“Exceptionalism” has been a conservative trope for years, generally dredged up to shame someone with the temerity to point out any American imperfections that might need addressing. Along with “my country right or wrong,” American exceptionalism has been used to fend off any and all criticism, as well-founded as it might be. The phrase itself, revived and owned by the Republican party, was ironically coined by Joseph Stalin, paints a picture of perfection that does not exist, as the events of the weekend horrifically demonstrated.
The one thing we appear to be consistently exceptional at doing is shooting each other at a rate unheard of in any other so-called civilized country. Twenty-nine people died and more than 40 were wounded in the 250th and 251st mass shootings of the calendar year in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The National Rifle Association’s “Good guy with a gun” mythology again fell on its face in Ohio when first responders killed the shooter within one minute ... one minute too late for the 25 casualties there.
Let’s play this exceptional thing out just for the sake of argument. If we’re so exceptional, why can’t we seem to stare objective reality in the face and finally do something about the carnage happening in our streets, malls, movie theaters and schools? One of the reasons is certainly a GOP, whose decades-long genuflection to the NRA — the hand that feeds them — is costing American lives, lots of them. That the richest, most powerful country in the world, the country that brought Hitler to his knees, can’t prevent mass shootings within its own borders, is a monumental disgrace.
If we’re so exceptional, why can’t we seem to figure out how to provide health care for all our citizens like every other industrialized country on Earth? We remain exceptional in that we’re the only western democracy where you can lose your home if you get sick; where many either ration their medications or buy them in foreign countries; and where millions go without medical care because they simply can’t afford it. This is an ongoing travesty that should shame us into doing something.
Gun violence and health care are interconnected, considering the Republican response to a mass shooting — including Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Saturday — dances around guns and comes down firmly on mental health as the primary issue. But America doesn’t have a proliferation of mental illness, we have a proliferation of guns: all shapes, all sizes, all velocities and all capacities — 300 million....enough to arm the entire country. And if the GOP is so concerned with mental health, why systematically dismantle health care, particularly Medicaid, which provides mental health services to millions? Oh, right, the NRA forbids gun talk and Republicans again, pathetically drop to their knees.
Congressional GOP leaders made every effort to avoid the obvious: Trump — “This is mental illness;” Abbott again — “Prayers for the victims....;” Kevin McCarthy — “Video games”; Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick — “Video game industry teaches young people to kill;” Matt Gaetz — “Pray they will bind together;” and from Vice President Mike Pence — More “prayers for the injured and the families.” Guns? What guns? It’s as if all these people just dropped dead.
Come to think of it, if we’re so exceptional, why can’t we seem to remember our own, uniquely American values? We’re strapped with an elected president who calls the tune while his reliable GOP marionettes dance their pitiful dance of cowardly supplication, placing party over country no matter the cost, even the lives of their constituents. Trump’s “great” America seeks to literally end immigration to a nation built on immigrants, whom he regularly demeans as murderers, drug dealers, rapists and terrorists.
If he’s able to completely mesmerize the Republican party, is there any question that Trump’s toxic rhetoric provided inspiration to the El Paso shooter, whose own “manifesto,” rancid with Trump-hate, uses some of the president’s own language to justify his rampage, citing the Hispanic “invasion” of Texas and his distain for immigrants turning his state into a “Democratic stronghold,” which POTUS and top Republicans have said repeatedly.
When Stalin first came up with “exceptionalism” it was to ridicule America for our arrogance, believing we were superior to other nations, a notion that faded after the Great Depression, only to reappear in mainstream politics in the 1980s, largely as a convenient means to label as unpatriotic any notion of the country being anything less than perfect.
But as becomes clearer with each new episode of mass gun violence, with each new pile of bullet-riddled bodies, we are far from perfect. And the rot starts at the top, with a racist president whose pathological neediness, utter incompetence and total dishonesty is blatantly obvious to everyone except to the GOP. He provides cover for racial, ethnic and religious hatreds that increasingly play out in violence and death while Republicans continue to parrot his excuses.
This walking, talking hate crime of a president has emboldened white nationalists out of the shadows to do their worst. Republican fealty to the NRA precludes any limitation on weapons of combat, providing the ready means for the ongoing slaughter of innocent people. Their version of “American exceptionalism” must be soundly rejected. Our lives depend on it.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.