She mistreated me. I mistreated her. But we loved each other, we’d proclaim time and again.
I’d listened for “I love you,” as if listening for a sign of life, like a doctor listening for a beating heart. I had been led to believe “I love you” is that beating heart of love. Say it, love lives. Don’t say it, love dies.
Months before starting my first professorship in 2009, I ended the relationship for good. We’d been through breakups and makeups before. Mistreatment drove us away several times. Mistreatment did not keep us away, or cause me to question whether we loved each other. The desire to be in something I thought was loving drove me back time and again.
I was fragile, and insecure. Oh, I wanted to hear her heart beat those three sweet words, wanted to say them time and again. Hearing them and saying them made me feel so good. Love, I thought, was all about feelings. Certainly not growth. Love, I thought, was supposed to make me feel good. Hate, I thought, was supposed to make me feel bad.
I think about all of this as I watch President Donald Trump, who is locked in an abusive relationship with his supporters, and with America. He has built his political project on the fraught and popular philosophy that love is said, love is felt—that love is a noun. Listening to Trump’s soundtrack of hate, it is easy to miss that he considers the songs on his MAGA soundtrack to be love songs. Trump’s central political message: “I love America—and want to give back—so we can MAKE AMERICA SAFE & GREAT AGAIN, TOGETHER,” as he posted before the 2016 election. “I AM FIGHTING FOR YOU” against those who hate America, he promised.
When he said on Tuesday, “Those people are living in hell in Baltimore,” and when he tweeted on Saturday that majority-black Baltimore is such “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” that “no human being would want to live there,” he considers those statements to be love. “They really appreciate what I’m doing,” he said. He considers Representative Elijah Cummings to be hate.
When Trump tweeted on June 19, 2018, that Democrats “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13,” that is what he considers love. He asked Americans during his State of the Union address earlier this year “to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country.”
To the red-hats, Trump himself embodies love, and his critics, especially the antiracist critics of color, embody hate. Al Sharpton “Hates Whites & Cops,” as Trump tweeted Monday.
In advance of Trump’s Fourth of July event in Washington, Trump opponents and supporters squared off all the way from the White House to the expanse of the National Mall. At one point, the red-hats chanted, “I love America, I love America.”
For many Trump supporters, to love Trump is to love white people is to love America. To hate Trump is to hate white people is to hate America. This love-hate duality is essential to understanding Trumpism, and essential to the mind game Trump and his lieutenants have been playing with white Americans.
According to a recent Fox News survey, Trump still retains majority approval from every segment of white voters except college-educated white women. White people, too, are victims of his domestic assaults, his alternative facts, his dalliances with Vladimir Putin, his tariffs, and his tax cuts for the super-rich. But while many white voters break up and make up with Trump, most never leave. Their white fragility, to use Robin DiAngelo’s term, makes them crave the security of Trumpism. He loves them. They love America. He is America.
He is them. They are him. Whiteness all told.
The red-hats don’t like being told that their pro-life label is bogus when they are not fiercely opposing the march to war with Iran; that their defense of American Jews is a charade when they join forces with anti-Semitic white nationalists; or that their Christian identity is a sham when they worship a man who is the antithesis of Jesus Christ. Trump makes the red-hats feel good by telling them he loves them, and by telling them they are not racist—their antiracist critics are the real racists. He makes them feel good when he says that they are the real patriots, that their “civilization” is superior, and that they have more because they work harder and better.
At his campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on July 17, Trump said of his kind, “We love our nation.” He said that four congresswomen of color are “hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down.” They “never have anything good to say.” He suggested that children “should be taught to love our country, honor our history, and always respect our great American flag.” Which is to say, children should always say good things about Trump. “Love it,” or rather him, or “leave it.”
Before Trump attacked congresswomen of color, he attacked the Obama administration in similar terms. “Americans love their country,” Trump said in his first State of the Union address, in 2018, “and they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.” To Trump, love means loyalty. No, not loyalty. Obligation. No, not obligation. Submission. Complete submission. No criticism, no matter what.
