What does it really mean to love America?

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It has been quite a month in politics.

On one side, the Democratic National Convention was very much a celebration of America. On the other side, the Republican nominee for president, pressed on the obvious support he is getting from Vladimir Putin, once again praised Putin’s leadership, suggested that he is OK with Russian aggression in Crimea, and urged the Russians to engage in espionage on his behalf. And, no, it wasn’t a joke.

I know some Republicans feel as if they’ve fallen through the looking glass. After all, usually they’re the ones chanting “USA! USA! USA!” And haven’t they spent years suggesting that Barack and Michelle Obama hate America, and might even support the nation’s enemies? How did Democrats end up looking like the patriots here?

But the parties aren’t really experiencing a role reversal. Barack Obama’s speech July 27 was wonderful and inspiring, but when he declared that “what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican,” he was fibbing a bit. It was actually very Republican in substance; the only difference was that the substance was less disguised than usual. For the “fanning of resentment” that Obama decried didn’t begin with Donald Trump.

Think about it: What does it mean to love America? Surely it means loving the country we actually have. I don’t know about you, but whenever I return from a trip abroad, my heart swells to see the sheer variety of my fellow citizens, so different in their appearance, their cultural heritage, their personal lives, yet all of them—all of us—Americans.

That love of country doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, uncritical. But the faults you find, the critiques you offer, should be about the ways in which we don’t yet live up to our own ideals. If what bothers you about America is, instead, the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your country—you care only about your tribe.

And all too many influential figures on the right are tribalists, not patriots.

We got a graphic demonstration of that reality after Michelle Obama’s speech, when she spoke of the wonder of watching her daughters play on the lawn of “a house that was built by slaves.” It was an uplifting and, yes, patriotic image, a celebration of a nation that is always seeking to transcend its flaws.

But, all many people on the right—especially the media figures who set the Republican agenda—heard was a knock on white people. “They can’t stop talking about slavery,” complained Rush Limbaugh. The slaves had it good, insisted Bill O’Reilly: “They were well-fed and had decent lodgings.” Both men were, in effect, saying whites are their tribe and must never be criticized.

Which brings us back to the Vlad-Donald bromance. Trump’s willingness to cast aside our nation’s hard-earned reputation as a reliable ally is remarkable.

But what strikes me most is the silence of so many leading Republicans in the face of behavior they would have denounced as treason coming from a Democrat.

What this tells you, I think, is that all the flag-waving had nothing to do with patriotism. It was, instead, about using alleged Democratic weakness on national security as a club with which to beat down domestic opponents, and serve the interests of the tribe.

So if it seems strange to you that these days Democrats are sounding patriotic while Republicans aren’t, you just weren’t paying attention. The people who now seem to love America always did; the people who suddenly no longer sound like patriots never were.•


Krugman is a New York Times columnist. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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