It was once unseemly to question the patriotism of political opponents. These days, though, our tribal politics seem based on the noxious idea that those who disagree with us do not love our country. But hurling accusations that one’s political views render one unpatriotic or un-American is a far different thing than calling out a politician who disdains our democracy, its institutions and its citizens. To avoid labeling such actions as anti-American or unpatriotic would be akin to giving the politician a pass. So: Is President Trump a patriot?
Surely he wraps himself in the flag and touts his love for the military, but neither suggests he has any devotion to American ideals. Insisting that a protester not exercise his First Amendment rights but rather smile and salute the flag shows no love of American ideals. Equating neo-Nazis with anti-Nazi protesters is not patriotic; it is anti-American.
Trump epitomizes nationalism (“We’re Number One!”) but that is quite different from patriotism. George Orwell set out the distinction in his seminal essay on the topic:
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the up-grade and some hated rival is on the down-grade. . . . Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.
He certainly had Trump’s form of nationalism pegged:
All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. . . . Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side. . . . Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening.”
By contrast, a patriot shows “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” Since America is defined by its creed (“All men are . . .”), an American patriot, one would reason, shows devotion to its institutions, principles, historical accomplishments (actual, not imagined, and without ignoring its faults) and people, who are of no single gender, religion, race, political viewpoint, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
Trump’s illiberal and, yes, un-American brand of nationalism often morphs into sheer narcissism, which has little to do with America at all. His peculiar cult of personality has been on full display. It takes the form of imagining that patriotic sacrifice leads inevitably to support for him personally. He tweeted on Monday:
Happy Memorial Day! Those who died for our great country would be very happy and proud at how well our country is doing today. Best economy in decades, lowest unemployment numbers for Blacks and Hispanics EVER (& women in 18years), rebuilding our Military and so much more. Nice!
Patriots include many Americans who would abhor Trump and Trumpism, but more importantly their sacrifice has nothing to do with him and should be not invoked for self-congratulation. (The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote, “Donald Trump cares enormously about national symbols — the flag, the anthem — when he can use them to belittle, humiliate, and exclude.”) This is not patriotism but rather appropriation of patriotic sacrifice for personal glory.
Likewise, his suggestion that parts of our government are “meddling” in our elections would be an abominable lie coming from a candidate. For a president, such an assertion betrays his oath and expresses contempt for our democracy, all made worse by his refusal to identify a hostile foreign power that actually is seeking to undermine those same elections. Elected officials and senior intelligence officials — I’m looking at FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel here — have an obligation to denounce such a vile and false allegation.
In short, Trump evidences love of self, love of winning and love of patriotic symbols that he can swipe for his own glorification. His viewpoint and habits of mind denote that of a hard-bitten nationalism, but that mind-set contradicts American ideals. It is critical for politicians and citizens of all beliefs to disclaim his outbursts as un-American and anti-patriotic.