Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, and American Exceptionalism

Back when Dick Cheney was being hailed for calling out Donald Trump’s racism, I noted one aspect of that radio interview that largely escaped notice: his embrace of the myth that the American continent was empty when his Puritan ancestors got here.

Cheney didn’t stop there. He then emphasized that one of his ancestors arrived as a religious refugee, a Puritan. “A lot of people, my ancestors got here, because they were Puritans.” Cheney suggested, then, that the place was empty when William Cheney arrived in the 17th century. “There wasn’t anybody here, then, when they came.”

There has been little recognition that, in speaking out against the ban on all Muslims, Cheney either unintentionally or intentionally propagated another racist myth, that there “wasn’t anybody here” when the Puritans came.

It’s unclear whether Cheney meant there was no formal state to exclude the Puritan refugees, or whether he really meant — which is what it sounds like — that the continent was empty in the 17th century.

But it seems like a very subtle dog whistle, the kind Republicans used to limit themselves to, suggesting that it is OK for white men to colonize a previously occupied space, even while espousing a kind of tolerance for what we would recognize as religion. By claiming “there wasn’t anybody here” when colonists first came to America, Cheney normalizes conquest, the same kind of conquest he demanded in the Middle East a decade ago, which has so badly exacerbated extremism and continued to make us insecure.

The degree to which Cheney’s perpetuation of that “empty America” myth went largely unnoticed is worth remembering as you read this Pat Buchanan piece, which complains that middle aged whites are killing themselves because their children are learning that America wasn’t actually empty.

A lost generation is growing up all around us.

In the popular culture of the ’40s and ’50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific.

They were doctors, journalists, lawyers, architects and clergy. White males were our skilled workers and craftsmen — carpenters, painters, plumbers, bricklayers, machinists, mechanics.

They were the Founding Fathers, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton, and the statesmen, Webster, Clay and Calhoun.


The world has been turned upside-down for white children. In our schools the history books have been rewritten and old heroes blotted out, as their statues are taken down and their flags are put away.

Children are being taught that America was “discovered” by genocidal white racists, who murdered the native peoples of color, enslaved Africans to do the labor they refused to do, then went out and brutalized and colonized indigenous peoples all over the world.

In Hollywood films and TV shows, working-class white males are regularly portrayed as what was once disparaged as “white trash.”

Unlike Cheney’s embrace of the empty America myth, Buchanan’s is (rightly) getting a lot of attention. I obviously don’t endorse his views, but I do think they explain the strength of Trump. Buchanan not only talks about declining economic prospects of white working class men, the relatively improved fortunes of people of color, but especially about the plight of white men losing their myths of superiority, losing the myth that white men made this country and led the world without the often-coerced labor and deaths of lots of brown people.

Trump’s lies, Buchanan suggests, permit these white men to believe their myth again, the myth of white American exceptionalism.

Here’s the thing. A lot of people are linking Buchanan’s post are pointing just to those far right nutjobs whose enthusiasm has fueled Trump’s rise this year.

But — as the example of Dick Cheney perpetuating the very same myths, even while criticizing Trump’s overt racism — that underlying myth extends well beyond the far right nutjobs, well into mainstream Republican and even Democratic ideology.

America has a Donald Trump problem — one that its diversity will probably defeat, at least in the short term. But underlying that Donald Trump problem is a desperate insistence on clinging to the myth of American exceptionalism, with its more offensive parts even embraced in the mainstream. For the sake of the white men who’ve relied on those myths for their sense of dignity, but also to prevent future Trumps, it is time to start replacing that exceptionalist myth with something else.

24 replies
  1. Zvyozdochka says:

    Many of your posts remind me of Winston Churchill on ‘exceptionalism’

    “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

    The concept you’re describing is known as Terra Nullius, which indigenous peoples in a few countries have used via international law to have their claim recognised.

  2. John Casper says:

    Many thanks.

    On Twitter, I increasingly ask, “which Native American tribe are you from?”

