Patriots In Denial

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 12:58 PM EDT

Conservatives have always been a patriotic bunch, but their flag-waving seems a lot more aggressive these days. The two big conservative events in DC this month, the Values Voters Summit and the 9/12 march on Washington by the so-called tea party protesters, were patriotism on steroids. Values Voters kicked off with a full Boy Scout color guard, the pledge of allegiance and a rousing rendition of the national anthem. The 9/12 march featured numerous flags, anthem-singings and even a crowd rendition of America the Beautiful. As I was leaving, a guy on the sidewalk chirped, “So wonderful to see all you great patriots out here!”

After spending many hours at these gatherings, I was left with the impression that many Americans are responding to the recession with a newfound nationalism. Republican politicians are egging them on, insisting that despite the collapse of the banking system, the foreclosure crisis, and the utter destruction of American manufacturing, the U.S. has always been and still is the greatest country in the world, one made that way by God. And they really, really hate anyone realistic enough to suggest otherwise—especially if that person happens to be President Barack Obama.

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At Values Voters, for instance, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recalled Obama’s recent visit to France, when someone asked Obama about “American exceptionalism.” Huckabee said scornfully that Obama had replied, “’Well, I’m sure that we think our country is exceptional, but then the Brits think they’re exceptional and the Greeks think they’re exceptional.’  So, in other words, when asked what does he think about American exceptionalism, the answer is, not so much,” Huckabee concluded. “Well, I happen to differ.  I believe America is an exceptional country created out of the providence of God.” 

Later that weekend, Bill Bennett, Education Secretary during the Reagan administration, flacked his new American history textbook, which he wrote to promote American greatness in public schools. An audience member asked him whether he knew of any other president in history who had spent so much time apologizing for America’s behavior. Bennett replied “no” and said he believed that Obama’s apologies were, “maybe not the most consequential thing he’s done as president, but it’s the worse thing he’s done as president.” People leapt to their feet and cheered. Mitt Romney echoed the theme, observing that, “We know that America has always endured a chorus of critics—people who claim that every ill, every failure in the world is America’s fault. But it has never before had a president who was conducting that chorus.” And on it went. 

The rhetoric of American exceptionalism is nothing new to conservative politics. But the town hall protests over the summer seem to have sent it into overdrive. Listening to all these political speeches—and watching the response—I got the sense that the government takeover of the auto industry and the collapse of the banking system came as a deep insult to conservative pride. Their very real belief that America is morally and economically superior to the rest of the world seems painfully shattered. Many conservatives, in fact, seemed to take the auto industry failure personally. But instead of getting upset about the under-regulated credit markets or the utter lameness of the PT Cruiser, they’ve aimed their fire at the bailouts themselves and retreated to the safety of public displays of patriotism. 

The trend is troubling and not just because of its jingoistic undertones. It’s a symptom of denial, manifested in comments like those of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who insisted Friday that America has “the greatest health care system there’s ever been in the world.” Yelling that America is great won’t make it so. And imbuing America with papal infallibility prevents the country from moving forward and digging out of its current hole. As my colleague Kevin Drum has pointed out, if you can’t acknowledge that there is a problem, how can you go about fixing it?