The Blog

On Patriotism and Principle: An Open Letter to the President (aka "The GOP's Bridge to Anywhere But Here")

Mr. President, talk to us directly. Tell us again why your election was only the first step, not the culmination, of a genuine movement to change the way we understand power, democracy, and our own roles in those phenomena.
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Dear President Obama,

In anticipation of your press conference tonight, I want to give you my thoughts about the strategy being used against you and how I hope you address it, starting with your remarks this evening.

It's time for you to take back control of the national conversation. The GOP strategy was transparent long before Rush Limbaugh told his viperous audience that he hopes you fail. Your opponents have opted to try and destroy the presidency at any cost -- principles and morality be damned. They loathe your health care and stimulus programs, but it's clear that in their minds your true Achilles heel is national security. And ironically, they are so desperate to undermine your administration that they'll sacrifice everything, including our national security interests, to do so.

Their first phase was to get enough people to buy into the Dick Cheney view of global security: an unapologetic eagerness to sacrifice means in the amorphous but dogmatic quest for ends, i.e. to accept the justification of torture. They seem to believe -- with some merit -- that your more sophisticated (and more logically and morally consistent) view can be exploited. Their objective is to portray you as weak -- as more concerned about a petty thing like the rule of law than really combating terrorists (which is especially ironic given that some on the far left are depicting you as indistinguishable from Bush on this issue).

They want to paint you as unpatriotic and unconcerned about the security of the American people. Believe it or not, your right-wing opponents are frothing at the mouth for a prosecution on torture (for different reasons than the far left, where the thirst for retribution causes me serious concern) because they think it will give them the opportunity to claim the patriotic high ground by defending the honor of an (unjustly, they will argue) hounded terrorist interrogator who was just "keeping us safe." Obviously, the blunt, unrefined early phase of this strategy has been ongoing for some time vis-à-vis the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins of the world. But those folks are just the opening act. They are priming their audiences for the real assault, which will come after the first prosecution is announced, a terrorist attack (or attempt) takes place against American citizens, or another "rally around the flag" opportunity presents itself via a dip in your approval -- maybe thanks to an unpredicted economic upheaval or a (likely fabricated) political scandal.

They dislike your policies and disagree with your worldview. That's not news. But what makes them especially dangerous is that they clearly don't respect you as a person (one might reasonably wonder whether their vile tactics betray a lack respect for themselves, but that's an issue for another day), and they don't even try to disguise their contempt. This systematic dehumanization of you -- and, by proxy, everyone who supports you -- allows them to justify to themselves the use of tactics that they would violently abhor if used against them. The cognitive dissonance readings are off the chart. Instead of updating their perspective to reflect the changing realities of global relations, your GOP opponents try to revise reality to support their inflexible worldview (which, at the end of the day, always rationalizes their own power and whatever must be done to retain it). The fact is that your most vocal political opponents live in an intellectual void; a tiny box of irrational, reflexive nationalism girded by a vicious partisan savagery whose shame knows no boundaries. They will say literally anything if they think it has the potential to harm you. Nothing is beneath them.

Beyond the sad commentary this provides about the state of the opposition party in the United States, the more deeply concerning reality is that your Republican opponents either do not understand or simply do not care about what is at stake for our country -- and, by extension, the rest of the world -- at this pivotal moment. Every time they call you a "socialist," "Marxist," "fascist," or "racist" in the hope that it will exploit one more scared and angry citizen into deeper cynicism about their own future, I hope you see the tactic for what it is: the naked desperation of a decaying ideology.

But Mr. President, some of us on the left get it. We see this behavior for what it is and we understand we can either help you produce some constructive, progressive reforms or continue to be complicit in Republican -- and some far left -- attempts to drown you in recriminations about foreign policy and the national security issue. Because your window of opportunity won't stay open indefinitely, I respectfully offer the following suggestions to help define and take command of the national conversation -- something you had during the campaign, and which you can surely gain back.

Restate what you stand for and how you understand patriotism. Remind us that no matter how loudly you shout or how many flags you display on your lapel, you do not love your country if you are willing to flout its constitution. Period.

Be firm but not defensive. Your opponents are not offering anything constructive, they are simply trying to obstruct. That lack of initiative -- of vision -- can only take them so far. Don't give their empty claims more credibility by appearing to take them seriously. They are simplistic deflections -- they don't deserve serious attention.

Don't let them set the narrative. Give us another moment like that one in March 2008 when you evolved the national dialogue about race with that conversation-framing speech in Philadelphia.

Remind us that the ends never justify the means. And that if we forget that, we undermine everything for which we claim to be fighting. Beyond the principled reasons for holding to this truth, the reality is that breaking the law and violating human rights norms does not serve anyone's security interests in the long term.

Mr. President, talk to us directly. Tell us again why your election was only the first step, not the culmination, of a genuine movement to change the way we understand power, democracy, and our own roles in those phenomena.

At the end of the day, most people are unwilling to be complicit in their own disempowerment and unwilling to be abused by a culture of oppressive fear and cynicism. The potential discovery of this truth is your opponents' biggest worry, and your biggest opportunity. Please take it.

Cynthia Boaz