Sullivan was going on about the “growing” and “scary” divide in the country when a law student from a rural town in Kentucky interrupted his monologue: “Coming from a flyover state, it is difficult for me to even be on the same wavelength as the people I grew up with.”
The student’s confession brought Sullivan back to his own upbringing in Minnesota. He was 13 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. A few months later, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, eager to meet with some average Americans, visited a home in Sullivan’s Minneapolis neighborhood. Sullivan remembered Latvian and Estonian Americans protesting for Baltic independence along the Soviet premier’s motorcade route. He felt a sense of what America could mean to the world.
As a candidate, Trump had rejected the very idea of American exceptionalism as an unnecessary burden. “I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional. You’re not,” Trump had said at a tea party rally in Texas. “I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much.”
Sullivan increasingly thought that the antidote to Trumpism was a full-on embrace of American exceptionalism of the sort he had felt in Minnesota. “We need something audacious that’s rooted in our national DNA; who we are as a people,” he said. “There needs to be a call to arms that can motivate people.”
But he struggled to describe his idea in detail. To spur his thinking, he read a dense 1890 essay by military strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, making the case for America as a global naval power. He studied historian Stephen Kinzer’s book, “The True Flag,” on Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the birth of the American empire.
He played with ideas that he hoped might resonate in Minnesota or Kentucky. “Our exceptionalism is rooted in the idea that we have the ability to innovate and solve hard problems — climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation,” he posited at one point. Maybe America’s exceptional mission was rooted in an unshakable commitment to a strong and growing middle class, he suggested a few weeks later.
But none of these formulations seemed big, audacious or inspiring enough.
Sullivan often insisted that he had developed his views about the world at “a public high school in Minneapolis.” But he is also unquestionably a product of Washington’s insular foreign-policy elite.