Political Animal


May 17, 2012 12:44 PM Neo-Birtherism

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on May 17, 2012 1:01 PM:

    Nope, I still can't separate in my mind the difference between 'American Exceptionalism' and 'Ugly Americanism'.

  • Daryl McCullough on May 17, 2012 1:06 PM:

    I don't know whether Obama believes in "American Exceptionalism" or not. But it seems bizarre to me to believe that you must believe that America is exceptional in order to be a loyal American.

    Let's bring this down to a more personal level. I love my kids. Does that mean that I must believe that they are "exceptional"? Can't I love my kids, even if they are just ordinary kids?

  • c00p on May 17, 2012 1:12 PM:

    I agree with Peter and Daryl both. And I'd add that America as imagined by most of the right wing is exceptional: exceptionally vain, exceptionally self-righteous, exceptionally prone to throwing its weight around, exceptionally likely to preach about freedom until another nation makes a decision "we" don't like. Sigh.

  • red*cted on May 17, 2012 1:13 PM:

    And indeed people like Coffman strive to recreate an even older European political model, with a multitude of vassals in thrall to an immensely wealthy royalty.

  • MelanieN on May 17, 2012 1:15 PM:

    We hear a lot of this kind of talk from the Right. It boils down to: Everybody's un-American except me and thee, and sometimes I wonder about thee.

  • stormskies on May 17, 2012 1:19 PM:

    I was in the Marines too, and the Viet-nam war. I don't 'believe' in "American exceptionalism" whatsoever. It's a total fucking delusion that certain creeps like this invent in order to make themselves feel important and superior.

    Was it 'exceptional' that the white Europeans that came to this continent created a genocide to the Indians who lived here for literally thousands of years before the came ?

    Just for starters ......

  • c u n d gulag on May 17, 2012 1:24 PM:

    You know, America WAS exceptional.

    My late father always told my mother not to hope to win the lottery, because they'd already won two - they survived WWII, and ended up in America.

    That was the dream of a lot of the displaced persons after WWII.
    America really WAS that 'Shining City on the Hill."

    It WAS an exceptional country.

    At least until the Republicans took control of the body politic.

    Then, Nixon put his hands around its neck, Reagan squeezed, and "Baby Doc" Bush choked it to death.

    Now Mitt and the rest his rich cronies are looking forward to skullf*cking the corpse.

  • Quaker in a Basement on May 17, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Sorry Mr. Coffman. I'm a Coloradan, a Democrat, and I support President Obama. YOU don't get to decide whether that makes me an American "in my heart" or not. That's simply not how this country works.

  • boatboy_srq on May 17, 2012 1:31 PM:

    “post-Wilsonian tradition”

    Try "post-Jacksonian tradition". The problems really started with that Lincoln guy, who thought that everyone in the US was actually a whole person with a whole person's rights and liberties, and made the whole country accept that.

    In the sense of this post, "birtherism" is something of a misnomer; Native Americans, for example, don't qualify, and obviously neither do most Hispanics. It's almost exclusively a Caucasian phenomenon: all else is Teh Other.

    It never ceases to amaze me that a nation that prides itself on being composed of immigrants would have such nativist inclinations.

  • TCinLA on May 17, 2012 1:50 PM:

    Excuse me, but what Third World ant pile did Ponnuru climb out of, that he can presume to tell those of us whose families actually did found the country anything about what it means to be an American? Ideas like making the non-ownership of slaves a condition of membership in the community go back to my ancestors who founded the Quaker community in Germantown, Pennsylvania colony, back in 1688; most other "progressive" ideas these two morons think are "un-American" predate the founding of the country by at least a century, so we have been here all along, unlike latecomers like Lowery and Ponnuru.

    I will agree with them that America is indeed exceptional. Exceptionally ignorant, that there are two other people in the country who see these two bozos as qualifying for membership in the species Homo Sapiens.

  • internet tough guy on May 17, 2012 1:57 PM:

    America is exceptional because it's the only country that this garbage would be discussed seriously.

  • Dave on May 17, 2012 2:02 PM:

    The USA is special.
    As in special olympics.

  • Epicurus on May 17, 2012 2:15 PM:

    I would only take issue with your conclusion that Mr. Coffman actually has the brain power to "...think it through." He sounds like an unusually ignorant and stupid man; wonder who ties his shoes in the morning. But, I am not surprised, either; he does have an "R" after his name, after all.

  • catclub on May 17, 2012 2:19 PM:

    If the US is exceptional then one of the key things that make it exceptional is that Barack Obama could be elected president within 35 years of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

    Another is the 14th Amendment to the constitution.

    But those are two things that the people who generally _claim_ American exceptionalism want to get rid of.

  • T2 on May 17, 2012 2:32 PM:

    isn't American Exceptionalism a Conservative dog whistle for "White People"?

  • slappy magoo on May 17, 2012 2:55 PM:

    I happen to believe in "quiet American Exceptionalism." It boils down to this: Yeah, I believe America is the greatest nation on Earth, in spite of all its faults and maybe because of a few of them, it's the greatest nation on Earth. Why do some people feel the need to shout it from the f*cking rafters? Why do we need to shout "You! Ess! AY! You! Ess! AY!" like it's 1986 and we're seeing Hulk Hogan escape from the Iron Shiek's dreaded patented Camel Clutch hold? Why can't we be silently stoically awesome like Jimmy Stewart & Henry Fonda? Confident in the knowledge that we can kick anyone's ass in the playground without making a stink about it?

