Last week, former New York Mayor and failed GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani ruined a quiet dinner, where anti-tax Republicans were vetting Wisconsin governor and possible presidential candidate Scott Walker, when he became the latest Republican to question President Obama’s patriotism.
“I know this is a horrible thing to say,” Giuliani said, “but I do not believe that the president loves America.” He wasn’t done. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me,” Giuliani added. He still wasn’t done. “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up, and I was brought up, through love of this country,” Giuliani went on. An awkward silence probably fell over the table. Some of those gathered likely winced to think of the media storm to come.
Giuliani doubled down. In an interview with the New York Post. “Logically, think about his background,” Giuliani said. “The ideas that are troubling me and are leading to this come from communists with whom he associated when he was 9 years old,” he added in reference to President Obama’s childhood years living in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather. On Sean Hannity’s show, Giuliani invoked 9/11 to reinforce his claim about the president’s patriotism. On Fox News, Giuliani tried to explain that his words were “taken out of context.”
Meanwhile, conservatives jumped on the Giuliani bandwagon.
- Rep. Darrell Issa (R, California) said Americans should “thank” Giuliani for taking the debate “back to national security.”
- Rep. Peter King (R, New York) said Giuliani “should not apologize” for his comments, because President Obama doesn’t have the right “fervor” to fight terrorism.
- Fox News’ Katie Pavlich echoed Giuliani, saying the president has a “blame America first” approach.
- After initially punting on the president’s patriotism, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker attacked the president’s faith instead, telling a Washington Post reporter that he “doesn’t know” if the president is a Christian or not.
- RedState.Org founder Erick Erickson echoed Walker, tweeting that the president is not a Christian “in any meaningful way.”
Then an interesting thing happened. They tried to take it all back. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Giuliani wrote that he “didn’t intend to question President Obama’s motives,” or “the content of his heart.” Meanwhile, Fox New’s Brian Kilmeade tried to claim that Republicans shouldn’t be held responsible for Giuliani’s comments.
It won’t work. For starters, Giuliani was questioning the president’s patriotism, and the “content of his heart.” Peggy Noonan did the same thing in 2008, in her own inimitable style, when she dismissed Barack Obama as “the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness,” and then wondered if he’d ever “gotten misty-eyed” over “the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything.” Or George Washington, Henry Ford, or the “losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter’s Mill.”
Noonan, at least, was honest about it. “No one is questioning his patriotism,” she wrote, “they’re questioning its content, its fullness.” It’s become the usual conservative response when those who lived through the consequences of America failing to live up to its stated ideals, dare speak their truth. First they question, our love of country. Then they tell us we have to love their America, on their terms.
President Obama has expressed his love for America countless times, but conservatives don’t believe he loves it the right way. To them, America is like a fragile narcissist, who must be loved unquestioningly and uncritically. As Matt Taibbi noted, it’s an ironically Soviet style of patriotism, for people fond of calling the president a “communist.”
Giuliani was “othering” the president, as Republicans have done for the past 7 years. The GOP did it a lot in 2008, and the base loved it.
From Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamp president”, to Rick Santorum muttering about “blah people,” and Mitt Romney’s “Keep America America” refrain, Republicans employed the same formula in 2012 that they used in 2008.
Republicans can’t run from Giuliani’s hateful rhetoric. It’s who they are. Tailoring their rhetoric for a shrinking white conservative base that’s wrestling with economic anxiety caused by right-wing policies, and the cultural anxiety facing an America where white is no longer the norm, has worked too well for Republicans. It’s now required, to win credibility with right-wing conservatives. It also repulses an American majority that looks less and less like the GOP base. The audience for right-wing xenophobia and jingoism is only going to get smaller. The Republican’s problem is, they don’t appear to have anything else.