Let’s say that you enjoyed watching last week’s Republican National Convention on television.
Let’s say you drank in the almost uniformly white faces and the regimented revivalism, you clapped when speakers belittled Barack Obama’s work organizing impoverished communities, indeed, you cheered with Rudy Giuliani’s zinger, “Drill, baby, drill!”
Let’s further stipulate that you were not at all discomfited by the convention’s incessant “Country First” mantra that defines loyalty to America as lockstep fealty to the Republican Party.
Let’s say – for sheer argument’s sake, of course – all of this is true. What, then, of the substance? Stripping away the partisanship, passion and propaganda, what about the veracity of the claim that the GOP puts this country first?
Well, let’s just say it’s a little dicey.
On national security, the Republican Party advocates continuing to force thousands of young Americans to risk life and limb refereeing Iraq’s civil war. Though the party’s slogan hearkens back to conservatives’ “America First” isolationism, the GOP nonetheless supports spending $12 billion a month on the war – money needed at home.
Same story on economics. In 2004, the Republican White House called outsourcing “a plus.” In 2006, the Republican commander-in-chief okayed the sale of critical infrastructure to foreign dictators. And today the Republican presidential nominee is demanding more NAFTA-style trade pacts that eliminate American jobs. This, says the GOP, is putting our country first.
But who is the “country”? According to the Census Bureau, it will soon be mostly non-whites. That is, the demographic groups who the alleged “country first” party regularly disparages, whether it’s Sen. Trent Lott (R‑Miss.) yearning for a return to segregation, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R‑Colo.) scapegoating Latinos, Rep. Howard Coble (R‑N.C.) celebrating Japanese internment, President Bush genuflecting to Bob Jones University’s white supremacists, or Ronald Reagan echoing bigoted rallying cries at the scene of Mississippi race murders.
Maybe, you insist in your post-convention fervor, I just don’t get it. Maybe “country first” really does mean refereeing foreign civil wars, spending billions overseas while cutting domestic programs, exporting jobs and bashing ethnic groups that will soon comprise the majority of the nation.
But I don’t think so. More likely, Republicans have simply taken the famous parable to heart – the one about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels.
As a political strategy, it’s not stupid. Following the Bush-DeLay-Abramoff era, many Americans rightly think Republican politicians are scoundrels. And so those politicians are trying to make sure “this election is not about issues,” as John McCain’s campaign manager said this week, but about a hideous hypernationalism only Joe McCarthy could love. Employing flag pins, war stories and Bible-thumping social conservatism, former P.O.W. McCain and Christian fundamentalist Sarah Palin hope their red-white-and-blue phantasmagoria will hypnotize America into voting Republican.
Such desperation leads to seeming incoherence at times. For instance, when anti-war protestors at the GOP convention demanded lawmakers actually put country first by bringing the troops home, Republican delegates responded like an entranced mob of cultists, mindlessly chanting “U.S.A.”
Then again, in the Karl Rove age, every televised scene – no matter how absurd – is part of sculpting an election victory with a mallet of jingoism and a chisel of intolerance.
On the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities, the Republican convention reminds us of what Barry Goldwater suggested 44 years ago: Terrorists are not the only ones who believe extremism is “no vice.” And, as the old aphorism warns, when the most virulent extremism attacks our country, it won’t be shrouded in Islamic fatwas — it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.
Sadly, the when is now. McCain is the flag, Palin is the cross – and Americans will have to decide whether we believe their zealotry puts country first.