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.