The American Right Defines Patriotism As Complacency About Racism

My country, white or wrong. Photo: Public Domain

Over the past 48 hours, Donald Trump has tweeted several things that respectable conservatives do not wish to defend. No National Review columnist has seconded Trump’s assertion that U.S.-born congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.” And only a few GOP officeholders have implored Ilhan Omar to heed the president’s guidance, and return to the “crime infested” place from which she came.

But beneath these distastefully forward flirtations with white nationalism, many conservative intellectuals see an argument worth redeeming. Trump’s chief complaint with “the squad” of progressive nonwhite congresswomen was that they had been “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States … how our government is to be run” (apparently, the voters who elected AOC & Co. are not among “the people of the United States,” and opining on government operations is an aberrant behavior for members of Congress). From the moment the president’s hateful tweets posted, GOP operatives have been trying to pretend that this was his only point: Far-left Democrats hate our great country. Congressional Republicans got the memo.

Trump, meanwhile, shifted his emphasis from whether AOC & Co. are American to whether they deserve to be. “Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!”

Once sanitized by GOP message-makers, Trump’s stance ceases to be overtly racist. Ilhan Omar’s claim to national belonging is now negated by her anti-American attitude, not her Somali origins. And yet the moment one examines what “anti-American” means, in this context, the true color of Trump’s nationalism becomes plain.

After all, none of the congresswomen in question have said that they “hate America.” They’ve merely expressed dissatisfaction with its present state and challenged popular conceptions about its past — prerogatives of citizenship in a free society that Donald Trump has never denied himself. The mogul centered his presidential campaign, after all, on the assertion that America was no longer great. He described the United States as “the suckers of the world,” and said that “we are like, in many cases, a Third World country.” And Trump has no compunction about goring the sacred cows of conservative nationalism. He has expressed contempt for American prisoners of war, said that George W. Bush did not keep us safe, questioned whether the U.S. government was more “innocent” than Vladimir Putin’s, and declared that America had done “a tremendous disservice to humanity” in the Middle East.

Clearly then, neither Trump nor his defenders believe that dissent is inherently unpatriotic. It is something about the content of the congresswomen’s dissent — and perhaps the congresswomen themselves — that causes conservatives to see their protests as expressions of unforgivable ingratitude.

Of course, that something isn’t difficult to discern. The American right refuses to recognize any distinction between the claim “racial inequality was fundamental to our nation’s founding, and remains a pervasive force in American society today,” and an expression of “hatred” for the United States. This refusal is not peculiar to Trump or his loyalists. Even the president’s most highbrow (and lukewarm) apologists regularly denounce the anti-Americanism of progressives who express dissatisfaction with the state of racial progress in the U.S.

Take Charles C.W. Cooke. On Monday, the National Review’s senior editor penned a column arguing that Ilhan Omar had a moral obligation to “temper her critiques of American politics and culture” because she came to the U.S. as a refugee, and therefore owes this country a debt of gratitude. Here’s the core of Cooke’s case:

Legally, Omar should enjoy every Constitutional protection available. And, as a matter of course, she should feel able to take part in the political process on the same terms as everyone else. But, culturally, it is absolutely reasonable for Omar’s critics to look at her behavior and say, “really, that’s your view of us?” It’s absolutely reasonable for Omar’s fellow Americans to dislike her and to shun her as a result. It is absolutely reasonable for them to consider her an ingrate — or to believe, as David does, that she is “a toxic presence in American politics.” And it is absolutely reasonable for them to wonder aloud how a person who hails from a dysfunctional, dangerous place built atop dysfunctional, dangerous institutions can exhibit the temerity — the sheer gall — to talk about America in the way that she does. There is a big difference between saying “I oppose current federal tax policy” or “I want more spending on colleges” or “the president is an ass,” and saying that America needs complete rethinking. As this Washington Post piece makes clear, Omar isn’t just irritated by a few things. She thinks the place is a disaster … I do think that it is reasonable for native-born Americans to recoil when people who elected to come here try to make sweeping changes to the American system — or, even worse, when those people buy into the idea that the United States is corrupt and evil from the root.

The “tell” in Cooke’s column (as in so many similar diatribes) is the absence of any direct quote from the object of his scorn. Cooke’s argument is that there is a big difference between ordinary dissent and Omar’s rhetoric — a difference so vast, it is reasonable for the American people to “shun” her for voicing such incendiary views. This is a remarkably strong claim coming from Cooke, given that he argued — just last month — that cultural intolerance for offensive speech has become a dire threat to freedom of expression in the U.S. If Omar’s words were so despicable as to make a free-speech absolutist condone her banishment from polite society (merely for speaking her mind), you’d think Cooke would wish to share them.

But directly engaging with Omar’s dissent would create a problem for the pundit, because not once in the Washington Post column he cites does the congresswoman say “America is a disaster” or “needs complete rethinking.” Rather, she says things like this:

“I grew up in an extremely unjust society, and the only thing that made my family excited about coming to the United States was that the United States was supposed to be the country that guaranteed justice to all. So, I feel it necessary for me to speak about that promise that’s not kept.”

