John Sununu opened the “American” door the other day, and now the Romney campaign is barging through it, plotting attacks on Barack Obama’s “biography,” which will inevitably include veiled accusations about his alleged alien cast, his lack of American-ness. So now that it’s open, let’s stroll through it ourselves. What’s taking place in the room on the other side of that door? Republicans and conservatives are bouncing off the walls because they face a serious risk for the first time in a generation that their definitions of patriotism and Americanism are losing. And not just losing—losing to, of all people, Barack Hussein Obama!
The Republican credo that theirs is the party of patriotism goes back a long, long way, at least to the 1920s. The Democrats then as now represented society’s so-called rabble—immigrants, wets, cosmopolites of that gin-soaked decade when the urban population for the first time overtook the rural. Over time, Democrats added blacks, new immigrants, liberated women, gays. The Democrats have been the party of the Other. Impugning their patriotism to the target audience is so easy it can hardly even be called work. In doing so, of course, Republicans tied the concept strongly to their, um, values: the all-conquering free market, mostly; a good war now and then; the occasional (actually, more or less constant, now that I think about it) campaign against subversives real and imagined (the vast majority). Thus have things ever been.
You will find, as you scan our modern electoral history, say since 1968, that the Republican candidate has laid some Americanism-related charge at the Democrat nearly every time, but that the reverse has never occurred. Richard Nixon sent Spiro Agnew out to accuse Hubert Humphrey of being soft on communism and compare him to Neville Chamberlain, even while Nixon was committing treason by submarining the Paris peace talks. Democrats can’t, and don’t, peddle this merchandise, because it’s pointless: they know it won’t stick to the party that has owned the issue for decades.
Then comes Obama. I don’t have to rehearse for you all the things that were said in 2008. More salient is the fact that the Republicans are still saying them now, after the man has been president for three-and-a-half years and after he executed Osama bin Laden. Obama apologizes for America. If we give this man four more years, Romney has warned repeatedly, the America we’ve come to know and love will no longer exist. Health care, higher taxes at the top of the income ladder—these aren’t just bad ideas. They’re un-American and threaten the very body and blood of Uncle Sam. Romney said just two days ago in Pennsylvania: “The course we’re on right now is foreign to us. It changes America.”
That’s the script. But then the patriotism party nominated a man who has for a quarter-century practiced a brand of capitalism that respects no known flag or borders. He ran a company that created some jobs but sent others overseas, he finagled himself a way to get paid a lot of money for doing (by his own admission) no work for a few years, and he appears to have retained a battery of lawyers to help ensure that he pays a far lower tax rate than the working people he’s trying to whip into a state of fear about Obama. And there’s only one reason people have Swiss bank accounts, and it’s to avoid making their otherwise mandated contributions to the national treasury.
I originally had mixed feelings about Obama’s “America the Beautiful” ad, the one that uses Romney’s wobbly warbling of the song as backdrop for text that read: “He had millions in a Swiss bank account... Tax havens like Bermuda... And the Cayman Islands.” It seemed, and maybe was, a little bit churlish to use Romney’s singing, which wasn’t what you’d call good but more or less followed the tune. But the ad succeeds marvelously at making Romney’s career not just about rapacious pursuit of profit, but about patriotism. I don’t ever recall a Democratic campaign implying that a Republican’s behavior was unpatriotic. So consider my hat tipped, in a big way. It’s as if Obama changed the directional flow of a mighty river.
Now Romney is going to scramble to reset things to normal. But we’re supposed to own the label “America”! We decide what’s patriotic! That’s just how it’s always been, that’s why! I’m sure Romney is absolutely staggered at the idea that his life’s work is being calumniated as, of all things, unpatriotic, and by—as I said earlier, of all people—Barack Obama. I luxuriate in the thought that right-wingers across the country are tearing their hair out over this as if in a nice hot bath. But that’s what is happening, and it’s resonating because it’s true. He has done all of these things.
It may be legal to take every tax break you can, to try to claim a $77,000 deduction for your horse. But it is not right. Being a good American means doing what’s right in civic terms, not what you and your team of lawyers figure you can get away with. By this definition Romney is the un-American, and it would be a glorious thing indeed if he became the pivot on which we turned to a definition of patriotism that rendered behavior like his opprobrious.