Radical Betrayal: How Liberals & Neoconservatives Are Wrecking American Exceptionalism 
By Anders W. Edwardsson.
Defiance Press & Publishing, 2023.
Paperback, 330 pages, $17.89.

Reviewed by John Hendrickson

Anders Edwardsson in Radical Betrayal: How Liberals & Neoconservatives Are Wrecking American Exceptionalism traces the historical development of American exceptionalism and how it has changed throughout our history. Further, Edwardsson argues that the traditional view of American exceptionalism or Americanism as defined by the Founding Fathers has been undermined as a result of political ideology from both the political left and right. 

Edwardsson argues that American exceptionalism was a “glue” that united Americans throughout most of history. This does not mean that Americans agreed on political, economic, or constitutional issues. The United States fought a bloody Civil War over constitutional issues. Nevertheless, Edwardsson argues that the principles established by President George Washington created a unifying view of American exceptionalism that lasted until the emergence of the Progressive Movement and later the Cold War. 

Under President Washington these principles included a non-interventionist foreign policy, a system of capitalism based upon Alexander Hamilton’s economic policies, and a commitment to limited government. Granted debate existed over these issues such as the tariff, states’ rights, and what limited government meant. Washington believed that the United States would be an example of liberty to other nations, while avoiding entangling alliances. 

The first challenge to this view of American exceptionalism occurred in the realm of foreign policy with the Spanish-American War. Edwardsson argues that President William McKinley departed from the non-interventionist foreign policy of Washington and neglected the wisdom of John Quincy Adams who stated in 1821 that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

The Spanish-American War opened the doors to American foreign policy interventionism. On the domestic front, Edwardsson argues that another departure was the Progressive movement. Progressives of the early 20th Century believed that the Constitution and the principle of limited government was obsolete. 

President Woodrow Wilson was the greatest catalyst for changing American exceptionalism. Wilson, even as an academic, was extremely critical of the American Founding. Wilson was the first “globalist” to serve in the White House. Wilson, through his League of Nations, envisioned not only a new international order, but that the United States would become the world leader in promoting democracy. In addition, Wilson argued that the United States needed to abandon the traditional protectionist trade policy and embrace free trade. 

Edwardsson argues that Wilson’s view of American exceptionalism was curtailed during the presidential administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Whereas Wilson was critical of the Founding, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover adhered to the Founders and the Constitution. Harding’s election in 1920 ushered in a period of conservatism. 

As an example, Harding highly praised the Founders and the Constitution, which he described as “the very base of all Americanism, the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ of American liberty, the very temple of equal rights.” Harding also stated that “it is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the republic.” Coolidge and Hoover held similar views. 

Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover also fought to preserve constitutional limited government and they returned to a non-interventionist foreign policy. All three supported the use of the tariff to protect America’s economy. Harding and Coolidge were also successful at limiting government by cutting government spending and reducing tax rates. 

The situation changed with the Great Depression and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the fulfillment of progressive political philosophy. The New Deal not only changed the way Americans viewed government, but it resulted in a constitutional revolution. 

Roosevelt also ushered in Wilson’s internationalism with the start of World War II. Roosevelt ended non-interventionism. As a result of World War II, the United States became involved in military alliances such as NATO and Roosevelt ended the Hamiltonian system of economic nationalism by embracing global free trade. 

Edwardsson notes that during the Cold War presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat, used American exceptional rhetoric as a weapon to fight communism. Nevertheless, the Cold War meant a permanent departure from Washington’s non-interventionism. It also created the “warfare-welfare state.” The best example of this was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. 

During the Cold War two political ideologies arose that Edwardsson argues helped lead to the current decline and division within the country. The first was that of the Progressives or modern liberals who embraced the philosophy of Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. This ideology became more extreme, especially in the 21st Century, in its criticism of the principles of the American Founding and even outright rejection of American exceptionalism. 

The second ideology, Edwardsson contends, came from the Neoconservatives. He argues that the Neoconservatives embraced a Wilsonian view of American exceptionalism. Neoconservatives would become prominent fixtures in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Edwardsson argues that President Reagan brought forth a renewed patriotism and often reminded Americans about the principles of the American Founding. 

Nevertheless, Edwardsson notes that Reagan’s presidency did not restore the traditional view of American exceptionalism. The United States continued on its path of interventionism and globalization and even though Reagan ushered in a period of economic growth he failed to limit the welfare state. 

The Neoconservatives were also influential in the policies of Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, President George H. W. Bush declared a “new world order” and he also embraced “big government conservatism” and global free trade. During the 1990s, globalization became an ideology for both Republicans and Democrats as they embraced the “end of history.” 

This philosophy was especially dominant in President George W. Bush’s administration. Edwardsson argues that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks marked a turning point. As a result of the attacks, President Bush declared a war on terror and with the help of his Neoconservative advisers launched two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” stated President Bush. In echoing Wilson, President Bush argued that it was in the national interest to advance democracy across the globe. 

Neoconservatives also had an optimistic view of human nature, that is, they believed that America was based upon a set of “universal principles,” which could be discovered in the hearts of all mankind. This led to the belief that these “universal principles” could be found in any nation. 