No matter all the women who’ve accused him of sexual misconduct. No matter all the brutal bigotry falling from his lips. No matter the natural disasters getting worse under his watch of climate denial. No matter the crimes against humanity along the southern border that we will all one day have to atone for. No matter his desire to spend billions on a border wall when America’s infrastructure is collapsing. No matter all the high crimes and misdemeanors described in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
And he loves America? He is demanding submission. He has been demanding this submission since his 2016 campaign.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voter, okay?” Trump said at a campaign rally, as he formed and fired a gun with his fingers. “It’s, like, incredible.”
In that relationship I left a decade ago, my feelings of love were incredible. I felt I loved her, almost at first sight, when we met outside the Richmond Coliseum. I felt I loved her because I had such a strong emotional attachment to her, because I didn’t want to let her go. I felt I loved her because I ignored my rational relatives and friends and thoughts telling me to let myself go.
After a while, when the mistreatment deepened, I could not reconcile the love she said she had for me with the love she did not give. I could not reconcile the love I said I had for her with the love I did not give. I finally let myself go from this unhealthy relationship, but I struggled to leave my unhealthy relationship with love.
My emotional attachment to her paled in potency to my emotional attachment to the popular conception of love as a noun, of love as a feeling, of love as something that is said. Insecurity bound us together. Wanting to be loved kept the shackle locked. But I recognized myself as being shackled, a recognition that keyed my freedom.
I decide to change my relationship with love not through entering another serious relationship. I entered the library, searching for books that could free me.
I found bell hooks’s books on love, which formed her “love song to the nation,” and devoured them. But it was the first of those four volumes, All About Love, that made the deepest impression. “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” she wrote.
Love is about nurturing one’s own growth or another’s growth, she told me. Love is not instinctual. We choose to love a romantic partner, a relative, a friend. “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” What about feeling? “When we feel deeply drawn to someone, we cathect with them; that is, we invest feelings or emotion in them.” Cathexis is different from love.
It was painful to admit that the relationship I had just left was rarely love. Painful to admit that I had not known regular love, had not been regularly loving to people I claimed to love. But with that admission came more freedom.
I felt free to grow through critique. I started reevaluating relationships and people and myself. Who had been a constructive force in my life? Who had been a destructive force in my life? Was I a constructive force in my own life, or in the lives of others?
We can ask the same questions of America: Who is a constructive and destructive force in America’s political life? Who is wounding America? Who is putting Band-Aids on problems that need surgeries?
Growth necessitates deep-seated, fundamental critiques. But radical critiques can hurt feelings. Asking these questions hurt me to my core. But no longer was I equating simply feeling good with love, or feeling bad with hate. Instead, I was starting to think of love as a constructive act, and hate as a destructive one.
Trump says he loves America, and he whispers sweet somethings that sound so good to his red-hatted supporters, but is he really nurturing their growth? Trump has shattered America in two: those who love him, whom he can abuse, and those who hate him, whom he can fight. How is that love? How is he being caring, affectionate, respectful, trusting, and honest—what hooks considers the active ingredients of love—to his supporters, let alone to the rest of us?
If love is a verb, then hate is also a verb. Trump hates America.
Racists can’t possibly love America. They are anti-growth, only talking about what they and America and Trump are not: not racist. They can’t look past their own hierarchal worldview to see that the problems afflicting them are not caused by other races, but by power and policy. Racism is hate.
Antiracists must practice love. Antiracists must nurture themselves and America no matter the pain that is essential to healing. They must construct antiracist ideas that say there’s nothing wrong with our race or any other. They must nurture their communities and institutions by constructing antiracist policies that yield racial equity.
The beating heart of love is nurturing, is constructing, is pumping out growth, like a person striving each moment to be antiracist. Doing it, love lives. Not doing it, love dies.
Love (of America) is a verb.