Asheville Daily Planet, December 2019
“Patriotism” has more than one definition in various dictionaries. And so it is in America today.
When I think about my personal patriotism, I remember a powerful experience I had 50 years ago in the Philippines.
We had lived for years in the mountains of Luzon island and were taking a vacation on Lingayen Gulf. We went to nearby Wallace Air Station for an American hamburger and a movie (“True Grit” with John Wayne).
The theater darkened – and immediately the American flag fluttered on the screen, with the “Star-Spangled Banner” playing. We were far from America, but in that moment, I felt a huge rush of emotion. It was MY FLAG! The Philippine mountains were our home, but America is MY COUNTRY! Old Glory stood for America’s long history of greatness – welcoming the world’s “tired and poor,” giving our young men to liberate others, helping our conquered enemies find democracy, making faraway disasters our own, and, yes, our enlightened colonialism in the Philippines!
I still feel that way. I’m proud to be an American.
But when I say that, I’m not talking about geographic America, where I was born and raised, where I live now. Sure, I love her “purple mountain majesties,” but more deeply, I’m talking about what I felt 50 years ago in that theater. America is an idea, a set of values that have lighted the world for over 200 years.
It’s what people mean when they say, “America is the greatest country in the world.” They aren’t talking about rocks and dirt. They’re talking about immigrants who become successful entrepreneurs, defeated incumbents who leave office, the accountability of elected officials.
Almost everybody will agree with what I’ve written so far. A Pew Research Center survey (2010) found that 83 percent of Americans are either extremely proud or very proud to be an American. Only six percent say they have little or no national pride.
But there’s a branch of American patriotism that runs parallel to mine that I don’t fully understand. It’s an elite patriotism that’s more contentious, more showy, maybe even self-satisfied.
I see an illustration of this elite patriotism at a website called patriotdepot.com. Here’s how it makes its appeal: “Flags are a great way to display your Conservative values. Whether it’s a car flag, yard sign or traditional flag, display your values with one of our patriotic flags!”
Indeed, a friend told me he has a flag on his house “to show we’re patriotic.” Car flags appeared like a forest after we invaded Iraq.
These folks are true patriots, in some sense “more patriotic” than I am. I favor universal service, but it’s their sons and daughters who make up our armed forces today.
That’s why I’m so confused by what I see happening in the Trump era.
Patriots of all stripes agree that our country should not be dishonored. We’re angry at the burning of our flag. And we agree that our country should keep its promises, like we do ourselves.
And yet we hear not a squeak from patriotic conservatives when the president they support totally dishonors our military and, yes, our country.
We all remember when the president of Turkey called to say he intended to invade the safe territory of the Syrian Kurds, our allies against ISIS. We had special forces positioned along that border as security for the Kurds. Then without consulting our military, Trump had our troops turn tail and get to safety! Russians filled the void, photographing themselves looking over our abandoned facilities. Trump claimed that VP Pence had negotiated a cease-fire, but in fact, the Turks gave us a five-day truce for the Kurds and our troops to evacuate, to retreat. It was classic ethnic cleansing, which Trump validated: “They (Turkey) had to have it cleaned out.” Then he said, “On behalf of the United States, I want to thank Turkey.”
Donald Trump gave thanks to the man who had just humiliated us before the world.
What can be so valuable to conservative patriots that they would support Trump even when he brings dishonor to our country?