Blake said of Milton that the author of Paradise Lost “was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” While in those precincts of the American Right where the wild id roams free, Barack Obama increasingly is viewed as the devil incarnate. But even in the calmer regions of American conservatism, a view of the president startlingly analogous to Blake’s of Milton holds sway. “We do not question the sincerity of his, or their [e.g. American liberals] desire to better the lot of his countrymen,” write the National Review’s editor-in-chief, Richard Lowry, and the conservative columnist and anti-abortion activist, Ramesh Ponnuru. “But modern liberal intellectuals have a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it. From Richard Rorty to Todd Gitlin, they have proclaimed their allegiance to a hypothetical, pure country that is coming into being rather than to the one they inhabit.”
In 1964, a man called John A. Stormer published None Dare Call It Treason. It was immensely influential with the harder line sections of the American Right. “Is there,” Stormer asked rhetorically, “a conspiratorial plan to destroy the United States into which foreign aid, planned inflation, distortion of treaty-making powers and disarmament all fit in?” For a time, that kind of thinking seemed to have faded along with groups like The John Birch Society. But today, the Birchers are one of the sponsors of last week’s CPAC meeting, which among other things, was attended—without any public demurral over the Birchers’ presence—by all the major likely Republican contenders for 2012 (with the exception of Sarah Palin), not to mention Beck, Limbaugh, Cheney, etc., whether in person or via satellite.
Lest there was any doubt that cooler heads (let alone—I might as well say it—reason) might prevail, Lowry and Ponnuru’s broadside confirms that in the year of the tea parties, the American Right returns to what is, historically, its default position—that the only serious and, above all, coherent patriotism is its own. On this account, liberals, whether they know it or not (there’s that ‘Devil’s party’ again), cannot espouse a love of their country that is faithful to the core traditions of the United States. Of course, they go much further than that. Lowry and Ponnuru may be more temperate in their grammar than most of the speakers who regaled the true believers of CPAC, but, apart from conceding that Obama is indeed a native-born U.S. citizen, their accusations are just as sweeping and as radical, which, when you think about it, is hardly surprising coming from Lowry and less surprising still coming from Ponnuru, a man who wrote a book that dubbed the Democrats “The Party of Death” because of their stance on abortion.
Lowry and Ponnuru would presumably indignantly deny that their accusations against President Obama and his supporters had anything of the same quality of the ad that ran in The Dallas Morning News the day President Kennedy was assassinated, accusing him of having made a secret deal with the Communists. Technically, this is true: Unlike some of the Tea Party activists, they do not accuse President Obama of selling out to foreign persons or power (though the drawing that accompanies their essay slightly undermines this by portraying the flags of Iran, France, Russia, and China flying alongside the Stars and Stripes on the White House lawn). But what they do without the slightest hint of doubt or touch of nuance is accuse the president of selling out to foreign ideas.
The bill of attainder is straightforward: American exceptionalism is the pillar on which the American Republic has always rested. But neither President Obama nor his liberal supporters believe in American exceptionalism. To the contrary, they are its sworn enemies, and, as such sworn enemies of what (pace Lowry and Ponnuru, anyway) America has always been about. The language they use is instructive for, like the language of the Tea Party movement, it is the language of the subversive enemy within. When Lowry and Ponnuru write that “American exceptionalism has homegrown enemies—people who misunderstand the sources of American greatness or think them outdated,” and that since President Obama was elected, “every important aspect of American exceptionalism has been under threat," the message is clear: By opposing (or even not believing in) American exceptionalism, President Obama and his supporters are enemies of the United States, and if it is America that is under threat, that threat comes from this White House and those—be they traitors or misguided souls—who support its current occupant.
This is not the language of political argument, it is the language that was in the north Texas air the day John Kennedy flew into Dallas. And while it may not end on a grassy knoll, it is almost certainly going to end badly. Very badly.