It’s long been considered out of bounds to question a person’s patriotism. It’s a very strong charge, and we try not ever to make it. But in the face of all of this, the conclusion can’t be avoided. These people actually hate America. There’s no longer a question about that. And yet paradoxically, at the same time they desperately want to control America, more than anything. And that leads to the most basic of all questions: Can you really lead a country that you hate?
Duckworth, a retired Army National Guard pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004, has never been shy about citing her military service to smack down those who would question her patriotism. So she tweeted this in response:
The mistake Carlson makes here is one we hear regularly from conservatives when confronted with someone like Duckworth. No one has any problem with him criticizing her, or any other veteran. He can say she has been a poor senator, or that she shouldn’t be vice president, or that she roots for the wrong baseball team.
It’s only when he criticizes her for allegedly being unpatriotic that people do, and should, say he has stepped over a line.
But that doesn’t stop him, of course — in a move common to Republican politicians and conservative media figures, he violates a norm and simultaneously proclaims his courage for doing so.
But we should note that it is the conservatives who consider themselves so patriotic and so reverential of the military who are also the ones so eager to demean the service and question the patriotism of veterans who happen to be liberals.
Regardless of whether Duckworth winds up as Biden’s choice for vice president, many on the right don’t seem to realize that 2020 isn’t 2004.
That year’s presidential campaign echoes in Carlson’s accusation that Democrats “hate America.” It seems like a long time ago now, but it’s important to recall how intensely toxic the political atmosphere was for the few years after the 9/11 attacks, because the Republican Party made a collective decision to weaponize patriotism against any and all Democrats.
In 2004, Democrats nominated John F. Kerry for president in large part because they believed that President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney — two men who, like President Trump, managed to avoid going to Vietnam — could never attack the patriotism of someone who had volunteered to serve and returned home with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
Kerry was targeted for one of the most repugnant campaigns of slander in the history of presidential politics, which buried him in a mountain of lies about his service. In a particularly shameful episode, delegates to the Republican convention showed up wearing Band-Aids on their faces with purple hearts drawn on them, to claim that the wounds for which Kerry was awarded those medals were not serious enough.
The obvious Republican contempt for Kerry’s service, as well as the service of anyone else who happened to be a Democrat, didn’t matter. The “You’re on the side of terrorists!” and “You don’t love America!” attacks were extremely potent, not least because Democrats became so terrified of the accusation. It’s why so many Democrats with national ambitions — including Kerry, Biden and Hillary Clinton — voted for the Iraq War, despite how obvious it was that it was a terrible idea and just about everything Bush said about it was a lie.
But to repeat, 2020 is not 2004. The endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not just made it impossible to say that if you don’t support a particular war then you don’t “support the troops;” they have also made the idea that love for America can only be found in the GOP laughable. The fact that the accusations were tossed around so liberally in those days has rendered them ineffectual.
We aren’t in that moment of angry patriotism, when everyone’s love of country was constantly being judged and a hugely popular group could be banned from country radio simply because the lead singer said, “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” (In case you’re wondering, nobody practices “cancel culture” more enthusiastically than the right.)
In other words, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, when the idea of America as vulnerable to outside military threats seems almost absurdly remote, the right’s brand of patriotism just isn’t the weapon it once was.
Patriotism can mean a faith in our country’s founding ideals, a belief in service and sacrifice, a commitment to the well-being of one’s fellow Americans. But there’s also a more crude and harsh version, the one Trump carries, which defines itself only in relation to outsiders.
Trump’s patriotism is about fear and hatred, about “winning” over other countries in an imagined contest in which we are either triumphant or humiliated. In his intensely tribal patriotism, ideas of freedom and equality and sacrifice are simply irrelevant.
You may recall that in 2016, when Trump was in the midst of a feud with a Gold Star family, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked him what he had sacrificed for his country. Trump replied by saying he built a great company: “I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.”
And Trump literally bragged about not paying taxes, saying, “That makes me smart,” as though anyone who would actually contribute to their country is a sucker.
That’s not to mention the fact that he is basing much of his reelection campaign on the idea of defending the Confederacy, a literal treason against the United States.
So Trump can hug a flag, and his media allies can say that every Democrat hates America, but it’s not likely to win him any more support. It might have worked in another era, but right now voters have more important things to worry about.