The most charitable way I can think of Rudy Giuliani—the former New York mayor who’s been taunting Barack Obama with throwdowns like “I do not believe that the president loves America”—is as a teenager in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, calling out to a young woman who walks down his street holding hands with another guy.
“He don’t love you like I love you,” sings Rudy, quoting from the Jerry Butler hit (now he might prefer the Tony Orlando version). He sorrowfully warns Miss American Voter about “the new love that you’ve found” and “the handsome guy you’ve been dating.” Obama is “gonna put you down,” sings Rudy—meaning, in this case, that he won’t bust enough heads defending your honor at the latest rumble in the Middle East.
The act isn’t so charming in 2015, especially coming from a cranky 70-year-old.
Giuliani made headlines last week at a dinner introducing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a possible GOP candidate for president in 2016, to conservative activists. “He doesn’t love you,” Giuliani told attendees, referring to Obama. “He doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up: To love this country.”
Having overshadowed Walker, the former mayor has since been enjoying his temporary role as the most provocative member of the Republican Party. He told the New York Daily News, “Logically, think about [Obama’s] background.… The ideas that are troubling me and are leading to this come from communists with whom he associated when he was 9 years old.” Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was living in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather at that age. Giuliani also referred to Obama’s relationships with “quasi-communist” community organizer Saul Alinsky and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—the Chicago pastor famous for sermonizing, “God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Rudy wants to protect our innocent ears from such vulgarity.
Obama won’t be on the ballot again, but that doesn’t mean we’ll soon stop hearing about un-American American politicians. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, has also been accused of worshipping Saul Alinsky (she wrote her thesis on him), even though she and her husband have come to epitomize the Democratic Party’s strategy of courting big donors so as not to depend on community organizing. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, incumbent George H.W. Bush insinuated that Clinton was unpatriotic because he visited Moscow as a college student and took part in demonstrations on British soil against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Four years earlier, Bush questioned the patriotism of Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis because the latter opposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw burning the American flag.
Republicans aren’t always exempt from suspicion. In 2008, after GOP nominee John McCain opposed a law mandating that the government purchase only American-made motorcycles, Obama couldn’t resist this gibe: “So, when American workers hear John McCain talking about putting ‘Country First,’ it’s fair to ask, ‘Which country?’”
Still, the charge of insufficient love for America tends to be directed at those fighting for change, whether the abolition of slavery in the 19ths century or the institution of “socialist” programs like Social Security and Medicare in the 20th century. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin writes that Giuliani is simply the latest “to tap into a deep wellspring of American political thought, one defined by the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter five decades ago.” Hofstadter called it “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” explaining, “The modern right wing...feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”
As Giuliani’s comments remind us, part of that “repossession” involves policing the definition of “American” and labeling opponents as subversive or disloyal. Civil-rights activists were tarred in such a fashion not so long ago, and Hofstadter cited anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements earlier in our history.
Giuliani is surely aware that his ethnicity and religion would have been deemed suspicious at another time. In the book What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe describes the 19th-century fears that the growing Catholic Church in America would warp the country’s values. (“America was supposed to redeem monarchical Europe, not the other way around.”) Of the mob that burned down the Ursuline Convent outside Boston in 1834, Howe writes, “In their own eyes, the conspirators acted as Americans rather than Protestants, protecting their country and its mission against alien subversive influence.” One apologist for the violence wrote that the founders of America “thought not that within sight of Beacon Hill, where the blood of heroes flowed, a Convent would be established, and their granddaughters become its inmates.”
We now know how the United States benefited enormously from Catholics and other immigrants who helped move the country past the almost-medieval social and political institutions of its first days. Contrary to what Giuliani may think, the descendants of European immigrants have not achieved the right to practice a kind of triumphalism in which they decide who is, and who is not, an American.