The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For years, Trump and the right hijacked the American flag

The scene at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Nov. 7, the day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election.
The scene at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Nov. 7, the day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On the streets throughout the nation’s capital, they whipped their American flags through the air, hung them out of their windows and let them flutter from their cars as they drove through their neighborhoods.

And no, I’m not talking about the supporters of President Trump who were just in town Saturday, parroting their hero’s false claims that the election was rigged.

These flags waved on the Saturday before last, the day Joe Biden was declared president-elect and this heavily Democratic city celebrated by reclaiming the star-spangled banner — though the two Saturdays looked strikingly similar in enthusiasm, volume and the amount of red, white and blue being waved.

I’ll admit grabbing the flag was my first impulse. As soon as the announcement pinged our phones and we began to hear cheers in the neighborhood and car horns honking, I took the flag we usually fly only on Independence Day and stuck it in the flag holder on our porch.

The flag belongs to all of America again.

Because for many years, especially those with Trump in power, the flag has been hijacked by the political right — equated with support of Trump and a rejection of the Democratic Party.

The right has so thoroughly dominated the flag, even middle-schoolers are confused.

Last summer, when my tween debuted his new swim trunks — stars on the left leg, stripes on the right — he didn’t get a thumbs-up from his friends, even though he thought his shorts were cool and patriotic.

“Dude! You’re a Republican!” they said. And a chorus of “You love Truh-ump! You love Truh-ump!” replaced “Marco Polo” in the water that day.

He came home and stuffed the trunks in the back of a drawer, returning to the slightly tight palm tree version from the previous summer.

“The alt-right has manipulated and corrupted the flag from being a symbol of peace and unity to a symbol of defiance and one-sidedness,” said Alex Garcia, 62 and an Army veteran who used to love flying Old Glory but stopped during this administration. “Seeing our flag used in this manner is terrible.”

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LaTanya Malvern, also an Army veteran, said she hasn’t flown the stars and stripes at her Texas home since 2016, before Trump took office.

Marine Corps veteran Mia Ellis, 55, said she hasn’t stopped flying the flag.

“At the end of the day, we all are Americans. We all live in this country, and we should all respect the same flag,” she said.

But she has been heartbroken about the way the flag has been treated — manipulated into the black-white-and-blue version that supports law enforcement with a Blue lives matter message in defiance of the Black Lives Matter movement, flown alongside the Confederate flag, or emblazoned with Trump’s face.

“When you change the colors or change the meaning of it,” Ellis, who was born in D.C. and lives in Maryland, said, “it breaks my heart, it boils my blood. I took an oath to protect that flag, and then others call themselves patriots just because they use it. No. That boils my blood.”

Trump has cast himself as the flag’s biggest fan and protector, urging laws punishing those who abuse it. He kisses, caresses and embraces the flag onstage.

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” he tweeted four years ago.

This summer, he said he hopes the Supreme Court will revisit the issue it settled 30 years ago, when burning the flag in protest was protected as a First Amendment right.

And it’s the freedoms that flag represents — the idea that our nation is a place of opportunity, equality and justice for all Americans — that the vast American middle actually holds dear.

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Meanwhile, in D.C. on Saturday, some of the most intense demonstrators in the pro-Trump crowd wore actual American flags as capes, skirts and scarves — dragging them across the dirty ground of Union Station’s food court and later wielding their flagpoles like aikido staffs when night fell and street fights broke out.

So much for respect and reverence.

But when the election was called for Biden, a week before that Trump rally came to town, something changed.

That afternoon, the townhouses of Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle and Shaw fluttered with flags.

“We got our country back!” yelled a young woman standing up in a car and holding an American flag through the sunroof as the car zipped down Independence Avenue that day.

There were even a few pickup trucks cruising the streets of D.C. that day with a forest of flags displayed from the beds. But they weren’t Confederate flags or Nazi flags or Trump flags. Just the American flag.

D.C. was filled with stars and stripes on both Saturdays, at least. And as our nation begins to heal from the deep divisions and fissures of the past four years, that’s a good place to start.

Twitter: @petulad

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