Americans rally and protest. They celebrate their citizenship and help others gain theirs. In almost every town, they go to 4th of July parades.
This is what patriotism looks like at a time when the country seems divided. For many Americans, their pride for the country is directly tied to the president leading it — and, likewise, Trump often refers to his supporters as “American patriots” and “loyal citizens,” while casting his critics, opponents and those who question him as “un-American,” “treasonous” and “extremist.”
As part of the “Of America” series, The Washington Post dispatched reporters across the country to talk with Americans about what it means to be patriotic these days.
“Making America actually what it stands for again — that’s democracy, that’s patriotism.”
Separated by a sidewalk and a vastly different view of America, Trump supporters and critics laid out their visions for the country in competing chants ahead of the president’s latest campaign rally in Fargo, N.D.
Standing in the crowd was Jane Pettinger, a 57-year-old college professor holding a cardboard sign decorated with two flags and the words “TRUE PATRIOT.”
“Serving your country rather than deferring the draft or being a draft dodger — that’s patriotism,” said Pettinger, who was in the U.S. Air Force for 7½ years and is critical of Trump for requesting draft deferments during the Vietnam War. “Standing up for democracy, making America actually what it stands for again — that’s democracy, that’s patriotism. Supporting a guy who simply wants to tear us down — that is not pro-USA, that is not patriotism.”
Pettinger describes North Dakota as a place where half a dozen people will stop to help pull a car out of a snowbank, even if that car has a political bumper sticker that they disagree with. She worries that way of life is slipping away.
“It just makes my blood boil,” said Pettinger, a mother of four who was once a Republican but switched to voting for Democrats when Bill Clinton ran for his second term. “This is not the America I grew up in. This is not the America I want my [future] grandchildren to grow up in, and I want that America back — a progressive society.”
Pettinger protested for the first time in January 2017 at the Women’s March in Fargo and has attended several other protests since then. Protest is patriotic, she said, and she hopes that some Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July by protesting.
“Our forbearers marched in the 1960s. Women marched for the right to vote,” Pettinger said. “I never imagined we’d be sliding this far backward. So it’s time to stand up for what’s right.”
“Patriotism is being proud of what my dad did and what his dad did.”
To Dave Richardson, who served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years, patriotism means thanking military members, celebrating patriotic holidays, putting your hand over your heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the national anthem and proudly wearing red, white and blue.
“Patriotism is being proud of what my dad did and what his dad did to preserve the freedoms that we have in this country,” said Richardson, 69, as he waited in line outside Trump’s Fargo rally with his wife. “We’ve got all the freedoms in the world. We’re able to stand in parking lots for as long as we want.”
He’s glad that troops returning home from the Middle East and elsewhere are treated like heroes — unlike during the Vietnam War when members of the military often felt blamed for the unpopular war.
“A lot of buddies would come off their ships, come off their bases and had to do it in civilian clothes because they were afraid of what could happen” if they wore their uniforms, said Richardson, who is retired and lives in Minnesota. “That feeling, I think, has changed completely. I think they’re very proud to wear the uniform when they come home.”
Richardson said that he’s happy to see Trump focus heavily on the military and call out professional football players who take a knee during the national anthem.
“The NFL thing is unfortunate. Their message, whatever their message was, got lost in taking a knee and not standing for the national anthem,” Richardson said, adding that he knows that the players are trying to bring attention to police brutality and inequality. “I think we all should stand. I’m super conservative and patriotic, and I just believe that.”
“It’s less about who you are and more about what you are doing.”
By helping immigrants study for the U.S. citizenship test, Naghem Swade has memorized the textbook answer for what the American flag symbolizes: 50 stars for each of the states and 13 stripes for the original colonies.
Her personal answer is more complicated.
“This is very painful for me to say, but the American flag once represented the American Dream, where I thought everyone was welcome here,” said Swade, 29, who lives in Denver with her husband and works at the Denver Public Library, coordinating services for immigrants and refugees.
She continued: “America represents endless potential and freedom and possibility. . . . I keep reminding myself that my dad fought for so long so I could realize my potential and become an American.”
In 1990, Swade’s father fled Iraq to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia to escape persecution after he participated in an uprising against Saddam Hussein. He made it to the United States, and Swade and her mother joined him six years later.
She was in sixth grade in Denver Public Schools on 9/11 — after which she had her hijab pulled off countless times and was called “Saddam Hussein’s daughter.” She became a citizen when she was 14, was the valedictorian of her high school class and earned a degree in ethnic studies from the University of Colorado.
She struggled to find a job and suspects it was because she wore a hijab. She started working at the library in 2015 and now helps immigrants and refugees who collectively speak at least a dozen languages. She’s helping organize a naturalization campaign to explain the benefits of citizenship to green-card holders.
Swade is politically independent, saying that two parties do not “sufficiently or adequately describe the American people,” and she voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. She doesn’t think Trump represents the views of Americans.
To her patriotism is “a friendly face, a helping hand.”
