April 21, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
What Derek Chauvin’s conviction in the murder of George Floyd tells us about liberal patriotism
It’s incoherent to those confusing love of country for love of the status quo.
The president and vice president offered remarks after a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts in the murder of George Floyd. Joe Biden called the verdict “a giant step forward” that was nonetheless insufficient to attaining equal treatment under law. “‘I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words,” the president said. “We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.”
Kamala Harris grounded her remarks in American history and the slow evolution of progressive political change. She said racism was keeping the country from fulfilling its founding promise of “liberty and justice for all.” “It is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. It is a problem for every American,” the vice president said. “It is holding our nation back from reaching our full potential.”
“A measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice,” Harris said.
This was the context in which Debbie Lesko lied, during an interview this morning on the Fox Business Network, about what the president and vice president said. The Arizona congresswoman said: “It’s just a sad day in America when the President of the United States and the Vice President of the United States don’t applaud that our justice system passed the test. Justice was served. Instead, they say we’re all racists.”
Harris: “A measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice.”
Why would a rank-and-file Republican, whose views on pretty much anything will not change those of anyone who does not already agree with her, lie like this? Why would Lesko say the president and vice president said “we’re all racists” when they clearly did not? The answer speaks to the Republican fetish for victimization, for one thing. For another, it speaks to the conviction among conservatives of all stripes that those who criticize America can’t really love it. And because they can’t really love it, they can’t be real Americans. This logic has an endpoint that blind-sided the republic on January 6. The Democrats are an enemy so evil anything is justified in eliminating them.
I have no doubt Lesko’s immediate goal, which would be the immediate goal of any GOP backbencher, is characterizing the Democrats as if they hate Republicans full stop. (That fires up constituents, and getting them fired up is nearly the entire point.) But there’s another goal here, too. For that, let’s turn to the Post’s George F. Will, who rightly opposed Donald Trump’s authoritarianism but cannot quite bring himself to concede that liberals like Biden and Harris actually love America as much as he does.
In a column about the “true meaning of patriotism,” Will said liberals who go on and on and on about structural racism, white supremacy, genocide and the plentiful human-rights atrocities that punctuate American history are not just voicing dissent. They are voicing a “constant curdled dissent, in the form of disdain for the nation’s past that produced its present.” That, Will said, “is incompatible with patriotism.”1
Those who believe that … the nation remains saturated with “systemic racism,” that the economic system has always been fundamentally exploitive [sic], that the social order is rotten with injustice and that even the nation’s most revered historical figures are unworthy of respect — those who think like this can be credited with moral earnestness, but not with patriotism: They cannot love what they will not praise.2
According to this logic, Biden and Harris, while being “credited with moral earnestness,” cannot love America sufficiently, as they will not praise it. (As Lesko said, “It’s just a sad day in America when the President of the United States and the Vice President of the United States don’t applaud that our justice system passed the test.”) In this view, Chauvin’s conviction in Floyd’s murder is a repudiation of the liberal argument as well as a vindication of the American way. For Biden and Harris to keep yammering about racism in the face of a legal system yielding full and equal justice would seem less a moral aspiration than a political goal, as if there’s an advantage, as Brit Hume said, to “waving the banner of racism.” Will might chafe at the idea, but there’s a dime’s worth of difference between him and Debbie Lesko.
To be fair, some American critics of America are anti-American. Infamous writer Matt Taibbi, for instance, is so convinced the United States is the source of the world’s evil that he defends the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a genocidal war criminal. Taibbi’s ilk is dangerous and illiberal. Liberals, meanwhile, criticize out of love for what the country can be, not hate for what it was. They love not in spite of the past, but because of it. This is a tradition of patriotism from which Biden and Harris draw inspiration. It’s a tradition incoherent to those confusing love of country for love of the status quo.
Here’s the status quo. Killing people in the line of police duty is the rule, not the exception. So is getting off scot-free. According to the ACLU, Derek Chauvin’s conviction is the first time a white cop has been held criminally accountable for a civilian death in Minnesota’s history. Nationally, over 1,100 people are killed by police every year. Over the course of the last 21 days, they have killed three people every day. The entire legal system is structured to favor cops, especially white cops. That one police officer amid thousands was found guilty isn’t a vindication. It’s an indictment.
My point here is not that Will, Hume, Lesko and others are wrong. They are entitled to that. So are Biden and Harris. So are liberals, progressives and leftists insisting that systemic racism hurts all Americans in one way or another. But Will, Hume, Lesko and others are not satisfied. They can’t just say “you’re wrong” and move on. They must take the next step. They must characterize political rivals as not quite loyal, as not quite American, as almost criminal and therefore deserving of what fate befalls them. And by putting their rivals on the other side of America, wherever that is, they find themselves fighting an enemy so evil anything is justified in eliminating them.
As Derek Chauvin understood, that includes murder.
Will’s column is about Steven B. Smith’s new book, Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes. I might have some quibbles with the philosopher, too, but I don’t trust Will’s characterization of what the book says. I’m not going to quibble until I read it myself. For now, I’ll say Smith’s writing has influenced my thinking, as evident here, here and here.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.