Rudy Giuliani is giving me Soviet flashbacks.
With his bizarre foot-in-mouth rants about how Barack Obama doesn’t love “America” the way “we” do, Rudy — and other “They hate us!” exceptionalist ‘Muricans like Eric Erickson and Steve Forbes — are starting to remind me of the frightened, denial-sick communist die-hards I knew as a student in Russia.
Not to go too far down memory lane, but in 1990, I went to Leningrad to study. The Soviet empire was in its death throes and most people there, particularly the younger ones, knew it.
But some hadn’t gotten the memo yet, and those folks, usually nice enough, often older — university administrators, check-room attendants, security guards, parents of some of my classmates, others — were constantly challenging me and other exchange students to East-versus-West debates, usually with the aim of proving that “their” way of life was better.
By the time I left Russia a dozen years and a couple of career changes later, a lot of those people still hadn’t gotten the memo. They were deep in denial about the passing of the USSR and spent a lot of time volubly claiming ownership of words like we and our and us in a way that quickly became a running joke in modernizing Russia.
U Nas Lusche — roughly, Ours is Better or It’s Better Here — was the unofficial slogan of the pining-for-the-old-days crowd in post-communist Russia.
These folks weren’t communists in any real ideological sense. They were mainly just people who had grown lazily comfortable with certain romantically goofy elements of the Soviet way of life and were (somewhat understandably) reluctant to give them up.
If you’ve spent the last 30 years sitting on splintered park benches with your buddies after work, drinking rancid keg beer out of a jam jar along with some salted vobla fish and some mushy “Doctor’s” kielbasa, well, you’ll be damned if you’re going to worship at the more expensive altar of a warm Coca-Cola and a Snickers.
You liked your disgusting salt-fish and your unhygienic beverage choices and your absurd “kassa” multi-cashier store payment system that could make shopping for groceries an agonizing three-hour ritual.
And it rankled you to no end when people told you that these things, and by implication you yourself, were vestiges of a dead-and-gone world. (I actually loved the vobla and the particulate-filled Soviet beers and a lot of other USSR delicacies — the infuriating kassa system, not so much).
All of which is a roundabout way of saying the Soviets also had a strong sense of exceptionalism. It was something that was carefully nurtured and encouraged by The Party and had been spread successfully from the Kremlin to the remotest drunk-tank in Kamchatka.
But the problem with exceptionalism is that it can turn unintentionally comic with the drop of a hat. You’re made to believe you’re at the center of an envious universe, but then the world changes just enough and suddenly you’re a punchline clinging to a lot of incoherent emotions. I watched this happen with my own eyes to a lot of people in the former Soviet Union.
And I feel like it’s happening here now, with Rudy and the rest of the exceptionalist die-hards. They’re hanging on to a conception of us that doesn’t really exist anymore, not realizing that “America” is now a deeply varied, rapidly-changing place, one incidentally that they spend a lot of their public lives declaring they can’t stand.
This was all on display this past week. Rudy’s bizarre, Internet-maelstrom-inspiring media tour began with remarks at a private dinner for Scott Walker. People focused on the insult to Obama, but just as interesting was the apostrophic address to a conspiratorial and exclusive you and me America of his imagination:
I do not believe — and I know this is a horrible thing to say — but I do not believe that the president loves America. . . He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.
Rudy was ripped by pretty much everyone to the left of James Dobson for these comments, with the White House snarkily commenting, “It was a horrible thing to say.”
There were allegations of racism and “otherizing,” and the Twitter/Net/Cable feeding frenzy was intense enough that by the end of the week, even Walker began creeping sideways, beetle-like, in a direction away from Rudy (Walker told CNBC that Rudy could “speak for himself,” noting helpfully: “I love America”).
Characteristically, and with a trial lawyer’s bravado, Rudy tried to talk his way out of the mess, rambling in self-defense to Bloomberg, CNN, Fox and anyone else who would listen. At each stop he doubled down on his remarks, concluding the tour with an incoherent rant to the New York Times in which he denied his comments about Obama were racist “since [Obama] was brought up by a white mother.”
God knows what that meant — reading this was like watching Mark Fuhrman undergo hypnosis therapy — but it was fascinating stuff.
At the very least, the Giuliani crack-up started up a long-overdue discussion about what exactly it means when patrician pols like Rudy accuse others of not “loving America” enough.
After all, which America do they mean? The one that will be majority nonwhite by 2042? The one that twice elected Barack Obama president? The one that now produces more porn than steel? The one that has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates and one of the highest immigration rates? That America?
Are they big fans of South Park maybe? The Wu-Tang Clan? Looking? Because it’s ironic: The heavy industry and manufacturing might that was a key source of American power in the days of Giuliani’s youth is now in serious decline, but Hollywood (and American pop culture generally) is a bigger, more hegemonic world power than ever.
Yet the current batch of exceptionalists mostly despises Hollywood, one of our few still-exceptionally-performing industries. They liked it better in the days when John Wayne was the leading man, Rock Hudson was in the closet and nobody made movies about copulating cowboys or Che’s motorcycle trips.
Conservative politicians like Rudy are a bizarre combination of constant, withering, redundant whining about Actual Current America, mixed with endless demands that we all stand up and profess our love for some other America, one that apparently doesn’t include a lot of the rest of us or the things about this country we like.
I feel sorry for Rudy that he can’t love this country the way it is. I love America even with assholes like him living in it. In fact, I’m immensely proud of our assholes; I think America has the best assholes in the world. I defy the Belgians or the Japanese to produce something like a Donald Trump. If that makes me an exceptionalist, I plead guilty.
In all seriousness, the Rudy story is a bummer. It’s not easy to love America and hate half the people who live there. It requires that you spend a lot of time closing your eyes and wishing history had happened differently, which, at least in my limited experience, doesn’t work very well.
And that’s not something to gloat about, either. A lot of people in this country think like Rudy, and if our present doesn’t work for them, the future won’t work for any of us. We’re all going to end up miserable together, and that sucks.