We’ve highlighted part of the email (sent from a fundraising committee run jointly by Trump 2020 and the Republican National Committee) that echoes language Pence used when he first announced his walkout on Twitter — albeit in a different order.
There are two things that are odd about that tweet. The first is the capitalization of “flag,” which isn’t how the word is usually presented in American English. (Earlier this year, linguist Ben Zimmer explained in an email that this sort of capitalization was “a way of elevating certain entities, investing them with an air of prestige or authority.” It’s a throwback, too, to the 17th and 18th centuries, he said, which explains why such capitalization is common in documents like the Constitution.)
The other odd thing is that Pence (and the email) includes soldiers alongside the flag and the anthem as things that the NFL protests are disrespecting.
Last month, the HBO show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” paired with Marist for a poll on the protests. They asked a question relevant to the issue: Does the national anthem symbolize the rights and freedoms Americans enjoy or the sacrifices of the military? Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the anthem symbolized those freedoms more — a margin that held across partisan and racial lines.
Why would Pence and the campaign highlight troops in that way? The simplest explanation is politics.
The military is consistently the institution in which Americans express the most confidence, according to Gallup polling. Seventy-two percent of Americans had confidence in the military as of June, compared with 32 percent that had confidence in the presidency. Members of the military and small businesses are viewed nearly universally in a positive light, which is irresistible to politicians. So, instead of talking about how NFL protesters were disrespecting the flag — itself a fairly potent charge — Pence et al. went further, suggesting that the offense was more broadly to those who’ve served the country.
(The protests, of course, are not against the flag or anthem, much less the military; they are against racial injustices in the United States.)
There’s another layer that is specific to Trump. As president, he has repeatedly hinted that he thinks the military should have a more significant role in American politics. That’s manifested in his appointment of several former generals to his Cabinet (including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who was once the head of the Department of Homeland Security). It’s indicated, too, by his emphasis on bolstering America’s military strength — even while downplaying and undercutting diplomacy. Trump wants a military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the style he saw firsthand in Paris earlier this year. Or, depending on your lens, in the style of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. To Trump, the military is synonymous with power.
At one time, about a century ago, the state of New York mandated that students be instructed in patriotism. A textbook was developed to serve as a curriculum. Its table of contents focus on the role of the flag in a patriotic understanding of the nation. The military is honored by the flag, you can see from the table of contents outlining the subjects covered. But, more broadly, the flag was presented to students as a symbol of American history and society.
The HBO-Marist poll suggests that this is still generally the broader patriotic lens through which such symbols are seen.