    Same deal with flag pins and yellow ribbon magnets on the SUV and having to stand up when Lee Greenwood sings "...yand Ah proudlee stannn....DUP!" If you think these are the freakin' hoops ANYONE has to jump through to prove their patriotism, maybe the lack of patriotism lies within you.

    Although I'd like to see the extremes this horsecrap takes. At some point, some Rovian douche nozzle is going to say "You're not a real American unless you have the Stars & Stripes tattooed on your inner lip and you proudly own and wear a bald eagle costume." Ineffectual Dems will start asking why the media never asks conservatives where THEIR tattoos and bald eagle costumes are, and a few years later, we'll find out Halliburton owned stock in a chain of tattoo parlors and costume shops.

  • jpeckjr on May 17, 2012 3:00 PM:

    @T2. I think it's a conservative dog whistle for "more military spending" and "let's bomb Iran."

  • ellie on May 17, 2012 3:06 PM:

    I just emailed this guy, who is my congressman unfortunately, about his ridiculousness. As for American exceptionalism, I have never seen so many people (repukes) need so much validation.

  • Kathryn on May 17, 2012 3:10 PM:

    To take Daryl McCullough's point a little further, no only do we have to regard our children as exceptional but must also regard all other children (their cousins, their friends) as inferior. The U.S.House of Representatives is a snake pit of simpletons, 99% belonging to the GOP, wait make that 100%.

  • boatboy_srq on May 17, 2012 3:11 PM:

    @slappy magoo: I think this relates closely to Xtian conviction, which we discussed here yesterday. Conservatists cannot abide doubt, either in their [cough] faith, or in their politics. "American Exceptionalism" is to their politics what "true, born-again Christian" is to their philosophy: true, absolute, immutabe and unshaken by the slightest doubt in their minds, and anyone who questions those positions is obviously not in. Both these questions point to a key Conservatist behavior: a singular lack of inquisitiveness or willingness to accept the results of inquiry that do not synch with their worldview.

    Evolution, post-heliocentric cosmology, paleontology, environmentalism, multiculturalism - conservatist dislike for all of these relates directly to a strong aversion to "uncertainty" of any kind. This seems to inform the Conservatist position more and more. The question is becoming less how to address each of these issues, and more how to make doubt itself virtuous.

  • Amusing Alias on May 17, 2012 3:20 PM:

    It seems that Coffman and indeed most Republicans nowadays profess to love America; they just don't like most of its citizens very much.

  • BoulderBo on May 17, 2012 3:27 PM:

    @slappy magoo.

    Bravo, that was a great post. The bullshit hoops conservatives put in place to jump through in order to prove your patriotism has risen to great new heights. Not only the blatent flag waving and other nationalistic idiocy, but the open insistence of "christian" values in our political discourse. You know, values like bombing people halfway around the world and making sure the wealthiest get pampered rather than finding solutions to the growing poverty in this country.

  • RT on May 17, 2012 3:33 PM:

    "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."

    So the American Exceptionalism meme is part of the radical Right's effort to repeal the 20th Century. I hadn't made the connection before.

    As others have noted above, the radical Right fail to understand what really makes America exceptional, and they're hell-bent on destroying it.

  • SecularAnimist on May 17, 2012 3:35 PM:

    Look, it's really simple.

    Voting for anyone other than a Republican is anti-American and unpatriotic.


    Because the Republicans say so.

  • bdop4 on May 17, 2012 4:00 PM:

    "American Exceptionalism" used to be expressed by deeds, not words, to the point where you didn't even have to acknowledge its existence. Everyone knew.

    The fact that these a-holes have to try to make it a litmus test for citizens' patriotism is prima facie evidence that we are no longer exceptional.

  • R.L. Alitheia on May 17, 2012 4:40 PM:

    You are missing a KEY point. True American Exceptionalism doesn't just involve the belief that America's ideals make it an exceptional nation, but also the belief that this exceptionalism is due to a special blessing of God. AE proponents have likened America to the "new Israel", a nation set aside and apart by God. This is far more dangerous than the simple belief that we live in the greatest country on earth. It says that America moves with the force and hand of the Almighty, and turns other nations into foes of God. It plays into the dominionist beliefs that there is no true separation between church and state, because the state is a tool of God. This is missed by most writers and media, when it is something that needs to be exposed and questioned for what it is, not what it sounds like. The idea that we believe America to simply be a great place isn't controversial, but the idea that America is God's chosen nation should be.

  • My "rep" doesn't care either on May 17, 2012 9:38 PM:

    Amusing: "It seems that Coffman and indeed most Republicans nowadays profess to love America; they just don't like most of its citizens very much."

    Exactly. Were Coffman to believe how exceptional a country this is he wouldn't have voted against (among other bills) the Food Safety Modernization Act which might have prevented the Listeriosis outbreak that almost killed one of his constituents (my dad) last year. What says "exceptional" about a country more than - oh well, a few of us may die or get sick because we don't care that our food supply is safe. Take your chances in eating that cantaloupe (or spinach, beef, etc.), bud! And good luck!