It has been quite a week in politics.
On one side, the Democratic National Convention was very much a celebration of America. On the other side, the Republican nominee for president, pressed on the obvious support he is getting from Vladimir Putin, once again praised Putin’s leadership, suggested that he is OK with Russian aggression in Crimea, and urged the Russians to engage in espionage on his behalf. And no, it wasn’t a joke.
I know that some Republicans feel as if they’ve fallen through the looking glass. After all, usually they’re the ones chanting “USA! USA! USA!” And haven’t they spent years suggesting that Barack and Michelle Obama hate America, and may even support the nation’s enemies? How did Democrats end up looking like the patriots here?
But the parties aren’t really experiencing a role reversal. Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday was wonderful and inspiring, but when he declared that “what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican,” he was fibbing a bit. It was actually very Republican in substance; the only difference was that the substance was less disguised than usual. For the “fanning of resentment” that Obama decried didn’t begin with Donald Trump, and most of the flag-waving never did have much to do with true patriotism.
Think about it: What does it mean to love America? Surely it means loving the country we actually have. I don’t know about you, but whenever I return from a trip abroad, my heart swells to see the sheer variety of my fellow citizens, so different in their appearance, their cultural heritage, their personal lives, yet all of them – all of us – Americans.
That love of country doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, uncritical. But the faults you find, the critiques you offer, should be about the ways in which we don’t yet live up to our own ideals. If what bothers you about America is, instead, the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your country – you care only about your tribe.
And all too many influential figures on the right are tribalists, not patriots.
We got a graphic demonstration of that reality after Michelle Obama’s speech, when she spoke of the wonder of watching her daughters play on the lawn of “a house that was built by slaves.” It was an uplifting and, yes, patriotic image, a celebration of a nation that is always seeking to become better, to transcend its flaws.
But, all many people on the right – especially the media figures who set the Republican agenda – heard was a knock on white people. “They can’t stop talking about slavery,” complained Rush Limbaugh. The slaves had it good, insisted Bill O’Reilly: “They were well fed and had decent lodgings.” Both men were, in effect, saying that whites are their tribe and must never be criticized.
This same tribal urge surely underlies a lot of the right’s rhetoric about national security. Why are Republicans so fixated on the notion that the president must use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” when actual experts on terrorism agree that this would actually hurt national security, by helping to alienate peaceful Muslims?
The answer, I’d argue, is that the alienation isn’t a side effect they’re disregarding; it’s actually the point – it’s all about drawing a line between us (white Christians) and them (everyone else), and national security has nothing to do with it.
Which brings us back to the Vlad-Donald bromance. Trump’s willingness to cast aside our nation’s hard-earned reputation as a reliable ally is remarkable. So is the odd specificity of his support for Putin’s priorities, which is in stark contrast with the vagueness of everything else he has said about policy. And he has offered only evasive nonanswers to questions about his business ties to Putin-linked oligarchs.
But what strikes me most is the silence of so many leading Republicans in the face of behavior they would have denounced as treason coming from a Democrat – not to mention the active support for Trump’s stance among many in the base.
What this tells you, I think, is that all the flag-waving and hawkish posturing had nothing to do with patriotism. It was, instead, about using alleged Democratic weakness on national security as a club with which to beat down domestic opponents, and serve the interests of the tribe.
Now comes Trump, doing the bidding of a foreign power and inviting it to intervene in our politics – and that’s OK, because it also serves the tribe.
So if it seems strange to you that these days Democrats are sounding patriotic while Republicans aren’t, you just weren’t paying attention. The people who now seem to love America always did; the people who suddenly no longer sound like patriots never were.