In a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, Mitt Romney was asked, “What do you dislike most about America?”
To the shock of nobody, Romney dodged the question completely, responding, “Gosh, I love America,” adding, “What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people—hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.”
It was a lovely thought, perfectly in keeping with the public persona of the ex-governor, now-senator we have come to know and, um, not completely hate.
Really, with a dozen years of hindsight, the most remarkable thing about that moment was that the question was even asked—that someone angling to be America’s commander-in-chief was challenged in a public forum to critique the very country he hoped to lead.
Indeed, when Romney took another whack at the presidency in 2012, he released a memoir of sorts, No Apology, whose title more or less summed up the attitude of his campaign. As far as he was concerned, America is an idyllic land of milk and honey that has only ever been a force for good in the world, for which it should feel nothing but unadulterated, chest-thumping pride.
As you’ll recall, President Obama’s greatest sin in office, according to Romney and others, was to have had the temerity to apologize for America’s various historical blunders—particularly on matters of race and foreign policy—thereby implying the nation is somehow less than perfect. The nerve!
While Romney himself has since slunk off into complete obscurity—i.e., the Senate—his view of the United States as a moral dynamo on the world stage whose superiority must never be questioned has only hardened as Republican Party orthodoxy in the years since.
Or so we were informed last week by the current president, Donald Trump, who in a Twitter broadside against four congresswomen that managed to blend howling racism with wholesale incoherence, argued that anyone who is skeptical about how the United States is run—including those who have been elected to run it—has no business residing within the country’s borders and ought to “go back” to the far-flung lands “from which they came.”
“IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE,” the president tweeted, “YOU CAN LEAVE!”
Beyond the irony that three-fourths of the congresswomen in question were, in fact, born in the United States, it has been duly noted that few people in public life have been more openly scornful of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the years than Trump himself. Indeed, for all the money and privilege—untaxed and unchecked, respectively—that has spilled into his lap practically since birth, the president never seems to run out of grievances about the place that has handed him everything on a silver platter, up to and including its highest public office.
Setting aside the singular, noxious bigotry that informs much of our Dear Leader’s enmity toward a republic founded on the principles of liberty, pluralism and equal justice under the law, Trump is absolutely correct in expressing his misgivings about his homeland without fear of persecution or prejudice. He is right to assert—as he so memorably did in a 2017 interview on Fox News—that America is not “so innocent” in its behavior toward its geopolitical adversaries and, by implication, shouldn’t be held up as the moral paragon that the Mitt Romneys of the world would have you believe it is.
In other words, if you want an ironclad rebuke to the tweets of Donald Trump, look no further than the actions of Donald Trump.
That said, the president’s personal hypocrisy on this matter needn’t obscure the deeper truth, which is that the greatness of America resides precisely in the right of every one of its citizens to criticize it, because criticism, in the right hands, is among the sincerest expressions of patriotism and love.
Surely, Frederick Douglass had a few choice words for his mother country throughout his life—words that, we can safely say, have redounded to America’s benefit in the long run. Ditto for the likes of Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and innumerable other restless rabble-rousers who found a glaring blemish in the national complexion and took it upon themselves to fix it.
Criticizing your country is the first step to perfecting it. It’s how you keep your country honest, challenging it to live up to its loftiest ideals.
Why settle for anything less?