The opening statements of multiple witnesses in the recent impeachment hearings tell pilgrim tales of oppression, immigration, and opportunity. “My late parents did not have the good fortune to come of age in a free society,” Marie Yovanovitch testified. She loves the United States because of the refuge it offered her family from the USSR and Nazi Germany.
In the same way, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman recounted, “As a young man I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving the nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression.” Gordon Sondland’s parents, meanwhile, “fled Europe during the Holocaust” and eventually settled in Seattle “eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity.” Fiona Hill testified that her father “loved America” from abroad and in particular “its role as a beacon of hope in the world.”
Those who came here for freedom and opportunity serve the world by bringing freedom and opportunity abroad. A language of American exceptionalism establishes the credibility of key witnesses and the sincerity of our national interests overseas.
Such a way of speaking calls to mind the national holiday we celebrate this week. On Thanksgiving, Americans collectively remember the Pilgrims, who, according to Ronald Reagan, came “looking for a home that would be free.” In the usual narrative, these Pilgrims are celebrated because they fled persecution and established the United States as a “city on a hill,” a “beacon,” a “magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Most of these Pilgrim stories are myths. Many of them erase and whitewash the larger history of America. For these and other reasons, the Left has traditionally criticized American exceptionalism, even as the Right made it an official plank in the 2012 Republican Party Platform.
But the language of American exceptionalism permeates the opening statements of these non-partisan witnesses. It is not just the tale of immigrants fleeing oppression. It is the description of the nation’s role in Ukraine. As William Taylor explained, Ukraine is “developing an inclusive, democratic nationalism, not unlike what we in America, in our best moments, feel about our diverse country.” Americans who serve there say they are supporting the “cause of freedom.” George P. Kent spent a good deal of his opening statement comparing the fight in Ukraine to the American Revolution.
These witnesses have the full support of the Left and the skeptical ire of the Right. What has perhaps been most surprising about the Trump era is this general movement of American exceptionalism across the aisle. America First is really the opposite of American exceptionalism, as I have written elsewhere. Where Reagan told tales of refugees finding freedom in America, Trump has tried to build walls and denied entry to those fleeing persecution in their lands. It is no surprise, therefore, that in opposing this new Right of Donald Trump, the Left has started reviving an old rhetoric.
Admitting all our shortcomings and failures at home and abroad (what too often goes missing from American exceptionalism), perhaps it is not so bad to believe that this nation does and can and should stand for something, uphold certain values, model certain principles. Perhaps it is not a bad idea to use words like “freedom” and “refuge” and “opportunity.” If we believe, as Yovanovitch claimed, that “our leadership depends on the power of our example and the consistency of our purpose,” then we will look closely at ourselves, hold our leaders to account, and attempt to maintain standards that can serve as a model for others.
As David Holmes testified, “Ukrainians and freedom-loving people everywhere are watching the example we set of democracy and the rule of law.” He might have said, as the Puritan governor John Winthrop did in 1630, that “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
As we break from these hearings to share turkey and relax, we might skip the myth of the Pilgrims this year and focus instead on the histories of Hill, Vindman, and Yovanovitch — those who, indeed, came here looking for a home that would be free. Public servants who work for this nation out of gratitude for what it has done. Witnesses who hope that the freedom they have tasted will not be denied to others.