Last week, as the nation observed the anniversary of 9/11, one could not help but look back at that time and contemplate the reaction by our fellow citizens and foreign nations. Rick Perlstein wrote a very poignant piece a couple of years back about the solidarity that horrible day inspired among all Americans and people around the world — and how it was lost.
Perlstein describes how bills such as the vote to authorize war and the Patriot Act passed nearly unanimously and without debate, which he says happened because in that moment of oneness,”it seemed unimaginable that this extraordinary grant of executive power could possibly be abused.” The man who should have been president, Al Gore, famously said, “George W. Bush is my commander in chief.”
Lefties from Ellen Willis to Barbra Streisand immediately fell into line and supported the president unequivocally. Bush memorably put this new sense of trust and good will into words when he addressed Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001, and asked the American people to pull together for the sake of the nation as a whole. He also admonished them to be decent to the people of Middle Eastern descent who lived among us.
“I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.”
Here is the notoriously fractious Congress all gathered together on 9/11 to sing God Bless America on the Capitol steps.
Sadly, as Perlstein pointed out, it didn’t take long for all of that solidarity to fall apart. One year later, conservative pundit Peggy Noonan was writing:
“So the Southerners are eyeballing the young Muslim males. Maybe these guys are bad guys. They allow themselves to think this in part because one of the things Americans regret most since Sept. 11 2001 is their lack of suspicion. We’re all very live-and-let-live. Before Sept. 11, young Muslim males could tell someone in passing that soon those towers in New York will go boom. And fearing to offend, fearing to hurt the feelings of another person, we’d let it pass. We’d mind our business, give them the benefit of the doubt. And now we wish we’d been less friendly, less trusting, less lazy or frightened. We wish we’d been skeptical. Hell, we’re the only nation on earth that is now nostalgic for paranoia.”
Noonan went on to condemn the “young Muslim males” — medical students — who inspired the column as bigots for failing to properly soothe a hysterical woman who panicked to see them eating dinner in a Georgia restaurant. (Jeb Bush, by the way, called the woman to congratulate her for her sharp observation.)
Anyone who was in America during that period also remembers the intense patriotic fervor exemplified by the anthem of the era, Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (the Angry American)”:
Hey Uncle Sam
Put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty Started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly
Man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear Mother Freedom Start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you Courtesy of the Red White and Blue
Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way
As the Dixie Chicks found out, anyone who didn’t agree could expect to be met with a furious reaction from conservatives who enforced the new patriotism with near religious fervor. And their love of country was not confined to the military. When president George W. Bush donned a Navy flight suit and landed on an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet to (prematurely) declare victory in Iraq, the right wing went into a major collective swoon. You could even buy a bronze bust of George W. Bush wearing the jumpsuit that was advertised with this stirring sales pitch:
“President Bush is a Leader who has the courage to lead. It is political courage. It is not poll driven it is conviction driven. It is consistent and does not change because of pressure or threats of political survival. It is reconfirmed every day. It differs from combat courage in that it is thought oriented not reaction oriented. Combat courage does not necessarily translate into political courage. Combat courage is admirable and you only know if you have it when you are in combat. President Bush has demonstrated that he has political courage and this is why he was re-elected. By owning a bust of President Bush, Commander in Chief you will be making a statement and in a politically charged environment, it takes courage.”
In those days, Republicans believed that government and military leaders were heroic protectors of all we hold dear. But even as kitschy as Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” performance was, and as overweening as the GOP’s patriotic love of men in uniform, that statement above is a remarkable validation of the American dedication to the concept of civilian control of the military. He might have been wearing a fake uniform (he liked to do that) but they acknowledged and respected him for his political leadership.
Something seems to have changed their minds. According to this new YouGov poll, these same patriotic Republicans still love the military passionately but are no longer attached to that moldy old concept of civilian control:
“Republicans (43%) are more than twice as likely as Democrats (20%) to say that they could conceive of a situation in which they would support a military coup in the United States.”
More to the point, only 32 percent of Republicans state unequivocally that they would not conceive of a situation in which they would support a military coup. One would be tempted to think this is simply a matter of partisanship, but there is no evidence that Democrats have ever entertained the notion of a military coup, no matter who was president, even one as widely loathed as George W. Bush. It’s as “un-American” as it gets.
For years the right has accused the opposition of being unpatriotic and failing to properly love America. And here they are, endorsing something that’s only seen in Banana Republics and totalitarian police states.
But there is some good news in all this. It’s likely that as soon as they get a president they like, they will once again discover that the Constitution is sacrosanct and the president is worthy once again to be the Commander in Chief. For instance, the latest Washington Post poll shows that they are not so cynical that they cannot imagine anyone having the qualities that are required for such a job:
1) Republicans say by 64-35 that Trump is “qualified to serve as president.”
2) Republicans say by 60-35 that Trump is “honest and trustworthy.”
3) Republicans say by 53-45 that Trump understands the problems of people like them.
4) Republicans say by 54-42 that Trump “has the kind of personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively as president.”
So we can all rest easy. As long as a qualified leader like Donald Trump is in charge they are unlikely to support something as radical as a military coup. But Barack Obama has clearly worn on their last nerve. And you don’t even want to think about what will happen if Hillary Clinton becomes Commander in Chief. One can easily imagine them calling for this coup and telling themselves “it’s the American way.”
For these folks the American way is whatever they want it to be including, apparently, a military dictatorship.