What Does It Mean for Obama to Love or Hate America?

Rudy Giuliani is only the latest conservative to claim that the president isn't fond of his country, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Rudy Giuliani is developing a productive sideline in rage-baiting. Fresh off a largely incoherent comment about black-on-black crime following the Michael Brown case, America's Mayor said Wednesday night that President Obama doesn't love America. Here's what Giuliani said, according to Politico, during a "private dinner" for Scott Walker "at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan":

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.

Some liberals find it tempting to read this as nothing more than race-baiting. Isn't this just portraying Obama—who just happens to have a funny name and look different from Rudy—as the Other? (The White House simply replied, "It was a horrible thing to say.") But Giuliani isn't the only person to make this claim, and the others aren't just fringe figures. Erick Erickson, hailed by The Atlantic as America's most powerful conservative, says Obama "hates America." Former presidential candidate Steve Forbes doesn't think Obama loves America, nor does a prominent Tea Party organizer. Once-and-likely-future presidential candidate Rick Perry has doubts. The view is also importantly different from the idea that Obama is a threat to America, a critique that allows for the fact that the president may in fact be doing what he thinks is best for the nation and its citizens, but that is wrong. The Erickson-Giuliani consensus is important in that it requires a measure of malevolence on Obama's part. Therefore it makes sense to look at what evidence they marshal for the view to see what it can tell us about them and about Obama.

Let's start with Giuliani. He also said, “with all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world. I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that, and carry it out,” adding: “What country has left so many young men and women dead abroad to save other countries without taking land? This is not the colonial empire that somehow he has in his hand. I’ve never felt that from him. I felt that from [George] W. [Bush]. I felt that from [Bill] Clinton. I felt that from every American president, including ones I disagreed with, including [Jimmy] Carter. I don’t feel that from President Obama.”

There's an element of Dinesh D'Souza's claim that anti-colonial thought explains Obama's worldview, but it's not clear what about anti-colonialism is so anti-American. The nation was born out of an independence movement against colonial rule; promulgated a doctrine opposing European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere; and spent the Cold War resisting Soviet attempts to build client states around the globe. Exceptionalism? Obama says he's on board: "I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being," he said at West Point in 2014. "But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions." What about the dead young men and women? The implication is that a willingness to fight overseas wars is essential to loving America. That's perhaps a strange notion, but while Obama has pulled back troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he's also sent armed forces to Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan.

More telling, perhaps, is Giuliani's statement that "he wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country." Perhaps this refers to Obama's childhood, during which he grew up partly in Indonesia. But Obama attended high school stateside, and living abroad can't be a disqualifier for loving America—Erickson, for example, grew up in Dubai!

Speaking of Erickson, let's consider his evidence that "the American president hates America": Russia's invasion of Crimea, the murder of police officers in New York, ISIS, and the Sony hack. He writes, "No one seeks to fundamentally transform something they love." That statement is belied by the old saw about marriage, commonly (and surely apocryphally) attributed to Einstein. It doesn't make much sense politically either. Erickson comes by the idea rightly—he's a genuine conservative, and tends to revolt against any social changes—but most voters are different; it's not for nothing that many on the right hail Ronald Reagan as a "transformational president," a label that accurately describes the, well, fundamental transformation he worked on America. In fact, Erickson's definition would effectively deem many of the nation's greatest presidents America haters by dint of the transformations they brought. (Without the transformation of the 21st Amendment under FDR, the club where Giuliani spoke Wednesday would still be an illegal speakeasy!)

Some of the other critiques are equally poorly thought out. Steve Forbes told The Blaze that Obama "does not have the understanding of America or love of America or appreciation of America that Reagan did. And so Reagan’s rhetoric was substantive and resonated with the American people, while Obama’s is well-delivered with a teleprompter, but shallow." Reagan's enduring legacy may be larger than Obama's or it may not; it's too early to know. But there's no credit to the idea that a man who was twice elected president was unable to connect with American people.

Speaking in 2012, former Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer offered a couple of vague explanations for why she doesn't think Obama loves America. One was that he hasn't run anything, unlike Mitt Romney; but since the number of small businesses in the U.S. is maybe a tenth of the population, running a corporation can't be an effective proxy for patriotism. She assails Obama for lacking leadership, which may be proof that he's a bad leader but doesn't indicate he dislikes the nation.

But Kremer's basic articulation of the matter is simpler and perhaps more to the point: "I just don’t believe that he loves America the way that we do.” That seems to get at the heart of the matter, because it combines two key elements: first, an acknowledgement that this is fundamentally a matter of faith; and second, an unspecified but deeply felt version of "we."

The problem with this faith is that it becomes an a priori framework into which any further information must be made to fit. My colleague Yoni Appelbaum explained this phenomenon in 2010, while discussing the Shirley Sherrod scandal. "The result is esotericism. Words cease to be taken at face value," he wrote. "A candidate attends intemperate sermons, or shares a cup of coffee with an unrepentant terrorist, and his own consistent record of moderate centrism suddenly becomes construed as a mere facade for his true radicalism, which has somehow failed to ever find expression in any of his own acts or words."

In this case, to meet the demands of loving America, Obama would have to declare an unabashed belief in American exceptionalism; deploy troops overseas; oppose ISIS and Russian expansionism; and develop an emotional connection with American voters. He's done all that? Well, that's just proof of how carefully he's shielded his true beliefs.

The problem with the "we" argument is that it is democratically flawed. How does one define "us"? For some people, it's clearly a matter of race, but that isn't the case for most of Obama's critics. And while this anger may be directed specifically at Obama, the views he holds are shared by many white Americans. What Kremer is expressing is an ill-defined sense of cultural embattlement. The American polity isn't as homogeneous or as neatly defined as Kremer and others would like. It includes devout Christian small-business owners in the Midwest, but it also includes Asian bankers in New York City, Hispanic farmers in the West, and black artists on the East Coast. Each of those people may very well love America, but they probably won't do it in just the same way that Rudy Giuliani or Erick Erickson or Amy Kremer does. And that's fine. The logical end of her thought would be to deem anyone who has a different view of America not only as wrong but as dangerous traitorous—an unmanageable rubric.

At one time, the range of conceptions of the nation was a central element of Obama's political identity, most clearly in his famous 2008 "race speech," in which this multiplicity of viewpoints was what made America great—and, yes, one reason he loved America:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Obama doesn't talk about this as much these days. Perhaps he's just moved on from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing. Perhaps he's worn down by the sorts of debates that keep coming up about whether or not he loves or hates America.

It's a reminder, though, that for some people—minorities in particular—love of country can spring from very different sources than simply upbringing, ideology, and education.