The blame-America-first crowd strikes again. The latest example comes to us via Rep. Ilhan Omar. Much has been made over Omar’s flirtations with antisemitism, but this time, she took things a step further: She didn’t just equate Israel with terrorist organizations, as horrible and wrong as that may be. She did the same thing to America, tweeting that “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
In the wake of that tweet, she has sought once again to “clarify” her position and to play the victim (accusing her critics of perpetuating “Islamaphobic tropes”). Her pattern of comments betray her worldview (more so than her coerced clarifications), but her pessimism about her adopted country (which is increasingly shared among citizens and politicians alike) also deserves more scrutiny.
If, like me, you’re worried about what the left is doing with critical race theory or the 1619 project’s attempts to reframe America’s founding and, by extension, America’s present and future as the fruit of the poison tree, it’s worth spending some time on just why that’s so dangerous. Consider the implications. If America is fundamentally toxic, why would anyone want to defend it? Why would anyone want to join the military? What is more, why would anyone want to defend the foundational ideas associated with it? Taken to its logical conclusion, this means America probably shouldn’t be leading the world. But if we’re not, who fills the void? China? They don’t suffer from this same neurotic fixation for self-flagellation. But would that be a positive outcome? The consequences for the world would be devastating.
Sadly, this cynicism and pessimism is a bipartisan phenomenon. If you’re worried about the “woke” left’s lack of moral clarity and belief in American Exceptionalism, you might also want to contemplate the time Trump defended Vladimir Putin by saying, “You think our country is so innocent?” During Trump’s first impeachment, much of his defense rested on the notion that most of America’s past presidents should have been impeached. Even Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” seems to concede that it’s not great now.
This development on the right surprised me, partly because Ronald Reagan cast a long shadow for years, and his optimism was so bright that even his letter revealing he had Alzheimers promised that “for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” By 2016, though, few grassroots Republicans shared this belief. The whole concept of a Flight-93 election was that this plane was spiraling towards the ground; abandoning the liberal project and siding with Trump was a desperation move.
Personally, I never understood this pervasive assumption that we are plummeting and soon may crash. Perhaps this bias toward negativity is the result of how we are evolutionarily wired or the the constant exposure to an if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media that constantly highlights what’s wrong with America, but there is arguably no better time to have lived—and no better country to have lived in—than modern-day America. Even our poorest citizens seem to have two TV sets. And if you get sick, you will likely have access to medicine that the richest person in the world could have only dreamed of 50 years ago. Even the issues that plague us like race relations are better than ever (if you don’t believe me, name an era that was better). And the last time I checked, we are still free. I mean, I write critical things about powerful American leaders all the time. So far, there hasn’t been a knock at my door. Try that in Russia, or Belarus.
So we have people on both sides of the aisle who believe that America’s past was never really honorable and that her future is dim. It would be wrong to suggest this is the prevailing mainstream view, but it also would be wrong to suggest that this is some fringe position. On the right, it feels like Trumpian nationalism is ascendant. And while the 2020 Democratic primary results do not bear this out, it feels like Omar’s vision of America is also gaining steam on the left.
The obvious problem here is that if your entire narrative of America is a cynical history of exploitation and decline, you can’t inspire. If the past is just a litany of American failures and mistakes, there’s nothing to aspire to. And if you have universities and public schools that are teaching this cynical history, you’re betting against your own future.
But aside from the historical and moral reasons that this pessimism is destructive and damaging to us—both as individuals and as a nation—it’s also a political loser. At least it is for Democrats, who are ostensibly the party that believes the government can make our lives better. Imagine it’s halftime at a football game, and your coach delivers a stirring demotivational speech.
This poses a challenge for Biden, who with his thin majorities in Congress, has a huge problem in handling members who really think that America is the problem. If the rising faction in your party thinks everyone who is bullish on America is a nationalist if not a Nazi, then your party is in trouble.
I’m not saying we should whitewash our past or be pollyanna-ish about future challenges. A successful institution must simultaneously accept and acknowledge past sins and failings (to correct and improve), while also celebrating victories, honoring heroes and traditions, and aspiring to a future where greatness and success are deserved.
America can admit to committing some grave sins and still be considered the greatest force for good in the history of the world.
The truth is—and at least in my mind this isn’t naive—that America truly is a great nation. I just went back and re-listened to Reagan’s speeches on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. One of his themes was that, in invading France, America did not have any territorial ambitions. As he said, we came “not as conquerors but as liberators.” This was not true of the Nazis or the Soviets, but it was true of us.
Speaking of the Soviets, when Omar and Trump try to draw a moral equivalence between the bad guys and America, I am reminded of Bill Buckley’s famous line: “To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”
Yes, like all nations, American has a dark history that needs to be acknowledged. But America should also be acknowledged for her noble ambitions and dedication to preserving and, over time, expanding liberty— to becoming a more perfect union. America was founded on the radical idea that “All men are created equal.” Though still not perfectly realized, this revolutionary idea lit a fire around the world, and brought freedom to many, many places.
The good news—for Democrats and for America—is that Joe Biden has managed to thread this elusive rhetorical needle. “No, I don’t think the American people are racist,” Biden said recently, in response to a question. “But I think after 400 years African Americans have been left in a position where they’re so far behind the eight ball in terms of education, health, in terms of opportunity.” It was the perfect answer.
The bad news is that Biden might be the only politician on either side of the aisle right now who has both the inclination and the moral authority to say it. It’s a race to the bottom, and the Omars and the Trumps are winning.