Rudy Giuliani's recent claim that he does "not believe that the president loves America" was, of course, over the top. It's one thing to disagree with, or even despise, the president, but suggesting he's rooting against the country is generally considered beyond the pale, and Giuliani has widely received a great deal of pushback for his comments. But why would he say such a thing in the first place? What would a conservative hear a liberal leader saying that would make the former perceive the latter as such a threat?
Let's for a moment set aside the racial and religious angles (the long strains of thought portraying African Americans and purported Muslims as alien), along with longstanding conservative concerns over Barack Obama's familial ties and international upbringing. And let's also set aside the recent increase in party polarization and the coarsening of the political discourse. What you have left is a great deal of difference in the way liberals and conservatives perceive and describe the world.
As considerable scholarship on politics and linguistics has shown (see George Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg, for example), liberals and conservatives describe events differently and prefer to hear different descriptions from their leaders. Things like nuance and self-mockery play well among liberals, while conservatives prefer to hear strong affirmations of their beliefs.
When conservatives question whether someone who utters nuanced statements about his country actually loves it, that's because it's truly difficult for them to imagine someone who loves his country ever saying anything equivocal about it.
Writing recently in the Atlantic, Oliver Morrison taps into such research to explain why conservatives dominate modern talk radio but have repeatedly failed to field a counterpart to Jon Stewart. Satire, Morrison notes, is inherently about bringing leaders and institutions down a peg; conservatives far prefer exalting existing leadership structures and criticizing threats to them. More generally, experimental research reveals conservatives to have a heightened startle response relative to liberals, to react more sharply to changes and threats, and to register greater disgust toward people's questionable personal behavior.
What does all this tell us about recent events? One of the moments that has spurred conservative attacks on Obama was his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month. In a lengthy discussion about the dangers of ISIL and al-Qaeda, Obama cautioned the audience that their enemies were violent terrorists, not all Muslims. "Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," he reminded attendees.
To a liberal audience member, this strengthened the president's case. To hear a Christian concede some of Christianity's past evils makes his current condemnations of Muslim terrorists seem more credible and more accurate. But to any conservative listening, these words sounded like a betrayal. You simply condemn evil actions and evil people; there is nothing to be gained from nuance or perspective and, indeed, it undermines his other condemnations.
Indeed, the whole rationale for Obama's presidency demonstrated the different ways liberals and conservatives saw the world. That Obama was a Christian with an estranged Muslim father, that he was black raised in a white family, that he'd spent years living overseas—all these things spoke to a complex individual with a wide variety of perspectives. For many liberals, he was the ideal candidate for a diverse country leading a complex world. Conversely, this upbringing was everything conservatives feared. Where were Obama's true loyalties? To which parent, which faith, which race, which country did he feel the greater affinity?
Conservatives were, understandably, far more comfortable with George W. Bush, the man who famously said, "I don't do nuance." This was a president whose you're-with-us-or-you're-with-the-terrorists utterances resonated among conservatives wanting to hear clear-throated defenses of their country and clear-throated attacks on its enemies. Similarly, it was a worldview that repulsed liberals, who saw it as simplistic, thuggish, and inapt for navigating a complicated world.
Now, this is not to say that liberal and conservative leaders always hold true to type. Shortly after 9/11, President Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington and said: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war." It was a message not unlike President Obama's recent words, but because it was not what either liberals or conservatives expected to hear from a conservative leader, it is little remembered.
But when conservatives question whether someone who utters nuanced statements about his country actually loves it, that's because it's truly difficult for them to imagine someone who loves his country ever saying anything equivocal about it. And when liberals defend such a speech, it's because that's the kind of language they use; nuance, to them, is a sign of thoughtfulness and respect, not a diminution of love. So if liberals and conservatives are talking past each other on this issue, it's in part because they're using different languages.
Seth Masket writes a weekly column on politics for Pacific Standard.