Demonstrators in Washington protest the Trump administration's immigration policy in June 2018 (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The rampant American nationalism on display during this year’s midterm elections has again raised the fraught question of patriotism. What is it, really? And, perhaps more importantly, whose is it?

It’s fitting that President Trump made his final campaign appearances with Rush Limbaugh, whose stock-in-trade for thirty years has been impugning the left’s patriotism. The assertion that the left despises America is the animating idea of conservative talk radio, and in this regard Trump truly is the president that Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al. have been waiting for (and paving the way for) for decades. Stirring up resentment at liberal elites has been in the Republican playbook at least since Nixon, but Trump has taken it to new levels. Like Limbaugh and Hannity, he accuses liberals not merely of misguided ideas, but malevolent intent toward America itself: in other words, hatred of country. Thus Trump rants about “radical Democrats” who desire nothing more than to take “a giant wrecking ball” to the country and its economy. Why? Because we hate America.

But what does patriotism mean to the American right? First, it clearly means participating in the symbolic rituals of patriotism (pledging allegiance, singing the national anthem) with avid reverence. It means placing your country’s interests above global interests. Above all, though, it means not criticizing your country, and especially not publicly. My country, right or wrong; America, love it or leave it. The attitude traces back to the Vietnam era and its ugly political conflicts, such as “Bloody Friday” (May 8, 1970), when construction workers attacked protesters in Manhattan, two days after the shootings at Kent State.

Today’s right-wing patriotism is a variation on an old theme. In this view, a professional football player who protests during the national anthem could not possibly love America (and indeed is the very definition of not loving it) just as, in 1970, students and others who protested the Vietnam War could not possibly love their country. President Trump is the perfect megaphone for this skewed version of country love. The protesting football players should leave, he says repeatedly. Journalists, with their critical questions, are “enemies of the people.” Democrats who don’t applaud his State of the Union address are “treasonous” and “un-American.” And on and on.

Dig down into such utterances and attitudes, and you eventually get to a single, stubbornly durable concept: American exceptionalism. While a political scientist could give you a nuanced version of what this concept means, the version embraced by huge swaths of red-state America is simple: America is unquestionably and self-evidently the greatest nation on Earth. The concept forms what historian Chris Appy, in his 2015 book American Reckoning, describes as “the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world.”

In this view, U.S. politicians deviate from this gospel at their own peril. In 2015, Rudy Giuliani—speaking to an audience of executives in Manhattan, and already auditioning for a job with Donald Trump—attacked Barack Obama’s patriotism, explicitly invoking the president’s failure to embrace and propound American exceptionalism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani bluntly remarked. “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.” Giuliani went on to assert that “we’re the most exceptional country in the world,” and declared that he was “looking for a presidential candidate who can express that.”

I’ve never understood the respectability of exceptionalism as a philosophical position. Isn’t there something blatantly indefensible, even silly, about claiming to be the greatest country ever? Isn’t every country “exceptional,” in that every country in important ways is not like any other country? Anyone who travels inescapably recognizes that every country possesses certain virtues and lacks others – just as people do. Why should we Americans be otherwise? Consider what we learn and profess, as Christians, about human nature: that each one of us mingles good and bad; that we are fallen and flawed, prone to error and sinfulness. If this is our understanding of individual human nature, how do we arrive at a view of national identity that presents us as uncorrupted, pure, and uniquely righteous?

Even if  by “exceptional” we mean “a unique force for good in the world,” does our nation really fit the definition? In that sense, it would be hard to square with the historical reality and legacy of slavery, or the near-extermination of Native Americans. Or the Vietnam War, for that matter, in which we inflicted three million deaths—most of them civilians—on a small, rural country, by means of napalm and chemical defoliants, mass forced relocations, carpet bombing, free-fire zones, and atrocities such as the massacres at My Lai.

The Trumpian patriot might now be thinking, There they go again, hating America! And honest liberals have to admit that some on the left do fit that bill. For instance, while I agree with this or that point in Noam Chomsky’s critique of American power, it’s clear to me that what glues his assertions together is an underlying belief that America has been, and remains, a unique force for ill in the world. In my view, this is little more than a mirror version of American exceptionalism, and similarly tendentious. And it’s not the attitude of the vast majority of liberals. Using the existence of such a view to brand all liberals as country-haters is like saying that all conservatives are Richard Spencer.


Ours is a patriotism that rejects the insistence on America as uniquely righteous, substituting instead an understanding of a country that, like each of its citizens, is fallible.

What, then, does love of country look like on the left?  For myself personally, I’d begin with identity. Part of loving America is in fact being American. I’ve spent nearly a decade of my life elsewhere, in Africa and in Europe, and I learned that recognizing how deeply you’re formed by your home culture is one of the great (and often amusing) benefits of living abroad. I might speak German fluently, but try as I might, I could never be German. Again and again, American attitudes and temperament placed me in contrast to the Germans around me (cultural tics like my frequent smiling and handshaking, but also my argumentativeness and deeper insistence on notions of individual responsibility). In a recent New York Times column, titled “Yes, I’m an American Nationalist,” David Brooks notes that his strongest attachment is to the United States. “If you took America out of my identity,” he writes, “I’d be unrecognizable to myself.” That’s what I mean. Instead of “My country, love it or leave it,” it’s “My country, live it and be it.”