This meant that the United States could not only promote democracy but create liberal democratic states in foreign countries. Neoconservatives were only partially correct in their belief in “universal principles,” that is, the only “universal principles” that all mankind shares are original sin and total depravity. 

This view of American exceptionalism was the direct opposite of the precedent established by President Washington. What was the result of the Neoconservative and the Progressive view of American exceptionalism? In terms of foreign policy, it led to multiple interventions and two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which failed to create the promised democratic states. It also led to the expansion of NATO. 

In terms of domestic policy, it has led to the further expansion of the federal government. Free trade and globalization have led to not only a loss of sovereignty to international organizations, but the loss of industry and manufacturing jobs. Globalization also led to a massive increase in immigration. The embrace of globalization and immigration was combined with a belief in multiculturalism. Assimilation and Americanization, which was once a cornerstone of immigration policy, is now ignored and replaced by multiculturalism. 

Edwardsson argues that a turning point came with the 2016 presidential election and the emergence of Donald Trump. During the campaign Trump argued for a return to an America First agenda, which was similar to that of President Harding. This agenda included a renewed patriotism, calling for an end to illegal immigration, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Trump was also extremely critical of free trade. 

Trump’s policy views were the direct opposite of neoconservatism. Nevertheless, as Edwardsson notes, Trump’s views were actually consistent with an older conservative philosophy. President Trump also signaled the abandonment of neoconservatism. “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow,” stated President Trump.

The national conservatism of the Trump administration was similar to the policies of Harding and Coolidge. It combined a non-interventionist foreign policy, limiting immigration, and the use of tariffs to protect manufacturing. President Trump also stood against globalization by protecting the loss of sovereignty to international organizations. He also threatened to end America’s membership in NATO unless the other member states started to pay their obligations. The same was true for trade. President Trump withdrew the United States from President Obama’s Transpacific Partnership agreement, and he renegotiated several trade deals. 

What is the future of American exceptionalism? In the post-Trump era, Edwardsson acknowledges that America is still divided. Although President Trump tried to restore a traditional view of American exceptionalism through his policies he also failed on a few fronts. Edwardsson notes that just as with Reagan, Trump failed to limit the size and scope of government. 

Americans are still divided and many of these divisions are cultural issues, which are not easily resolved. The same is true on other policy fronts such as foreign policy. The current debate over funding for the war in Ukraine is an example. Many Democrats and Republicans, whether Progressive or Neoconservative, argue that the war in Ukraine is a turning point in Western Civilization. 

Edwardsson argues that America must rediscover the true meaning of American exceptionalism found in the principles established by President Washington. He also offers a warning of what will happen if America fails to renew this traditional view of American exceptionalism. 

“Moreover, if national and patriotic identities continue to fade, the only unifying force left throughout the West will soon be visible cold hand and army-booted foot of government.” We are already seeing the consequence of this with not only the growth of government, but also the emergence of the “deep state.” 

President Trump brought much needed change to both the Republican Party and conservatism, but it is not clear whether or not those policies and ideas will continue. A civil war is emerging within the Republican Party over “Trumpism” and even though America First policies are popular with the grassroots it does not mean that they will continue. President Trump faced much opposition from within the Republican Party, especially for his foreign and trade policies, which threaten the interventionist and globalist agenda that has been in place for decades. 

Many on the political right, former President George W. Bush, for example, view Trump’s America First policies as a dangerous return to the obsolete ideas of protectionism, isolationism, and nativism. This has been echoed by other Republican politicians, conservative organizations and thought leaders, and right-of-center publications such as The Wall Street Journal

Edwardsson does see signs of hope that America will rediscover a traditional view of American exceptionalism. He argues that the second or third generation of immigrants may prove to be more patriotic and most Americans have a disdain of the current vile political environment. Further, he sees the need for an Article V convention to correct some mistakes in the constitutional order of the American Founders. 

Many on the political right are arguing for an Article V convention, especially to pass amendments to deal with the national debt. The question must be asked whether or not the Founders made a mistake, or did “we” as a nation abandon the principles of the Founding. 

Nevertheless, Edwardsson may be too optimistic. The deep divisions over social and cultural issues may never be resolved. In addition, for decades the American education system has not only failed, but often times it has led to the radicalization of education. 

How can we have a renewed sense of American exceptionalism when Americans are ignorant of their history or are taught that the United States is an agent of evil? Progressives are launching a war on America’s past and rewriting the national story. Further, American culture overall has abandoned the values of the American Founders. Political ideology whether it be libertarian market fundamentalism, Progressivism, or Neoconservatism are still powerful forces. The cultural Marxism of the woke revolution is also a significant force that is working to undermine traditional culture, institutions of society, and the family. 

Can the nation overcome these divisions? Edwardsson is correct that a renewed sense of American exceptionalism is needed. Radical Betrayal offers readers a much-needed history and defense of American exceptionalism. Edwardsson also warns Americans about the dangerous ideologies that are undermining American exceptionalism. After reading Radical Betrayal, Lincoln’s warning seems more realistic. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

John Hendrickson serves as policy director for Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation.

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