Jonathan Zimmerman commentary: How the GOP gave up on American exceptionalism


Gifts and makeshift crosses are seen at a memorial dedicated to the 19 children and two adults killed on May 24th during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 31, 2022, in Uvalde, Texa
Gifts and makeshift crosses are seen at a memorial dedicated to the 19 children and two adults killed on May 24th during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 31, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
(Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)<br/><br/><br/>
We are part of The Trust Project.

Is this a great country, or what?

That’s been a 50-year refrain of Republicans, who have made “American exceptionalism” into a kind of emblem for their party. America is a unique force in world history, they insist, a beacon of hope and liberty for the entire globe.

That’s over and done. Republicans still mouth the pieties of American exceptionalism, of course, especially around election time. For all practical purposes, however, they have rejected it. To the Grand Old Party, America ain’t so grand.


Witness the standard Republican responses to the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were slaughtered by an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style rifle. Dismissing pleas for gun regulation, GOP politicians said the only way to guard against such massacres is to make sure that other citizens — you know, the good guys — are armed.

Think about what that says about America if they’re right. It means that we no longer have a nation that can protect its own people, which is a fundamental duty of governments everywhere. It means that we can’t trust the officials we elect to make us any safer. It’s each man and woman — and, yes, child — for themselves.


How great does that sound, to you? To me, it’s a vision from hell. It’s not a place where I’d like to bring up my own kids, or to grow old myself. It’s a war of all against all, where only the strong — and, of course, the armed — survive.

It’s also a place afflicted by “cultural sickness,” as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told the National Rifle Association convention three days after the Uvalde massacre. The problem in America “has never been about guns,” the Republican from Texas said. It’s “despair and isolation and violent hatred,” which have infected the heart — and the soul — of the nation itself.

“Tragedies like the events of this week are a mirror forcing us to ask hard questions, demanding that we see where our culture is failing, looking at broken families, absent fathers, declining church attendance, social media bullying, violent online content, desensitizing the act of murder in video games,” Cruz declared.

Again, is that the country where you want to live? All of the issues Cruz identified are real, of course. But if we look in the mirror, and that’s all we see, well, what does that say about us? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

The rest of the world has been looking at us, too, and wondering what is ailing America. Other countries see us as exceptional — in exactly the wrong ways.

That’s what a British reporter said, in a revealing exchange with Cruz following a vigil for the victims in Uvalde. “Why does this only happen in your country?” the reporter asked Cruz. “Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?”

The phrase clearly rankled Cruz. “I’m sorry you think American exceptionalism is awful,” he shot back. The reporter replied that he was only condemning “this aspect of it” — that is, mass shootings — but Cruz wasn’t having it.

“Why is it that people come from all over the world to America?” he asked. “‘Cause it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on Earth — stop being a propagandist.”


Let’s leave aside the efforts by Cruz and the GOP to keep people from coming to America: the Muslim ban, the Mexican wall and more. The idea of America as the “safest country on Earth” contradicts everything we know about firearm deaths, which increased in the U.S. nearly 10% between 2003 and 2015, even as they fell in other wealthy democracies.

More to the point, given the tragedy in Uvalde, children are vastly more likely to die from guns here. In a recent study of 31 high-income countries — mostly in Europe — the U.S. accounted for 92% of all of the firearm deaths of children between 5 and 14. Yes, you read that right: More than 9 of 10 of the kids who died from guns did so right here in the USA.

For the life of me, I don’t know how you can square that with the idea that America is the greatest — or the freest, or the safest — country on earth. And I don’t think Republicans can, either. To borrow from Cruz, they should stop posturing as propagandists for American exceptionalism. They gave up on it a long time ago.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” which will be published in a revised 20th anniversary edition this fall by the University of Chicago Press.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit at . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

More commentary columns:
Recent commentary columns published in the West Central Tribune.
From the commentary: The 2024 campaign is already very different from 2016, and it’s likely to become even more so.

What To Read Next
I’ve written many stories over my journalism career about farm injuries and the importance of having first-aid kits in farm shops and tractors, and I plan to start practicing what I’m preaching.
"If we are unwilling to admit that the racism exists in our power structures, people of color will continue to pay a deadly price."
We could all use a good laugh to start out the new year.
From the commentary: The American business community is about creating jobs, bolstering our economy, and solving problems, and it will support candidates that bring answers and not fear. That message is a recipe for success for either party to embrace.