I admired a lot about Germany, and can list a few elements of German culture that I wish we could implement here. There’s the fastidious perfectionism evident in German workmanship; the egalitarianism by which workers are represented on corporate boards; the resources devoted to maintaining public spaces; and, finally, the insistence that the most modest parts of a city should be as livable and attractive as the most well-off. There’s a lot to like—and any American who claims that life in the United States is obviously superior ought to visit Europe.

Still, Germans and Germany lack some essential American qualities that I sorely missed when I lived there. Like our instinct for charity, our instant readiness to pitch in and help when misfortune strikes. Our audacious and irrepressible sense of humor. Our music. Our ready mobility. Our ever-churning entrepreneurial energies. Our love of risk. Our self-reliance. Our belief in ourselves. In Germany I missed our American brashness and bravado—what Brooks in his column calls “the craziness, the diversity, our particular brand of madness.” These are things I love about my country and my fellow citizens. Well, that and our Constitution.

Being American means having a history, too. There’s a passenger manifest (which I tracked down online) from the ship that brought my great-great-grandfather, Warden Cooper, over as a boy from Ireland to Philadelphia in 1846. There, Ward later married Jane—also from Ireland—and the two proceeded to have a total of sixteen children. (Most eventually worked as carders, weavers, and spinners in the city’s textile mills.) I like thinking of that huge immigrant Cooper family, packed into a drab row house in West Philly. I know there was a love of country there—a census lists “George Washington Cooper” and “Abraham Lincoln Cooper” among the brood. Humble beginnings gave way to grander ambitions. In time, George Washington Cooper’s great-nephew, my father, would become a neurosurgeon and Ivy League graduate. It is a great American story, both thrilling and typical, and I love it.

It’s true that there’s also plenty about our country that I dislike. Our steadfast elevation of the private good over the public. Our avidity for conspiracy theories. Our heedless faith in guns, and our corresponding unwillingness to do anything about mass shootings. Our longstanding effort to turn life into a never-ending shopping spree. Our uncritical reverence of the wealthy and endless fascination with celebrity.  Our failure to reckon with the historical stain of slavery. Our disregard for public transit. Our complacent provincialism and lazy sense of superiority vis-á-vis other countries and cultures.

As I was composing this essay, a politically conservative friend chided me for keeping such a negative list. Wasn’t I shooting myself in the foot? Hardly. The liberal notion of patriotism places a list of things that you don't like about your country alongside the list of things that you do. Call it fealty to the traditional American faith in self-improvement. This stubborn insistence signifies that liberals and progressives propose, and possess, a different love of country from the kind that the right has imposed as the norm. Ours is a critical and dissenting patriotism, one deeply rooted in history. Catholics know that, in 1899, Pope Leo XIII denounced the heresy of Americanism in the encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae, condemning the tendency among American clerics to mold doctrines to American realities (including excessive individualism). There was the passionate idealism of left-leaning populists in the thirties, folksingers in the fifties and sixties, and muckraking Vietnam-era journalists like I. F. Stone; or Senator William Fulbright, who excoriated his own government for colluding with “corrupt and reactionary military oligarchies”; or Cindy Sheehan, the Iraq vet mom who protested outside George Bush’s Texas home; and historians such as Chalmers Johnson and Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, disaffected former true believers who argue that heavy-handed projections of U.S. power abroad have estranged us from our best traditions.

Ours is a patriotism that rejects the insistence on America as uniquely righteous, substituting instead an understanding of a country that, like each of its citizens, is fallible; that needs reminding of the matchless ideals against which it can be measured, and to which it should be held accountable. This is not disloyal: it is the opposite of disloyal. It is the attitude expressed by a woman interviewed in a New York Times article in the days before the election—a forty-three-year-old mother of four in Iowa, who for the first time in her life had gotten involved in politics, joining a get-out-the-vote effort in order to mobilize Democrats. “I love my country and I want it to be the very best version of itself,” she said. She added, “I feel emboldened in my patriotism.”

Over the past several decades, liberals have, for the most part, ceded the issue of patriotism to the right. They shouldn’t. They—we—shouldn’t let a narrowly prescriptive mode of country love preempt and disparage other, more constructive modes. We should all be emboldened in our patriotism by the prospect of holding our country to its highest ideals, trying to help it be the very best version of itself, as the woman in Iowa adroitly said.  

I saw that best version on display one memorable day this past spring. As I explained in a column titled “Home of the Brave,” I spent an afternoon listening to dozens of Connecticut residents audition to sing the national anthem for our minor-league baseball team, the Hartford Yard Goats. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a notoriously tough slog, and you had to admire the hopeful singers who bravely took it on. A twenty-something woman, sporting nerdy black glasses and fuchsia streaks in her black hair, beautifully channeled Joan Baez. A thirtyish Puerto Rican man in sunglasses introduced himself as the frontman in a Spanish-English hip-hop band, and adorned the anthem with Latin stylings. A troupe of seventeen women—and one lone man— harmonized divinely. A guy in his sixties delivered a heartland ballad, cowboy-style, like Willie Nelson. My favorite was an eleven-year-old African-American boy named Romario, who came with his dad. Looking nervous, he at first said nothing, and then broke into a wailing rendition of the anthem, belting it out with total fearlessness.

Citizens of all ages and backgrounds, a tapestry of Americans of every type: they put their mouths where their hearts were, with a spirit as democratic, exuberant, and American as baseball itself.

And this country-hating liberal? He had tears in his eyes.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.