In December 2015, I received a giant Christmas card from Donald Trump; or, more correctly, from the Trump campaign. “Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays,” it said. “We are, together, going to Make America Great Again.” The card’s sign-off caught my attention: “I Love You All, Donald J. Trump.”
That word “love” doesn’t get much use in politics. You hear lots about compassion and faith and hope — but not love. There’s something about it that reveals too much, or makes its user vulnerable. Outside politics, of course, Americans use the word all the time and for no special reason. “I love you,” a man will say to his wife in public. “I love you, too!” she will respond. The British, for instance, do not speak this way.
Maybe American politicians don’t speak much about love because, in politics, they can really only apply the word in one of two ways. A politician (a) can say he loves the people he’s talking to — his supporters, the electorate, Americans in general. Or (b) he can say he loves America.
Trump is always telling large groups he loves them. “Win, lose or draw,” Trump said to a gathering just before the Iowa caucuses, “I love you folks all. I love you all.” “I love you folks, and we’re gonna work together,” he told a crowd at a pre-inauguration party. “I love you, I respect you, there is nobody I respect more,” he said to the Central Intelligence Agency. (Imagine any other president — any other person, really — saying the words “I love you” to the CIA. Strange!)
A friend calls this “show business talk.” “I don’t know why people fall for that nonsense,” he says, “but they do.” My friend has a point — you can’t actually love a large crowd of people. But it’s only nonsense if you take the verb “love” literally. Otherwise it’s an expression of general good will toward and identity with the assembled crowd.
Maybe it’s significant, then, that in public Trump shows very little physical affection to his wife, Melania. He does so in private, we’re told, but not in public. That’s very different from the Obamas and Bushes; both couples held hands, kissed, hugged. (I think, too, of Al Gore giving his then-wife, Tipper, a slobbery kiss.) By keeping his distance from Melania, Trump is signaling to the crowd that he loves them.
Trump’s love language is most effective, though, when he directs it toward the nation itself. This is far rarer in American politics than one might suppose. Politicians, even Republican ones, usually don’t lavish verbal affection on the nation, perhaps feeling that to do so is somehow improper, as though the expression of simple-hearted love of country must necessarily imply a lack of patriotism in those who don’t share your views. If that’s what they think, they’re taking politics too seriously. Ordinary people need to know that their elected representatives, the people who make and enforce the laws that govern them, actually appreciate and take pleasure in the nation they oversee.
I think here of Norman Podhoretz’s defense of patriotism at the beginning of his last memoir, aptly titled “My Love Affair with America.”
Love of country, and pride in it, is so common a feeling among peoples everywhere in the world that there seems something fatuous, if not positively perverse, about making an issue of it. Celebrating or condemning patriotism, and even nationalism, is rather like praising or deploring human nature itself. After all, even a lifelong radical like philosopher Bertrand Russell could say of his own country that “Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess.
Of course, if you’re a politician, it’s assumed that you love your country. But many politicians often don’t sound as if they love it, not particularly and not for its own sake. This is especially a problem for progressive ones who, in their forward-thinking aspirations for the nation, spend most of their time criticizing its present-day manifestation and often don’t sound as if they care for it very much at all. Barack Obama, to take the most obvious instance of this, often sounded as if he were deeply interested in America’s well-being in a detached academic sense, but it was never obvious that he liked it all that much. He often sounded to my ear like an art historian discoursing on the complexities of pre-Raphaelite symbolism, and at the end of the lecture you wonder if the guy really likes art at all.
Trump’s expressions of patriotism, by sharp contrast, are direct, unsubtle, almost hokey. “I love this country!” he exclaimed at the very end of his election victory speech, as if to sum up everything he’d said for the previous two years. And, whatever else one might say about the man, there’s no reason to doubt him.
Love of country is, accordingly, Trump’s chief criterion in judging other people. Tim Cook wants to locate manufacturing facilities in the United States — evidence that the Apple chief executive, said Trump, “loves this country.” Protesters at Trump rallies, on the other hand, clearly have no regard for America: “They don’t love this country.” I assume many readers will interpret these and similar remarks by the president as either dumb or cynical jingoism. Maybe. But for many Americans, there is something refreshing about a president who isn’t too sophisticated to believe that loving your country is a good thing and not loving it is a bad thing, and who isn’t too polished to say so loudly and without pretense.
Trump’s many adversaries may loathe the man, but they can learn from him on this point. That is, assuming they want to win at the polls.