Don’t do it. Do not go down that road again.
Criticize the president for his policies, his phraseology, his war strategies and terrorism-fighting approach. I’d even join you on some of it. But don’t revive that ugly nonsense about Barack Obama not loving America, not being American, or being a closet Muslim who’s out to undermine the government from within.
That nasty, fear-stoking strategy used by political opponents during Obama’s first presidential campaign gets revved up again with each election cycle. But it has moved alarmingly from the realm of anonymous smear campaigns circulated by emails and bogus websites, to the mouths of Republican standard-bearers.
Business tycoon Donald Trump does it by questioning Obama’s birth certificate. Now former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani questions Obama’s love for his country.
“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Politico quoted Giuliani as saying at a private dinner for fellow Republican, Gov. Scott Walker, who seems to be gearing up for a White House run. “He doesn’t love you,” Giuliani continued. “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.”
Giuliani dodged a reporter’s question on whether that line of attack was planned beforehand, with Walker’s approval. Walker has not repudiated it, noting only that he, himself, loves America. Shame on him. And shame on Giuliani, who once forged a delicate balance as a moderate leading a liberal city and earned widespread approval for his firm, reassuring leadership in the aftermath of 9/11.
Shame also on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who as an Indian-American should know better than to play into ethnic divisiveness.
“If you are looking for someone to condemn the mayor, look elsewhere,” Jindal, also a prospective presidential candidate, told Time magazine.
Giuliani’s comments, and their tacit acceptance by likely presidential candidates, reflect two disturbing trends. One is the growing willingness to play the race card in ways politicians might once have thought better of. Even as America is on its way to becoming a predominantly brown-skinned nation, race-baiting and foreigner-bashing by politicians are growing.
One key way is through the ongoing inference that Obama’s not one of us because he’s black, has a mixed ethnic background and a Muslim middle name. Iowa’s 4th District Congressman, Steve King, has made a point of doing it, including by accusing Obama of having a default mechanism that “favors the black person” – and it never cost him an election.
George Allen, the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator, lost re-election after calling an Indian-American working for Allen’s Democrat opponent, Jim Webb, “macaca.” That’s a racial reference, to a monkey. But Allen rebounded in 2012 to win the Republican primary for his old Senate seat.
As disturbing as the racial subtexts is the revival of another tactic first seen by most of us during the Vietnam War. That is to question the patriotism of anyone who suggests that, as the world’s most powerful nation, we try diplomacy and respect for other nations and religions. What provoked Giuliani was that Obama, in a speech about preventing attacks from groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State, took pains not to use the terms “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic extremism.”
Maybe that seemed clumsy or pandering. Maybe the president is being overly cautious with language in his effort not to antagonize most Muslims, but have them work with us to isolate the extremists. But it was hardly worthy of attacks like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another likely presidential candidate, calling Obama “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists.” Let’s not forget that as president, George W. Bush took pains to stress we were not at war with Islam, and his patriotism was never questioned for it.
Giuliani told CNN: “President Obama was brought up in an atmosphere in which he was taught to be a critic of America. That is a distinction with prior American presidents.” As one who grew up skeptical of whoever was in power, whether in America or India, and has frequently been accused of not loving this or that country for not agreeing with everything done in its name, I’m a bit touchy on this point: Democracy demands constructive engagement, not uncritical acquiescence.
At the start of G.W. Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars, opponents got smeared as unpatriotic. Yet even though those wars and drone strikes are now Obama’s, and draw criticism from people like me, the right still declares Obama unpatriotic.
Now it’s for being careful how he talks about Islam. Their insistence on stigmatizing him as “other” is an ugly tactic that will leave scars on the national psyche that could take a long time to heal. If candidates won’t renounce that, if they can’t win on real issues, they shouldn’t run.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.