    My 100% German paternal grandparents were mortified when their eldest daughter became engaged to an Irishman. It didn’t matter that he was Catholic. Ten kids later, when their youngest married my Irish Mom, it wasn’t such a big deal. The KKK didn’t consider Semitics or Catholics to be, “white.” They, and the Aryan supremacists, had no idea about the DNA, “Out of Africa: Somewhere between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, Africa saved Homo sapiens from extinction. Charting the DNA shared by more than six billion people, a population geneticist—and director of the Genographic Project—suggests what humanity ‘owes’ its first home.”


    “What set these migrations in motion? Climate change—today’s big threat—seems to have had a long history of tormenting our species. Around 70,000 years ago it was getting very nippy in the northern part of the globe, with ice sheets bearing down on Seattle and New York; this was the last Ice Age. At that time, though, our species, Homo sapiens, was still limited to Africa; we were very much homebodies. But the encroaching Ice Age, perhaps coupled with the eruption of a super-volcano named Toba, in Sumatra, dried out the tropics and nearly decimated the early human population. While Homo sapiens can be traced to around 200,000 years ago in the fossil record, it is remarkably difficult to find an archaeological record of our species between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, and genetic data suggest that the population eventually dwindled to as few as 2,000 individuals. Yes, 2,000—fewer than fit into many symphony halls. We were on the brink of extinction.”

    Would public universities around the world buy media time to get this message out? Hope they consider using their alumni magazines and news letters.

  3. tony in san diego says:

    In fact, the continent was at the tail end of massive depopulation from infectious disease, by the time the founding fathers arrived. The “forest primeval” was a forest that had overgrown a continent that had previously been tended by pastoralists and agriculturalists for millennia. It is estimated that 90% of the indigenes were dead within a century or so of “discovery”. So, Cheney is not wrong to imply it was an empty land when his ancestors arrived.

    • John Casper says:

      tony in san diego,

      1. Have you heard of the, “Cumberland Gap?”

      “The virgin hardwood forests of eastern Kentucky, as they existed some 200 or more years ago, were by the reports of early visitors, the finest and most majestic known at that time.

      Cherry’s History of Kentucky pictures the land which greeted early settlers as little short of a lush and verdant paradise. It states, “This territory, a changing scene of hills and mountains, rivers and valleys, forests and open stretches of fertile lands called ‘Barrens’ interspersed with numerous rivers, choked by fallen trees and fed by pure springs, wind in and out and up and down the fertile valleys.”

      “Dense forests crowded to the water’s edge, reaching back in endless profusion. Giant forests of oak and tulip, beech and ash, sycamore and linden, cedar and pine, and many other varieties of trees grow so close that their leafy branches spread a canopy through which the rays of the sun could scarcely penetrate, producing twilight effects even at high noon.”

      Another traveller of Kentucky’s earliest days writes, “In more than a thousand leagues of the country over which I have travelled at different epochs, in North America, I do not remember having seen one to compare with Kentucky for vegetative strength of the forest.”

      In 1785, Francois Michaux, a noted French botanist, was sent to America by his government to study the flora of North America. He spent the next 12 years travelling over the eastern part of what is now the United States. His reports on what is now Kentucky possibly served as a basis for the language quoted from Cherry’s History above.

      In 1802, Michaux, the French botanist, still travelling across Kentucky, was impressed by the size and height of trees which he saw along his route. His writings mention particularly the tulip poplar, the white oak, sycamore, and black walnut.

      Over a quarter of a century earlier, Daniel Boone had laid out a trail from Cumberland Gap to Fort Boonesborough to mark the way to the Transylvania Settlement on the south bank of the Kentucky at the mouth of Otter Creek. He also reported trees of enormous height and circumference along his route.

