President Obama has been accused by Republicans of many sins. The castigation of Obama goes beyond the usual political criticisms to the deeply personal, notably that he was born in Africa or that he is lying about his Christian religion. Two weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who has become one of the sharpest conservative voices, accused Obama of the ultimate personal failing for an American politician – he doesn’t love America. Giuliani was speaking at a fund-raiser for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The next day, Walker refused to say whether he agreed. Not until this Sunday did Walker decide to say something different, that he didn’t question that Obama loves America. His silence up to that point did exactly that, though.
Politicians change their minds about what they meant to say, when it turns out they said something that hurts their reputation. But Giuliani was firm in his convictions. Two days later he emphasized, “I said exactly what I wanted to say. I conveyed exactly the message I wanted to convey.”
This is actually a familiar Republican refrain. When Obama first ran for president, conservative commentators questioned whether he might be a traitor. Near the end of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney responded to the news of attacks on our embassies in Libya and Egypt by saying, “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” This turned out to be an untrue version of events, but a true Republican response to Obama.
What do these accusations of Obama mean? Let’s look at more of what Giuliani said, since he thought he had been so clear. “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Even New Yorkers don’t like Giuliani any more. But of course he’s right that a black man had a different experience growing up in this country in the late 20th century. There was plenty for a black person not to love about America when Obama and Giuliani were young men.
Like Giuliani, the white voters who believe that Obama doesn’t love America are thinking about their own version of America. Many people don’t want to hear anything negative about their history. Conservatives are upset by attempts in high schools and colleges to teach about American historical failings: centuries of slavery, lynching, killing of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws. That is why the Jefferson County (CO) school board wanted to revise American history teaching to emphasize “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage,” while avoiding lessons that demonstrated that racist laws across America were morally and constitutionally wrong.
When anyone notes that America’s history includes serious moral failings, that is all that conservatives hear. In a column about Obama’s lack of love for the US, Kevin Williamson of the “National Review” generalizes further, “For the progressive, there is very little to love about the United States.”
When President Obama, among many other people, takes note of these facts and openly expresses his rejection of them as American values, conservatives like Rudy Giuliani and Scott Walker and Kevin Williamson feel their good white traditions under attack. And they feel empowered to say that other people are not as good Americans as they are.
Great majorities of Americans of all political leanings say they love America. Democrats and Independents tend to place themselves right in the middle of an imaginary spectrum of patriotism. Nearly 10% of them say they are not sure if they are more or less patriotic as most people. Republicans are different. Nearly half say they are more patriotic than most people. Virtually none are unsure about how they rank. And three-quarters of Republicans think Obama is less patriotic than most people in public life.
Giuliani said that Obama does not love Americans. In fact, it is many Republicans who don’t love their fellow citizens, if they are too liberal. That is a difficult partisan divide to overcome.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 3, 2015