“It’s less about who you are and more about what you are doing. Are you helping those who are struggling? Are you being happy when they are happy and being sad when they are sad?” she said. “It’s upholding not only your values, but the values of everyone else and respecting that.”
— Jennifer Oldham
“That feeling of the chills. Of being proud to be from the United States.”
At the beginning of the football season in September, Trump called for the firing of professional football players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality — prompting more players to do so.
In Louisiana, the three owners of Sarita’s Grill & Cantina in Denham Springs decided they would no longer show National Football League games on the 53 flat-screen televisions in their newly opened Mexican sports bar.
“When they kneel for the anthem, they are disrespecting the people who have fought for the right for them to do so,” said co-owner Rudy Gomez, 45, a father of three. At age 17, Gomez traveled from El Salvador through Mexico to the border near San Diego, and, on July 4, 1990, he jumped over a wall and ran from authorities to a waiting car to join his sister. He became a U.S. citizen through marriage in 2008. “There is social injustice, but these players make so much money. If they really want to do something, they should help fund police departments that are lacking on trainings.”
The restaurant is just outside Baton Rouge, where a police officer fatally shot a black man, Alton Sterling, outside a convenience store in July 2016. Later that month, a Missouri man ambushed and shot six officers from the Baton Rouge area, killing three.
Another owner, Scott Carlton, added: “NFL guys are paid to entertain us, not to project their opinions on us.”
The first night of the ban, the bar suddenly had a 90-minute wait for a table. Three days later, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) brought his staff by for a meal.
“We felt like we were actually doing the right thing,” said Carlton, 47, a father of five who also owns a construction company. “We had veterans bring us American flags to hang in the restaurant.”
Both men said that they are not registered with a political party, but both voted for Trump.
“President Trump is very patriotic,” said Gomez, whose brother is the third owner. “I believe that he is bringing that feeling back to America.”
Carlton agreed and explained that feeling: “You watch the Olympics, and you see an American win gold. Then they play the national anthem. You feel like you accomplished something. . . . It’s watching fireworks shows on the Fourth of July. That feeling of the chills. Of being proud to be from the United States.”
As the football season drew to an end, the New Orleans Saints were undefeated, and some of the bar’s customers wanted to see the final games, so the owners gave in — but only for the local team.
For the upcoming season, the NFL will require players to stand during the national anthem or stay in the locker room — so Sarita’s plans to once again show NFL games.
— Ashley Cusick
“Just doing your best to love your country, despite what goes on.”
In the tiny Vermont town of Hinesburg, just outside Burlington, Harry Russell sat on the stone ledge outside his home Saturday afternoon and watched the annual Fourth of July parade.
There were dozens of fire trucks and emergency vehicles, along with tractors, construction equipment and an electric riding lawn mower. A local state senator registered people to vote, and a state representative sold balloons to help pay for a fireworks display on July 4. This year’s theme was “United We Stand.”
“We’re so divided now that it’s a little hard to genuinely feel that,” said Russell, 60, a professional gardener who lives here with his husband. “On the surface, it can look that way, and I hope most people want us to all be one people, but, man, there’s just such strong feelings. It’s just scary.”
To Russell, patriotism means getting involved with your local community, even if you’re disheartened by what’s happening in national politics. Patriotism is caring about other Americans, even when times are tough.
Hugging the American flag — as Trump has done — is not patriotism, he said, but believing in what the flag symbolizes is. He doesn’t get why people are so angered by football players kneeling in the presence of the flag or why some advocate for jailing those who burn the flag in protest.
Patriotism, he said, “is just doing your best to love your country, despite what goes on.”
— Will DiGravio
“It’s hard, especially at times like this, to say I’m proud to be an American.”
It’s difficult for Lytia S. Brock to be patriotic right now.
“I’m on the side of right and justice — I believe that everyone should be treated fairly. It’s unfortunate that we as black people have to keep saying that,” said Brock, 30, a life coach, author and mother of five who lives in Wilkinsburg, a suburb east of Pittsburgh. She loved that America is “a melting pot” filled with “people of all races, religions and backgrounds.”
On June 19, a 30-year-old white police officer in East Pittsburgh shot and killed Antwon Rose, a black teenager who ran from a traffic stop. In the days after his death, Brock attended four protests, carrying signs that read “Stop Killing Us,” “No Justice No Peace,” “United We Stand” and “Justice for Antwon.” She sees protest as a patriotic act.
“I think it’s needed. We’re fighting in a country that’s supposed to be for us, too,” said Brock, a registered Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016.
Late last month, the officer, Michael Rosfeld, was charged with criminal homicide.
Brock worries about the safety of her children. She has family members on police forces, yet she’s still nervous during traffic stops. And until that nervousness goes away, she said, this country’s freedoms are not being felt by all Americans.
Brock, who sings at her church, said that the United States is not living up to the lyrics of patriotic songs such as “America the Beautiful,” with its invocation of brotherhood.
“I don’t think I’m at the point where I want to die for this country,” Brock said. “It’s hard, especially at times like this, to say I’m proud to be an American.”
— Kellie Gormly