American Exceptionalism

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Trump can't take away America's greatness


Ever since President Trump sauntered into the White House, America's image—or "brand," in marketing parlance—has taken a beating. This month, a Nation Brand Index poll of public opinion in 50 countries found that the "Trump effect" had caused America's reputation to drop from first to sixth place

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in world rankings on a whole host of metrics, such as its attractiveness as a tourist, business, and work destination. This is in keeping with the March U.S. News & World Report "best country" rankings, based on a poll of business leaders and other "informed elites" around the world, in which the U.S. fell several notches.

But fear not. America will overcome this loss of respect. American greatness doesn't stem from its politics or its political leaders so they can't tarnish it much either, not even Trump. What has made America great is that it has set the standards of excellence in literally every human endeavor for the last 150 years.

While immodest, it is not an overstatement to suggest that when it comes to the sciences, arts, technology, and business, America dominates the world. And it does so not by imposing its will on others, but by excelling so much that it forces other countries to compete on a higher plane. Quite simply, America has made the world a better place to live.

America pioneered nearly every transformational technology of the industrial age, beginning with Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera, and followed by Henry Ford's mass production of automobiles. America was the first to land a man on the moon. But what changed the way people live—besides TV dinners, Tupperware, and hairspray!—even more were America's immense strides in artificial satellites. This technology set the stage for the telecommunications revolution that gave us global positioning satellite systems in our pockets, among so many other modern wonders.

America invented the transistor, which fueled the miniaturization of electronics. We created the internet—sparking the IT revolution that transformed life in the 21st century more fundamentally than the Industrial Revolution did a century ago. Google and Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft, YouTube and Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—they were all created in America.

Likewise, in medicine America has led the way. Britain's Alexander Fleming may have discovered penicillin. But America's advances in diagnostic medicine—MRIs and PET scans—and pharmaceuticals have vastly improved the quantity and quality of human life. Nor is America yet done. Our nation is the hub of stem cell and other gene-based research that might eventually eliminate disease, reverse aging, and make humans all but immortal.

America isn't just the leader in applied science, but also pure sciences—which is surprising given that American adults' numeracy skills are below average compared to other OECD countries. The United States has won more Nobels for physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, and economics that any country since World War II—and by a wide margin. By 2015, America had 256 Nobels under its belt, compared to the United Kingdom's second place 93. Interestingly, about one-third of all U.S. Nobels are won by the foreign-born, showing just how attractive a destination America is for the world's top minds. That's because the best and the most cutting-edge work in many fields is done in America, offering great minds maximum scope for making their mark—which helps America maintain its edge despite its relatively sub-standard K-12 system.

And what's true of the sciences is also true of the arts.

Major U.S. cities have museums that rival those of European capitals. Ditto for symphony orchestras, with four U.S. cities ranking in the top 20 worldwide. Broadway's extravagant theatrical productions are simply unrivaled. New York, alongside London, has knocked off Paris and Milan as the fashion capital of the world.

American architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Gordon Bunshaft, who have won their share of Pritzkers, the profession's equivalent of the Nobel, have radically changed the world's architectural landscape. The classical, Gothic, and Renaissance styles of Europe were nurtured in societies where the major patrons were the aristocracy, church or state. Their primary purpose wasn't utility but boosting the stature of their benefactors or magnifying their message and mission. This meant building grand monuments that elevated form over function. Not so in America. Driven by market demand and actual human need, American architects subordinated form to function and completely changed the aesthetic paradigm of buildings from grandiose and fussy to simple and clean, whether Wright's prairie homes or Bunshaft's industrial skyscrapers.

But the art form that America truly owns is movies. Their cultural impact on the world is beyond compare — or measure. Hollywood has revolutionized how mankind produces and consumes entertainment. We make almost all of the biggest and best blockbusters. Nine of the top 10 grossing movies of all time are American. Meanwhile, American TV programs are ubiquitous. Urbanites in every country watch Friends and Seinfeld.

Hollywood's dominance is no doubt aided by the fact that English has become the lingua franca of the world. But there are other English-speaking nations in the world, and yet only Hollywood has managed to make such inroads beyond its own border. Why is that? Because Hollywood has figured out a way to make movies with universal themes and high production values that appeal to a broad swath of humanity. It has taken the art and craft of filmmaking to new heights, which is why the Oscar is the most coveted award for filmmakers everywhere. When Audrey Hepburn presented Satyajit Ray, one of India's—indeed the world's—finest film-makers the lifetime achievement Oscar just before he died in 1992, he noted in his poignant acceptance speech via a video link from his hospital bed that the award was the "best achievement of his movie-making career." Since he was little, he said, he had loved American cinema not just for how it entertained, but for what it taught aspiring artists like him. "I have learned everything about the craft of cinema from the making of American films," he acknowledged.

American music's influence is likewise unparalleled in human history. Like Hollywood movies, American music has a global listening audience. Nine of the 15 bestselling musical artists of all time are American. But such billboard rankings don't capture the full impact of American music. American genres such as ragtime, blues, jazz, folk, country Western, R&B, rock and roll, hip hop, and rap have been incorporated and "appropriated" by musicians across the world. This is all the more remarkable given that, unlike movies, all cultures have strong, deep-rooted local music traditions that don't yield easily to outside influences.

But all of this is dwarfed by America's economic footprint on the world. This country is quite literally the economic engine of the Earth. Seven of the largest 10 — and 53 of the largest 100 — companies are American. Indeed, America has about 4.5 percent of the world's population but generates almost 25 percent of the global GDP. In addition, access to America's large and rich domestic market keeps many foreign industries afloat.

There is a qualitative difference between the character of America's influence and that of previous empires. European colonial powers tried to become "great" through conquest and occupation. America did so by the sheer attractiveness of its offerings. America is not so much a superpower as a grand force in the world. However, because its military prowess led the West to civilization-saving victories in World War I and World War II, the world started viewing America as a superpower and, worse, America started viewing itself as one.

But the fact is that this country's hard power—and its embrace of its role as the policeman of the world—has been more of a liability than strength. This is not to deny that America's military strength has done some good, but, on balance, it's been more of a liability than an asset. Indeed, almost every intervention America has undertaken after the two great wars has backfired, most notably in Vietnam. Nor did it redeem itself with its post-9/11 military action in Afghanistan and Iraq—not to mention Libya.

If any other country had made so many missteps, its stature would have been irremediably lost. But that's not the case with America because of the sheer awe its cultural soft power rightly inspires. By the same token, if America had only this power and none of its massive military arsenal, the Trump presidency would have mattered not a whit to the world. Everyone could have safely ignored him, or at least laughed him off, just like they do a crazy and thuggish tyrant like Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, and the focus would have remained on everything else that America does.

The American brand's reputation has been generated through vast, far-reaching, and all-encompassing contributions to the advancement of humanity. And it is profoundly at odds with Trump's empty braggadocio. Even though America is stuck with Trump as its face for now, there is every reason to believe that it'll regain its former glory once he passes from the scene. The unseemly antics of an impetuous man, even one so visible and powerful, can't make America small forever, after all.

This column was originally published in The Week