      Based on these and other observations, it is believed that of the 26-million acres which comprises present-day Kentucky, at least well over 24-million of these acres of the state’s surface area supported magnificent forests. Estimates of volume in these forests, based not only on observations such as those quoted above, but on the timber cruises and actual cuts of some of the early mills, appears quite certain that volume averaged from 10,000 board feet per acre on the poorest sites to well over 60,000 to 70,000 thousand board feet per acre on the better sites and undoubtedly occasional sites in the coves and the lower north slopes supported stands equalling 100,000-board-feet per acre by the standards of merchantability in vogue in those early days. It has been estimated that the total volume of timber in the area now comprising the present State of Kentucky ran in excess of 122-billion board feet. This estimate, based on the merchantability standards of the early timber industry, would probably be at least double that volume when estimated by the merchantability standards in vogue today.”

      2. Are you calling Daniel Boone a liar?

      3. What’s a, “pastoralist?”

      4. What’s an, “agriculturist?”

      5. Did you teach Dick Cheney how to shoot?

    • martin says:

      quote”So, Cheney is not wrong to imply it was an empty land when his ancestors arrived.”unquote

      Bullshit. Cheney was spawned. In hell. By puke drooling, giggling beasts who then killed themselves in recognition of what they had done.

    • Dean says:

      Yes,please elaborate on your notion that the indigenous americans were dying out.If I recall,european settlers brought smallpox to the “new world”.As far as Trump’s views on mexicans,the US pretty much took the SW USA from mexico after the spanish american war,so all those “mexicans” woke up one morning,to be in the US.Typical american imperialism,if your not with us,we’ll kick your a@@ til you agree with us..or kill you.

      • P J Evans says:

        Your history is bad.
        The Spanish-American War was in the 1890s.
        The US got the southwest in the late 1840s.

  4. Les says:

    What they forget to tell you is that a lot of the Native American Indians died of disease and starvation from being forcibly transported from the Eastern part of the country to the West.

