When President Donald Trump praised the NFL on Thursday for requiring players to stand during the National Anthem and suggested players should quit the game – or perhaps even the country – if they cannot abide by the rule, he put his finger on the vital pressure point in America’s great social divide: the definition of patriotism.
“You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country,” Trump reflected.
Democrats outraged by Trump’s challenge to the patriotism of the players should recall that their own political leaders have accused fellow Americans of lacking patriotism for a variety of reasons.
For the left, disagreeing with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was grounds for challenging patriotism and comparing Republicans to terrorists. Opposition to tax increases was branded unpatriotic by no less than Joe Biden when he was running on Barack Obama’s presidential ticket. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a major figure in the Democrat Party, told pro-life and pro-gun rights conservatives they have “no place in the state of New York,” which is different in degree but not spirit from wondering if the NFL kneelers might be happier somewhere else.
For the left, patriotism means loyalty to their policy agenda; you’re “unpatriotic” if you don’t want to give them more money. Patriotism is loyalty to the government, not the nation. This idea is expressed in their endless prattle about “who we are,” defined largely through policy choices. Left-wing patriotism is loyalty to a future nation that never quite manages to rise above the horizon.
The left thinks traditional patriotism means respect and loyalty for a horribly tainted past filled with “isms” – racism, sexism, etc. Their patriotic loyalty looks forward, as embodied in the term “progressive.” Their most vicious accusations of unpatriotism are directed at those who oppose something they want to do.
Likewise, the left’s concept of patriotism is deeply hostile to borders and the concept of America as a distinct nation-state with legitimate interests it can honorably pursue with vigor. They think that’s selfish “nationalism,” xenophobia, and blind loyalty to an unworthy memory.
For the left, ostentatious displays of contempt for American symbols is a declaration of war against a filthy past, from the Revolution to the day before yesterday, that no one should be defending.
The left knows their version of patriotism is utterly incompatible with the traditional variety, which emphasizes the common bonds between Americans instead of bitter policy differences. There is no sound the left hates more than Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory.”
When people who have serious disagreements and strong complaints against current government policies stand together in respect for the flag and anthem, they are saying: “We are brothers and sisters despite all this, and I love those I oppose.” That’s poison to collectivists.
Patriotism means enduring loyalty and respect for America even if you feel betrayed or neglected by some, or even all, of its current leadership. Yes, patriots draw strength from the past, and it gives them confidence in the future.
Traditional displays of patriotism unite reverence for the past, brotherhood in the present, and confidence in the future. That’s bad medicine for those who wish to “fundamentally transform” an unworthy nation, as President Barack Obama said near the conclusion of his first presidential campaign.
The left knows traditional patriotism is an obstacle, so they must attack and replace it with their version of patriotism, hunting it down wherever it flourishes. That’s why the anthem is suddenly “controversial” in football and the left’s “compromise” is to get rid of it.
There is growing pushback from those who don’t want to be “fundamentally transformed.” The left caricatures this as mindless jingoism, but in truth, it’s far more thoughtful than their blind loyalty to utopian policies. Who is more jingoistic than a bumper-sticker liberal?
The traditional patriot has a very deep thought indeed: that our brotherhood is more important than our disagreements. A bond of national pride is the vital ingredient to curing social ills. The left only wants to treat the symptoms badly, forever, at staggering expense.
Drawn from that patriotic pride in America is another very deep thought: we are sovereign citizens and our government must be loyal to us, not the other way around. You cannot view the state as subordinate to the people without revering a nation stronger and older than the state.
The state has no moral right to transform the people, and its efforts to do so are an unbroken string of embarrassing failures and hideous tragedies. No elite has the right to force a vision upon the unwilling or change the electorate to suit its tastes.
Politicians are below the people, and we are all part of something bigger and older than any one of us, or even any million of us. That’s what standing up for the flag and anthem mean. It is not an act of submission, but of elevation.
We hear a lot of talk about the nation breaking up over social issues and policy disagreements. Patriotism rejects that outcome. Those who show contempt for the anthem are the ones who say it’s on the table. They won’t be our brothers and sisters unless we agree with them.
The left wants a monopoly on contempt, but we should refuse to grant it. We should have contempt for the view that patriotism means loyalty to policy agendas and our differences are what define us. We should not sacrifice the strength of past and present for hollow promises of a glorious future.
I would much prefer President Trump had stopped short of saying “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country,” because I think the point of patriotism is that we remain one country no matter how strongly we disagree. The question is, what outcome do the anti-patriots envision? What would persuade them to stand for the anthem?
If they’re saying they won’t stand until their preferred policy agenda is enacted, that’s cheap and unworthy of respect. If they’re saying they will never stand for it, then what reasons do they have for staying beyond selfish materialism?
Most likely they mean they won’t stand for the anthem unless the country is dramatically transformed to address their grievances. Well, what if the country resists your transformation? What if the forces necessary are beyond what our constitution allows?
The ultimate outcome will involve someone “leaving” America, maybe a lot of people, and maybe not peacefully. It’s probably better if you just leave now, well-heeled kneelers. Show the strength of your conviction by decamping to the better country. You have the means to do so easily, and live comfortably wherever you choose.
If you passionately support a policy agenda, lay it out and persuade the rest of us to agree. If you have a righteous grievance, lay it out and show a little respect for everyone else’s sense of righteousness. You can do that while standing for the anthem. You’ll do it better that way.
But if you truly, honestly believe America is so fundamentally corrupt that you can’t show a modicum of respect, if you’re not just throwing a tantrum to get some policy passed, then why are you here? What will inspire you to stand with us?