing extremism. “The danger of ‘American Exceptionalism’,” Cohen wrote, is that “it discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phrase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. ‘American Exceptionalism’ ought to be called ‘American Narcissism.’ We look perfect only to ourselves.”
That seems to be an appropriate segue into discussing the demise of “American Exceptionalism” and the “American Carnage” brought upon us by a man who in 2016 snowed 63 million people into believing he would MAGA for all of us. And it’s still being signed off on by his Kleptocratic cronies and their Republican Party enablers, White Supremacists, Corporate Plutocrats, and Right Wing-propaganda media outlets.
The irony in the message of this sign is that most of the people who want to “take back our government” are the ones who are okay with destroying democracy.
Donald Trump was the product of an American culture that has fostered and celebrated unbridled nationalism, systemic racism, rampant greed, shameless materialism, and superficial self-absorption. Trump’s sociopathy was cultivated in this toxic environment like a man-made virus in a lab. As President, he manipulated our government, exploited the flaws in our legal system, and trampled on all our societal norms. Every person around him—from family to friends, from bankers to business associates, from sycophantic American politicians to corrupt Russian Oligarchs, from the pliant media to his mindless followers—not only let it happen, they encouraged it. Those who attempted the coup last January 6 no longer understand or even support concepts like freedom and democracy, common decency and the common good, and the differences between right and wrong. They are as foreign to them as empirical evidence, objective facts, and conceptual truth. When 35-40 percent of the populace of a society for which authoritarianism was once thought to be antithetical with our system of government still approve of Donald Trump and keeping telling the Big Lie, “American Exceptionalism” can no longer be a proud bullet point on our national resume.
One of the most entertaining cultural examples of “American Exceptionalism” was depicted in the 1995 film The American President (I know, it’s been 26 years, sigh!), ironically directed by Rob Reiner, who was one of Donald Trump’s most high-profile celebrity critics. I mention this not because it featured a romanticized, wish-fulfillment version of what an American Chief Executive should be, but because of a phrase in a line of dialogue I’d never heard before. It was uttered by Michael J. Fox’s character, an assistant to Michael Douglas as President, when discussing problematic poll numbers. “I think this poll helps bring a murky problem into specific relief,” Fox’s character remarked, meaning making something plainly visible or contrasting sharply with the background.
While observing the New York quarantine during the early horrific stages of the pandemic in early 2020, when I was being held hostage by MSNBC shows on a seemingly non-stop loop (by masochistic choice), I heard many variations of that idiom in The American President. When repeated often enough (especially on cable news shows), idioms sometimes evolve into trite clichés, but many clichés ring with a grain of truth. As Covid-19 infection cases climbed, the death tolls mounted (especially in New York), and the economy tanked through April and May. Then throughout June those crises merged with the national Black Lives Matter protests after a Minneapolis policeman murdered George Floyd, and numerous TV and print media pundits accurately articulated how these disasters were “laying bare,” “shining a light on,” and “casting in sharp relief” many of America’s societal problems, mainly the long-standing and systemic racial inequalities in income, healthcare, education, and criminal justice.
Listening to those painful observations, on top of watching the Trump Administration, the Justice Department, and the Republicans in Congress run roughshod over the Constitution and the rule of law was disillusioning enough. The most recent and more infuriating gut-punch has been watching the appalling way millions of Americans have responded to a pandemic that at this writing has killed almost 800,000 of our fellow citizens (and that’s just the official reported number, not including the thousands who have likely died in their beds at home). Do you know what’s not “exceptional?” That three different Covid-19 vaccines have been available to Americans for almost a year and yet only about 60 percent of all our citizens have been vaccinated.
These days, being an American citizen, especially if you’re a skeptical patriot, is like experiencing the ultimate love/hate relationship. First, the good news. There is some micro-“American Exceptionalism” happening out there. The 2020-21 pandemic has “shined a light on” the heroes of our medical community, the scientists who discovered vaccines, the selfless first responders, and the “essential” workers (many in low-paying jobs) who have risked their lives in numerous ways to keep this country from becoming a complete basket case. And in spite of Right Wing news organizations still spreading the Big Election Lie, there is amazingly great journalism, news analysis, and insightful commentary breaking through the Fox and social media noise on an almost hourly basis.
Now the heartbreaking and disillusioning bad news: The never-ending pandemic and threats to our Democracy have “cast into sharp relief” that our country is currently populated with millions of stubborn, selfish, self-centered, and ultimately self-destructive people who seem totally ignorant about what “rights” and “freedom” truly mean in a democracy, and have about as much interest in understanding American history and civics as the former President they slavishly follow. I’ve heard tell that a woman Presidential candidate once referred to them as the “Deplorables.”
During World War II, as this country was still recovering from The Great Depression, Americans stood in long lines to acquire rationed items such as meat, dried fruit, butter, canned milk, and sugar. The first non-food item rationed was rubber and President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked citizens to help by contributing old tires, rubber raincoats, garden hoses, shoes, and bathing caps. Our grandparents and great grandparents saved metal and paper, and gasoline was limited to three gallons per week, all for the war effort. I’ve never read any stories in the WWII history books about Americans storming state capitals brandishing firearms and chanting how their First Amendment rights to eating steak and wearing stockings were being trampled upon.
But day in and day out during the worst of the pandemic, prominent health professionals and elected officials implored people to wear masks to prevent the spread of a deadly virus that could threaten themselves, their families, their friends, and their neighbors. Apparently, such a sacrifice was way too much to ask and still is; that it’s a gesture beyond the pale for those who were tired of being “cooped up” or couldn’t sanction “guv-mint” telling them what to do. No amount of news reports with video of overworked ICU doctors and nurses, colorful charts decorated with gruesome statistics, pictures of refrigerated trailers filled with dead bodies, or social media posts from grieving loved ones could sway them. It’s all a hoax—because Donald Trump and his mindless toadies on FOX News said so.
The January 6 insurrectionists and the people who love them believe that anyone who doesn’t agree with their White Supremacist/Authoritarian ravings “hate America.” In fact, they LOVE America. That John Lewis “Good Trouble” kind of love. They revere America so much that they’re all disillusioned that it isn’t living up to its highest ideals. They want to Make America Exceptional Again, even if MAEA doesn’t look good on a baseball cap.
The late writer, philosopher, and political activist Susan Sontag once wrote: “Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached psychological adulthood.”
Ouch. That’s tough to read when you’ve just turned 66. But come next year, I’m betting on President Joe Biden leading the way on passing the Voting Rights Act, the January 6th Committee putting Trump and his coup cronies in jail, and democracy being saved. Maybe then I can truly believe that American Is Becoming Exceptional Again.
Image of anti-masks by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay