Patriot Games

Trump’s attack on a Muslim congresswoman, and his border follies, beg difficult questions about American notions of patriotism.

April 17, 2019

As Americans celebrated Patriots’ Day this year, the nation was bitterly divided not just over law and politics and governance but over the meaning of patriotism itself. What exactly does it mean to be a patriot in the Age of Trump? What sacrifices for our country should we expect of ourselves and what should we expect of our public officials, acting in our name, when they are confronted with the extraordinary moral and ethical challenges presented by this harrowing presidency? For decades now, the right has co-opted the word “patriot” itself. Will that change now and for generations after the misfeasance and malfeasance of the Trump administration?

It is no secret that President Trump and many of his most unalloyed followers believe that white nationalism, or white supremacy, itself passes for a form of patriotism these days. To them, one vivid expression of their love of country is the relentless, remorseless push by White House senior advisor Stephen Miller and his cohorts to drive away from our southern border immigrants of color, most of whom are coming here seeking asylum from violence in their own Central American countries. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Barry Goldwater once said. Let’s define “liberty” to mean freedom from immigrants, Trump says to his base.

Most Americans, if you believe the polls, disagree with this grim view. To them, resistance to Trump’s dubious immigration policies has become a form of patriotism. So, too, is resistance to this administration’s broader assault on the rights and privileges of people of color. The more Trump acts like an authoritarian, the more he seeks to evade and avoid legal standards and political norms, and the more bigoted his remarks, the more necessary it is to speak out against him.

The past week offered two examples that help refine the scope of this issue. First came the response to the comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who is one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress. In a speech about the anti-Muslim bias that swelled in America in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Rep. Omar used four words — “some people did something” — to refer to the 9/11 terrorists. Immediately after the speech, she became the target of thinly disguised racism and right-wing vitriol led by Trump himself.  

The Democratic response in support of Rep. Omar was initially muted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally issued a statement on Saturday criticizing the president for his use of 9/11 imagery to score political points. But by weekend’s end, more Democrats, including many of the 2020 presidential contenders, came more stridently to Rep. Omar’s defense. The president is inciting violence against Omar, charged Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sowing hate and division, said Sen. Kamala Harris. A “disgusting and dangerous” attack, maintained Sen. Bernie Sanders. However hesitant, their statements were symbolic stands against the sowing of division and racial animus by the administration.

The second teachable moment came in the response to the president’s tweeted insistence over the weekend that the White House can and should ship undocumented immigrants from border detention facilities to “sanctuary” jurisdictions to punish Democrats in those cities and states. The idea is absurd on its face and untenable as a matter of law or fact, which is essentially what federal immigration officials (anonymously, of course) told reporters late last week when reports first surfaced that Trump had pushed this position.

But what’s a patriot to do when the president insists on cruelty as the aim of policy? As last week ended, we were assured that the first time Trump pitched this awful “sanctuary” idea a few months ago, government officials pushed back with enough force to stop him. How long they will continue to do so under pressure from the White House are open questions as the week begins. So, too, is the question of what these officials will do if indeed Trump promises them a pardon for breaking the law for the sake of immigration policy. Just because newly ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen fancies herself a patriot worthy of rehabilitation doesn’t make it so.

The word “patriot” comes from the Greek and Latin phrase “fellow countrymen,” which is a comforting thought these days, but it has alternately been used both as word of glory and derision. In the 17th century, for example, long before Patrick Henry piped up, the English poet John Dryden likened patriots to fools whose dubious actions in the name of their king only undermined their professed loyalty to him. It would be another century, and take the American Revolution, for the phrase to hew to its more charitable usage. And yet here we are back again, to an unsettling time when calling yourself a patriot often outs you as a fool.

That history will judge those who implement the most pernicious of Trump’s whims, and those who do not, does not preclude us from doing so in real time. It is not patriotic, as we want the word used, to incite violence against Muslim-Americans by weaponizing 9/11. It is not patriotic to hide in silence in the face of those cynical attacks. It is not patriotic to conceive or implement a policy that rips children from their parents or that uses those seeking asylum here as cudgels against political adversaries. It is not patriotic to argue that laws should be broken, or ignored, to solve an “emergency” caused by the very people who now cry for law and order.

From the Branch Davidian fire to the Oklahoma City bombing to the Boston Marathon attack, Patriots’ Day too often recently has reminded us of the divisions that have existed here since the founding of the Republic. Those who seek to highlight those divisions, or who enable those in power who broaden those divisions, are not the sorts of “patriots” the country needs today. If patriotism is to rise again above parody, if it is to again mean honor and sacrifice, it is incumbent on all of us to speak out when we see the erosion of the rule of law or, for that matter, simple common decency toward our neighbors, friends, and fellow countrymen.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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