  5. Ian says:

    EMPTYWHEEL (Marcy) said:
    America has a Donald Trump problem — one that its diversity will probably defeat, at least in the short term. But underlying that Donald Trump problem is a desperate insistence on clinging to the myth of American exceptionalism, with its more offensive parts even embraced in the mainstream.
    A lost generation is growing up all around us.
    In the popular culture of the ’40s and ’50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific……..
    They were the Founding Fathers, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton, and the statesmen, Webster, Clay and Calhoun.
    I SAY:
    Can I suggest that BOTH you and also Pat Buchanan have pointed out the “change agent” that has occurred amongst American younger generations [younger than Pat Buchanan anyway] and with that “change agent” is the great hope for this countries population—and it is also makes it certain that the abandonment of “the myth of American exceptionalism” [for IT IS a myth, a falsehood, a fraud] will NOT harm anyone in this country—indeed it will probably improve the lives of many white males in this country, as well as many of the other 62%-69% of the population who are NOT white males.
    That “change agent” of course is the teaching of [at least an abbreviation of] THE ACTUAL HISTORY OF THE USA in the nation’s grade schools’ and High Schools—instead of teaching the populist & patriotic version [which is often fictional] and is usually taught as a morality play.—with the ACTUAL history having no role to play.
    Both Canada & many North European countries insist on teaching their schoolchildren a very close approximation of the ACTUAL history despite many morally troubling periods in their nations history.[If you are a Swedish parent of Swedish children what should they learn about the Vikings—or Varangians as the Russians call them—The great destroyers of Christian churches in western Europe?//The world’s greatest navigators-from the St Lawrence River estuary to the Black Sea?//The world’s greatest traders second only to the Arabs?//the ancestors of the Normans of Normandy?].
    The advantage of treating even High Schools students as “miniature adults” is that they can “learn the lessons learnt by earlier generations”, that they can “avoid repeatedly making the same mistakes over and over again”, they can learn from other people’s mistakes instead of going out into the world to make their own mistakes.
    Now, I’m not saying that life for those who prefer to live in a dream world [which is what their 1st grade school teachers seem to have told them they were entitled to] will prove very happy—of course they won’t. None of us like to be awoken from our dreams in a warm bed.
    But look at the examples Pat Buchanan picks ——-AS SIMILAR HEROES—–George Washington & Thomas Jefferson!
    When George was just 11-year old his father died and it was his elder brother, [then] 26yr old, LAWRENCE WASHINGTON who took care of George, found him a home, found him a job [as a surveyor.—a skill which George would later use to build his great fortune as a land developer].Lawrence Washington as a young man, prior to their father’s death, “had been volunteered” as an officer for service in a [British] ROYAL MARINE unit[ancestor of today’s USMC] on board the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon,RN .
    Admiral Vernon is presented an iconic figure in many Royal Navy histories for showing an officer’s duties towards his men, his subordinates, MUST include caring a great deal to ensure they do NOT die an unnecessary death and his nickname ‘Old Grog’ is invariably associated with the preference the Royal Navy has always shown to that “duty of an officer to his men” by—in this case allowing, later officers changed it to “ordering”, the mixing/diluting of lemon juice [to combat scurvy] with West Indies procured “rum”. Lawrence Washington named his newly acquired Virginia estate Mt Vernon after Admiral Vernon—and George Washington, by provision of his will, ordered the release, the manumission, of all his slaves after the later of his own, and his wife’s, death.
    A similar attitude to the “lower orders” as the Washington’s [Lawrence & George] showed is seen on many PBS Stations broadcast of the routine British soap operas, often called “period drama’s” in Britain itself with titles like DOWNTON ABBEY/Upstairs Downstairs/Forsythe Saga etc etc—the noblesse oblige of “respectable/honorable” people to look after the family retainers regardless of the [traditionally minimal] provisions of the law of the land
    By comparison the ACTUAL History of Thomas Jefferson is the exact opposite morality to the Washington family’s understanding of “honorable”. Jefferson & Madison both were accused, with justification by their contemporaries, of being, by political persuasion, JACOBIN’s—of holding, in common with the French Jacobin’s (Robespierre & Danton etc etc) the anti-western belief that mankind did not need to rely on past generations understanding of how “officers should treat men under their command” for example or “mothers of my own children” [in Voltaire’s & Jefferson case]—each generation must work out its own morality and if it is deeply self destructive so be it.
    When James Madison was planning the conquering of Canada [in 1812] he was urged on by [ex-President] Jefferson who assured him that the US militias pretending to be a formidable army ordered to conquer Canada, would find it “merely a matter of Marching” although they knew that the enemy [Great Britain in this case] had a full European trained army, that their Navy had been, even then, the world’s leading theorist of all matters naval for over 200 years [by 2016 for over 450 years] & that the US Army would need, JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER ARMY IN THE WORLD’s HISTORY—a competent Officer Corp & competent /”Lucky” generalship[None of which either Jefferson or Madison bothered to supply] .
    Imagine how beneficial to this countries population it would be, and imagine how beneficial it would be to those white males who already believe, like George & Lawrence Washington believed, that the US Commander-in-Chief MUST OWE A DUTY OF CARE TO THOSE POOR SOULS TRAPPED INSIDE THE US ARMED FORCES.
    Imagine how beneficial to this countries population it would be, and imagine how beneficial it would be to those white males who already believe, like George & Lawrence Washington believed, that this country’s population should be prepared to look at other European heritaged nations/other “Western” countries/other Constitutional Sovereignties of Christendom AS AN EQUAL because the countries population had learnt that it didn’t need to treat the Western world as consisting of “the lesser breeds without the law” [to use Rudyard’s Kipling’s famous phrase ],v Americans who claimed the right—like Thomas Jefferson claimed the right—NOT to be a Westerner’s— that the countries population had reached political adulthood, that the majority of the countries population were no longer political children, were no longer politically naïve.
    And all because this countries School Districts chose to teach ACTUAL AMERICAN HISTORY IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS to “miniature adults” for at least 2[two] generations[say 40 years]

  6. Bay State Librul says:

    “For the sake of the white men who’ve relied on those myths for their sense of dignity, but also to prevent future Trumps, it is time to start replacing that exceptionalist myth with something else.”


