Steve Schmidt – who is as unapologetically conservative as I am unapologetically liberal – had more or less the same reaction I did to the Trump policy that literally tears children away from their mothers’ breasts: that it was horrible to see people in American uniforms behaving like Nazis.
Glenn Greenwald, who has brought anti-anti-Trumpism up to the very border of Trumpism, was horrified: not by the fact that children were being maltreated by people wearing American flag insignia, but by the notion that this was in any way unusual.
Every tweet like this that creates bullshit jingoistic fairy tales about the Goodness of America instantly goes viral. Liberals now love nothing more than über-nationalistic revisionism like this from Bush-era Republican operatives. It’s the most bizarre pathology to observe.
(If Greenwald has criticized the new policy itself, as opposed to criticizing its critics, that critique does not show up on his Twitter timeline. Greenwald is consistent in constantly bashing Trump critics but avoiding criticism of Trump and Trump’s policies.)
Greenwald isn’t alone. This is fairly standard alt-left rhetoric, just as “We’re better than this!” is fairly standard liberal anti-Trump rhetoric.
If you’re both anti-Trump and pro-American, it’s natural to say when Trump does something awful, “This is contrary to American principles and a disgrace to the flag.”
If you’re pro-Trump or anti-American or both, the natural rebuttal is, “Nonsense! America has always sucked! Are you just noticing now?” (When Trump himself was asked about his buddy Putin’s habit of murdering critical journalists, he responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”). The far left and the alt-right are united in thinking that Trump is perfectly normal and that any objection to him (or to Putin or Kim Jung un) by liberals is hypocritical.
Of course Trump and Glenn Greenwald have actual facts to point to. Disgraceful things have been done in the name of the United States, from the Trail of Tears and the Fugitive Slave Act onwards. Abroad the record is at least equally equivocal: the U.S. has not been – to put it gently – a consistent friend of democracy and human rights in this hemisphere. More than once, we’ve backed the tyrants FDR referred to as “our sonsofbitches.” Whether a hypothetical historian from Mars would regard those as characteristic, or instead as unfortunate deviations from national principles, it’s hard for someone with less perspective to say.
But, as Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago, “critical” history isn’t the only kind. National myths are, themselves, potent realities. A country where the belief that horrible actions Aren’t Like Us is widespread has an internal political resource that helps political actors within that country oppose such horrible actions. A country where that belief isn’t widespread – where criminality is an accepted part of the political culture – lacks that resource, which of course is a benefit to criminal political actors within that country. The accuracy of the underlying belief is an independent question.
Or, as Matt Yglesias put in in a Tweet
Talk about how “this is not who we are” is not a literal claim about American history, and it’s permissible (praiseworthy, even) to engage in some rhetorical gambits while trying to Do Politics.
So, as a liberal and a patriot, I’m going to keep saying “This. Is. Not. Like. Us.” Saying so is one way to make it so.
Update Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the torture question first arose, Glenn Reynolds (“Instapundit”), who had been vociferously pro-war, was briefly anti-torture. (He changed his mind when torture was defined as a partisan issue, with Democrats plus McCain against it and Republicans for it.) Reynolds approvingly quoted another warblogger as answering the question, “Why shouldn’t we torture terrorists?” with “Because we’re the f*cking United States of America, that’s why!” Seemed to me an excellent answer, in part because it claimed the high ground of patriotism for the anti-torture position.