It’s hard for a layperson to understand what it must feel like to run at full speed toward a springboard and then to fly into the air, twisting precisely with the expectation that you’ll land on your feet. What a layperson can understand, I imagine, is the terror of being upside down about eight feet in the air without conscious awareness of what you’re going to do next.

It seems that something like that latter situation struck Simone Biles during the women’s team gymnastic competition early Tuesday morning. She got what gymnasts call the “twisties,” in which the subconscious muscle memory of performing a maneuver you’ve performed any number of times in the past is suddenly interrupted by your brain. There are numerous stories of elite athletes similarly finding that their brains are suddenly interrupting familiar patterns — baseball players unable to throw to first, basketball players who can’t hit jump shots — but it’s a rare sport where suddenly losing focus could be deadly.

“When Kevin Durant's foot was off by an inch in Game 7 of the NBA's Eastern Conference semifinals,” CNN's Elspeth Reeve wrote this week, “his shot was worth two points instead of three, and the Brooklyn Nets lost in overtime. When Riley McCusker's foot was off by an inch on her beam dismount at the 2017 American Cup, she slammed backward onto her neck and then rolled over it.”

Despite Biles pulling out of the competition, the U.S. team won silver overall. In other words, with the woman generally acknowledged as the best gymnast in history sidelined, the team was still strong enough that it was the second-best in the world. Certainly something in which Americans could take some pride, which, after all, is one of the points of the Olympics.

Yet many Americans didn’t. For many Americans, Biles’s choice not to keep flinging herself around the gymnasium despite her uncertainty about where she would land was a grievous offense, an affront to their hard-earned right to chant “U-S-A!” in their living rooms. With the Olympic medal count meaning little to nothing for any period except these particular two weeks every four years — and with the United States leading in that count anyway — it’s hard to imagine why so many people are so incensed at her decision. And yet, they are.

“She probably could have just competed and just kind of checked the boxes and they would have got a gold medal,” conservative commentator Charlie Kirk said during his radio show. After quoting Biles talking about her decision, he called her a “selfish sociopath.”

The right-wing blog the Federalist wrote multiple articles attacking Biles, one lamenting that “for some U.S. athletes, the Olympics has become all about them.” Others compared her unfavorably to other elite athletes engaged in less risky situations, like Michael Jordan or Tom Brady. Over and over, the implication was that Biles had acted selfishly or unpatriotically.

“We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” Kirk said. He was wearing a hat with an American flag on it as he spoke.

Granted, in the age of social media it’s easy to pick out even a small pattern and assume that it represents a larger trend than it does. But Tuesday did seem to be a moment at which there was a particular flavor of patriotism that was made obvious. While one generally thinks of that term as meaning broad support for country and the country’s men and women, an embrace of those striving for the common good, what we saw repeatedly Tuesday was a patriotic sentiment that bore very particular contingencies.

Shortly after Biles withdrew from the team competition, four police officers testified on Capitol Hill about their experiences during the riot on Jan. 6. The testimony was harrowing and unquestionably powerful, detailing how they were attacked and physically hurt. The officers asked for both political and mental health support, with the legislators on the select committee investigating the riot quickly acquiescing.

For many observers, though, this was not an opportunity to stand in solidarity with law enforcement. Instead, because those officers were criticizing the rioters who’d attacked them — completely justifiably, of course — they were seen as necessarily taking a political stand. Several of the officers who testified have in fact advocated for more awareness about the riot over the past six months and pushed for a more robust political response to it. But since it is the established position of former president Donald Trump and much of his party that the riot should be reframed, downplayed or moved past, any discussion of what happened is taken as a political attack.

The officers became a focus of aggressive abuse, often centered on a perceived lack of strength. That the officers became emotional was presented by conservatives as weakness, both personal and national. One officer’s testimony about enduring racist abuse was dismissed as invented. Another officer shared a voice mail he’d received in which he was excoriated in shockingly aggressive and homophobic terms.

The through-line to all of this is the idea that American heroes are necessarily stoic and suffering, demonstrating the sort of rigid “masculinity” that the insecure demand of their children. Olympians and other athletes are supposed to shut up and let us enjoy their accomplishments and fame. Members of law enforcement and the military are supposed to keep the bad guys in line and to be tough while doing it. The only emotions they’re allowed to show are anger or triumph.

That belief blends with political culture. Part of Trump’s appeal was his perceived toughness, his aggressive language about immigrants and foreigners and his constant attacks on the left. Those who rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6 are viewed with approval by a quarter of Republicans; the day’s violence was, in many ways, the sort of response Trump had long advocated.

What’s fascinating about Biles’s decision is that the criticism she faced was almost entirely disconnected from the decision itself. This wasn’t her opting not to rise from adversity like Kerri Strug, but, it seems, simply acknowledging that her muscle memory was out of sync.

Her entirely apolitical decision nonetheless sank into the muck of politics. When the U.S. women’s soccer team showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement before a match, they were broadly criticized on the right, including by Trump himself, their status as symbols of American superiority revoked for expressing an unwelcome opinion. But Biles didn’t do anything political at all, except to force some Americans who are deeply invested in their own toughness to confront the reality of what it can mean to be human. Of course, were she Tom Brady — a White man playing football — it’s also fairly obvious that her decision would be viewed differently.

There's no comparison in the toughness of Simone Biles relative to Charlie Kirk. There's no comparison between a commentator with a Twitter account and a Capitol Police officer who stood between a violent mob deceived by lies and the targets of the mob's fury. Biles and those officers put themselves into dangerous positions and, in doing so, reflected very different parts of what makes America great.

And, in response, they’re told that they did the wrong thing.