Neo-Birtherism

On the surface, the burst of unwelcome attention attracted by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) today is just another tale of a right-wing pol feeding red meat to a “base” audience and getting burned when one of them got all lathered up and posted it online.

In case you missed it, Coffman offered this unprompted observation to his friends at a May 12 fundraiser:

“I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that,” Coffman said. “But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”

The predictable furor focused on the first part of his statement, suggesting as it did a hamhanded appeal to “birtherist” sentiment. But in his “clarification” of his views, apologizing for the birtherism, Coffman actually doubled down on the second part in a way that really should spur some discussion:

“I don’t believe the president shares my belief in American Exceptionalism. His policies reflect a philosophy that America is but one nation among many equals,” the statement read. “As a Marine, I believe America is unique and based on a core set of principles that make it superior to other nations.”

So Obama is on paper “an American,” but can’t be one “in his heart,” because he allegedly doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism, which has apparently become a baseline Loyalty Test.

There’s nothing about Mike Coffman (who won Tom Tancredo’s House seat when the fiery nativist ran for president in 2008) that marks him as an intellectual; he’s mainly renowned for reentering active duty as a Marine relatively late in life to fight in both Iraq wars. So it’s a sign of the times that a guy like Coffman is throwing around terms like “American Exceptionalism”–until recently a concept mainly familar to social scientists and historians–on the campaign trail.

National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowery had a lot to do with the popularization of “American Exceptionalism” as a partisan slogan via a highly influential 2010 essay using it as a catch-all phrase for those cultural and policy preferences that supposedly separate America from Europe, and that conservatives tend to like and liberals (including Barack Obama) tend to downplay, like a taste for military conflict, a conspicuous religiosity, and most of all economic individualism and hostility to government (or at least government that tries to promote equality). Ponnuru’s and Lowry’s effort to make insufficient commitment to “American exceptionalism” a rationalization for conservative fury at Obama got mixed reviews from others on the Right (Daniel Larison, in particular, disliked it intensely), but it seemed to strike a chord instantly with conservative politicians who found it a convenient meme for identifying conservative domestic and foreign policies as distinctively patriotic.

Among the many problems with the “American Exceptionalism” meme is that it requires treating virtually everyone in what Ponnuru and Lowry call “post-Wilsonian tradition” in American politics as being determined to pursue the “gradual replacement of the Founders’ design” and emulate Old European policies like, well, universal access to health care. Thus, not only Wilson, but FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, and presumably just about all Democratic (and many Republican) elected officials of this and the last century are maligned as fundamentally un-American. For all their temperate and civil tone, Ponnuru and Lowry are trodding the same toxic ground as Glenn Beck. Obama a horrible threat to America because he represents the un-American traditions that many millions of Americans–including most obviously those that led America in both World Wars–have supported for generations.

It probably wouldn’t do much good to challenge pols like Coffman to tell us if they think Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t “in his heart, an American” because he favored un-American ideas like universal entitlement programs, international peace-keeping treaties, and the idea that America could best pursue global leadership by standing for the equality of nations and of humanity itself. I doubt he’d much “get it” if you asked him if followers of Jesus Christ struggle to be true, patriotic Americans because they follow someone who insisted on one universal law of love for all children of God.

But whether or not people like Coffman think it through or spell it out, the belief that conservative ideology is co-extensive with patriotism is a big part of what’s deranging the Republican Party at present, and placing a less literal form of “birtherism”–denying not just Obama’s citizenship, but mine and thine–very close to its heart.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.