“I arrived at the age of 12 and learned that I was the extreme other. I was black. I was Muslim. I also learned I was extremely poor and that the classless America that my father talked about didn’t exist.”

“This is not going to be the country of white people. This is not going to be the country of the few.”

In these quotes, Omar clearly expresses disappointment with the United States. But the cause of her disappointment is the discrepancy between her country’s egalitarian ideals and its inequitable realities. Her defining mission, as a politician, is to close that gap and realize the “promise that’s not kept.”

Omar’s critiques of the U.S. are certainly radical and not always tactful. But the same is true of Trump’s. The difference, as Cooke subsequently makes clear, is that Omar’s critique challenges America’s racial innocence, while Trump’s does not:

It is also absolutely reasonable for Americans to be alarmed that Omar is being encouraged, both implicitly and explicitly, by a worrying number of politicians and public figures — figures who, in any sane culture, would want newcomers of all stripes to believe the place they’d ended up in was virtuous. Last week, Beto O’Rourke told a bunch of refugees and other immigrants that America was a tainted, bigoted, white-supremacist nation, flawed in every particular, stained structurally to the core, and institutionally set against them. And he did so in public — for public consumption! — because he thought it would help him politically. That way lies cultural suicide.

Beto O’Rourke has no allergy to praising America. But when asked about what he would do to combat racism at a campaign event, he did acknowledge the fact that white supremacy was a de jure reality in the American republic for its first 188 years of existence, and that the legacy of centuries of race-based subjugation has not been fully eradicated in the 55 years since 1964. If Cooke regards the public airing of this sentiment as an invitation to “cultural suicide,” one must ask whose culture he wishes to preserve.

After all, Cooke’s assertion that “native-born Americans” are right to resent the ingratitude of Omar’s dissatisfaction with U.S. race relations becomes incoherent the second one remembers that many native-born Americans are black.

African-Americans have deeper roots in our country than virtually any other U.S. community. The hard labor of black slaves served as a (if not the) primary engine of American prosperity throughout our civilization’s first centuries of existence. Chattel slavery didn’t just fill the coffers of southern planters; “as a source of the cotton that fed Rhode Island’s mills, as a source of the wealth that filled New York’s banks, as a source of the markets that inspired Massachusetts manufacturers,” historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman write, slavery “proved indispensable to national economic development.” And yet for the unspeakable sacrifices that their ancestors made in service of our nation’s development, black Americans have never been compensated. Rather, most were systematically excluded from the wealth creation that followed the Second World War. And studies suggest that African-Americans still face de facto discrimination in housing, employment, and the criminal-justice system.

Let’s stipulate that, as an immigrant, Omar owes a special debt of gratitude to the United States. Why wouldn’t her fierce criticism of racial inequality in the U.S. constitute an expression of that gratitude? Why would it be more “grateful” of Omar to evince indifference to the maltreatment of a deeply rooted American community whose past subjugation is inextricable from the comforts and opportunities that she presently enjoys? Or, to put the question more pointedly: Why does Cooke — a British-American immigrant who earns his livelihood at a publication that defended southern segregation and apartheid — believe that his relative complacency about racial progress is a mark of gratitude rather than entitlement?

The ostensible answer is that Cooke believes white, conservative Americans are entitled to his (and Omar’s) gratitude, while black liberal ones are not, no matter how long the latter’s “people” have been here. This belief does not appear to be conscious. But absent that premise, his argument becomes unintelligible.

On the same day that Cooke’s reflection on Omar’s ingratitude went live, the National Review’s editor Rich Lowry published an editorial with nearly identical flaws. In “Men Literally Died for That Flag, You Idiots,” Lowry argues that U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe is an “idiot” for kneeling during the national anthem, because in the U.S. Civil War, some color sergeants (soldiers who carried flags into battle) died while literally defending the U.S. flag. “[T]he sacrifice and blood of these men are inextricably caught up in the meaning and moral status of the American flag,” Lowry writes. “The historical illiteracy of those who protest it is perhaps understandable and on some level forgivable; their rank ingratitude and disrespect are not.”

Like Cooke, Lowry does not quote the object of his critique because that would make it harder for him to misrepresent her argument. If Rapinoe had knelt during the national anthem to protest the flag itself — on the grounds that no one had ever literally died for it while fighting for a just cause — then Lowry’s column would make her stance look foolish indeed.

But that is not Rapinoe’s position. This is:

I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street. But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache.

… I can understand if you think that I’m disrespecting the flag by kneeling, but it is because of my utmost respect for the flag and the promise it represents that I have chosen to demonstrate in this way. When I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom — because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country.

As a response to Rapinoe’s actual argument, Lowry’s history lesson is a non sequitur. Her complaint is with America’s racial order, not its flag. But like Cooke, Lowry refuses to acknowledge a distinction between the two. On a surface level, both columnists assail the left for equating love of America with indifference to white supremacy; in actual fact, it is Cooke and Lowry who insist on that equation.

Trump has made the color of conservative nationalism more plain to the naked eye. But a tacit faith in white Christian Americans’ superlative claim to national belonging has always been native to the creed.

Conservatives Define Patriotism As Complacency About Racism