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Obama's Real Crime: Treating Americans Like Adults

02/23/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

There are obvious explanations for Rudy Giuliani turning himself into a Donald Trump-scale joke this week by attacking President Obama's patriotism.

#1: A craving for attention, in someone who had fallen out of the spotlight.

#2: Racism, just the latest example of the right's "othering" of Obama. Giuliani denies he's a racist, of course, but like Trump, he's obviously comfortable with exploiting racism, and at that point, sorry, it's racism.

But, obvious though these explanations may be, I find them unsatisfying -- there's something more going on here, as well as in the failure of Republican leaders (apart from Marco Rubio) to repudiate Giuliani.

Giuliani and others like him can't possibly believe their own claims that Obama never shows patriotic fervor. Patriotism has defined this president since he first gained national attention with his "No Red America, No Blue America" speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

But they do seem genuinely angry about this: that Obama will now and then grant that, even as it strives to be "a more perfect union," America has flaws.

Surely only a child would believe that if you love something, you must never criticize it in any way.

Aha.

Here's what really gets Giuliani and the others. Obama is breaking the unwritten law of modern conservative politics:

At all times, you must treat Americans like children.

Look at the enormous investment in reassurance that seems to go into every GOP event. There aren't just flags, there are flags everywhere, and on everything. Speakers don't just express patriotism, they battle to declaim, loudest and longest, that America is the greatest country in the history of the world.

When you're the greatest country in the history of the world, you might expect that would mean a little less anxiety -- as Jerry Seinfeld once asked, how many billions did McDonald's need to serve before they finally accepted that they were doing OK?

But no. Apparently we're to believe that the people of the greatest country in the history of the world can't bear to hear anything but unalloyed praise.

They must never be exposed to the complicated truths of the adult world.

And there goes Obama, saying that America is the greatest country ever known, and sometimes we fall short of our own ideals. Outrage!

Why?

I blame marketing.

At least since the Nixon-Humphrey presidential campaign of 1968, our politics have been dominated by marketing. This has been especially so on the right, whence we get the postmodern, post-reality politics of pioneers like Nixon veteran and Fox News head Roger Ailes, which makes marketing not just the vehicle but the point. Freedom means the free market, and the free market is never wrong. What's right is what people buy.

Marketing has useful, economy-growing effects, but -- here's another complicated, adult truth -- it also has some negative ones, chief among them its tendency to infantilize us. What do we hear from marketers all day long? "You deserve this." It's the underlying theme of every ad you see.

And it's become the underlying theme of GOP politics: you deserve everything you want (wealth, safety), and nothing you don't (taxes, the consequences of wars). It's ironic, given that there was a time when Republicans prided themselves on being the grown-ups.

From the marketing-dominant perspective, the charge that Obama is unpatriotic -- and the apparently real anger behind that charge -- finally makes sense.

In the reality-based world, yes, it's ridiculous and, as noted, makes a joke of the person behind it. But what if you think America and marketing are more or less the same thing? That this should be a land of child-consumers, swaddled in comforting fictions?

Then yeah, I guess Obama isn't very patriotic towards that.

And when he shows it, when he acts like he thinks we're capable of something more, you can see how some would express not feigned, but genuine outrage at the threat to their debased version of American greatness.

After all, there's money at stake.