    Repacement: “The Ugly American”

  7. GKJames says:

    It’s the tallest of orders to replace a myth. It would take generations. And good luck to anyone who tries (ask MLK). The challenge is not Trump supporters per se given that the myth goes far beyond them to encompass the essence of how Americans see themselves. Certainly, the forms in which the exceptionalism myth is expressed vary, the current thuggish version being the flavor of the day. But substantively and structurally things change little precisely because the consensus on major matters is deep and wide, a consensus that rests on the foundation of exceptionalism.

  8. blueba says:

    It might be pointed out that the European invasion of the Americas resulted in the largest – largest by far – genocide in human history.

    The US myth of exceptionalism – still hanging on by a thread – is the corrupted ideology of Calvinism. The origins of the myth come, in large measure, from the wave of German Calvinists which came after the Puritans who were also Calvinist but not quite so extreme.

    Still, the more things change the more they stay the same. We face now what we faced in the 1960s and which the great Howard Zinn stated clearly and succinctly – as long as this is true there will be no positive change:

    “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

  9. wayoutwest says:

    If Cheney and Buchanan are upset about Trump’s rise and all they can complain about is his supposed racism and poor white males their whining is just covering up what is really happening. Trump crushed the republican party elites and championed the white males and some females and many other peoples disgust with their empty rhetoric and abandonment of all working people in favor of the already rich just as the democrats have done.

    Conservatives are pro business but business has failed to support and employ people in the way their rhetoric promises and many conservative voters are fed up, not just the White male exceptionalist. Trying to reduce this insurrection to rednecks and racists is a convenient way to try to distract from the coup Trump engineered on the party elite.

    The myth, but practical reality, of Amerikan exceptionalism is not going away any time soon and some of us still remember what happened to Carter when he crossed the line and painted a lesser picture of the future. Make Amerika Mediocre and Liberal Guilt for all are not useful campaign slogans.

  10. bevin says:

    In this corner of north America, the population fell precipitately in the C17th, beginning in the second third thereof. This was a century after the epidemics which hit central and south America.
    As you suggest, and as most historians agree, the declines in population in which up to 90% of the indigenous died were coincident with the invasions of Europeans, and, I believe, to a lesser extent, Africans.
    The fact that Cheney warms up the old myth that there was nobody there in New England when the insufferable Puritans arrived clinches it for me: the place must have been overflowing with people.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Native Americans: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.

    Learning that the America Columbus “discovered” wasn’t empty can be like taking Morpheus’s red pill. The indoctrination has been formidable. Ditto re “stout” Hernan Cortes’s friendly exchanges with the Aztecs and Francisco Pizarro’s amicable chats with the Incas. The myth is true, in part, owing to Native American deaths caused by war, slavery and the introduction of European diseases. The friendliest introduction to something more real than the still-promulgated grade school myths remains Howard Zinn’s, Peoples’ History of the United States.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Buchanan’s economics remain as hole-ridden as David Brooks’s. His “explanations” for the hollowing out of the American economy and consequent demise of the white working and middle classes leave out the most important elements. Corporate executives’ dedicated shifting of production and technology offshore, for example. The gutting of retiree and current employees’ retirement and pension benefits, usually followed by large bonuses to the owners and executives who did the gutting. And that the percentage of the enormous gain in productivity since 1980 allocated to the American working and middle classes has been, oh, zero. It’s all gone to the top. Now those are things all Americans should be visibly upset about. They should impose consequences on the political class that did and still does enable those economic priorities.

    Sadly for Americans, Mr. Trump is an excellent example of the personal and corporate greed that embodies those priorities. His opportunistic rhetoric is unlikely to inform his actions; it never has before.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    European diseases weren’t limited to the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Early explorers in North America happily spread them so that by the time of the landings at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, eastern seaboard populations were already seriously affected.

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