Donald Trump
Credit: Shealah Craighead\Flickr

I have never been one to credit Donald Trump with being a strategic thinker. But he has a way of communicating effectively with his base that is often overlooked by liberals because his words are viewed as anathema. It all comes down to two very different views about America and exactly what it is that makes us “great.”

As an example, one would be hard pressed to find a justification for the fact that Trump recently called Democrats treasonous for not clapping enough at the State of the Union. Take a look at how he justified that:

“Shall we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much,” he said.

For Trump and his supporters, what does it mean to “love our country?” If you remember, that is the question that was often raised about Barack Obama. Rudy Giuliani ramped that one up in early 2015, but it was echoed and repeated by a lot of Republicans. As Ed Rogers wrote at the time, they didn’t think he loved America because:

* You couldn’t imagine him tearing up at a Fourth of July parade
* His willingness to engage in diplomacy with our foreign adversaries
* His unwillingness to equate Muslims with terrorism
* His “strained” relationship with the military

Of course, a lot of Republicans would add Obama’s so-called “apology tour” to that list. But underlying it all was the idea that a black man whose name is Barack Hussein Obama could never represent what it means to love this country.

I share that list because it gives us something concrete to work with on what Republicans mean when they talk about being “patriotic.” For them, it’s all about getting sentimental about the symbols of our democracy, a distrust of diplomacy, a willingness to vilify our adversaries (even if it means condemning anyone who practices a different religion), a reverence for the military, and a total denial that this country has ever done anything wrong.

When those questions were raised about Obama, he answered them in his speech at the 50th Anniversary of the march in Selma.

What could be more American than what happened in this place?  What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?…

That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

Those are the competing visions of the story of America that undergird our polarized politics today. Donald Trump, a white man who inherited his wealth, and whose narcissism leads him to assume that he is somehow entitled, appeals to the patriotism of nostalgia voters by promising to restore a mythical golden age when people teared up on the Fourth of July, we were a “Christian nation,” our military vanquished all foes, and no one demanded an accounting of this country’s short-comings (i.e., slavery). In other words, Trump speaks their language.

That is the context in which to understand not only Trump’s remarks about “treasonous” Democrats, it is also why his supporters will love the idea of a grand military parade.

The problem with the story of America Republicans embrace is that it has been built on a lie. That makes it extremely fragile, which is ultimately why the nostalgia voters are so afraid. They know that they’re in the fight of their lives.

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