Politicians have no business directing or defining patriotism — especially when their rhetoric sounds like 1950s-era Soviet sloganeering.
It was creepy when Barack Obama declared his first inauguration day a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation” and “called” on us to find “common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.” And it’s creepy when Donald Trump declares his inauguration day a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion;” one in which “a new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart.”
You can find both, unfortunately, in the Federal Register.
This kind of self-aggrandizement is what you see under cults of personality, not American republicanism. Far be it from me to lecture anyone on how to love his country, but if your devotion to America is contingent on the party in office, you’re probably not doing it like the Founders envisioned. It’s bad enough that these inaugurations are treated as coronations. It can’t be patriotic to treat politicians like quasi-religious figures. Moreover, it ties patriotism — either implicitly, or in some cases rather explicitly — to a preferred set of policy initiatives or a political office.
We just survived eight years of a messianic presidency, with a finger-wagging, patriotism-appropriating administration lecturing us on how to be proper Americans. If you didn’t support the administration’s point of view, Joe Biden might accuse you of “betting against America.”
“What we need as a nation,” then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, echoing the president, wrote to a Republican Congress in 2014, “is a new sense of economic patriotism, where we all rise or fall together.” Was Lew talking about our unalienable right to free expression? No, he was talking about punishing America-based companies that were trying to lower their tax burden, which happens to be one of the highest rates in the free world.
If we’re going to play this game, by the way, avoiding excessive taxation is also one of the most American things we can do.
So it was creepy when Obama was trying to replace American idealism with progressivism and calling it “economic patriotism,” and it’s creepy when Trump does basically the same thing under the guise of economic nationalism.
Now, judging from the campaign rhetoric, failing to support tariffs or other counterproductive “buy American” economic policies will have you branded seditious over the next four years. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who probably had something to do with the devotion order, has referred to himself as “economic nationalist,” a loaded term that means you only love your country if you support mercantilism. Economic nationalists rely on a populism that lays blame on others — Mexico, China, whoever — for American problems. It’s a philosophy, if we listen to Bannon or Trump, that values power over most principles, including liberty. So it sounds like many things, none of them American patriotism.
The idea is amorphous, but patriotism, especially in this country, is driven by idealism rather than chauvinism, ethnicity, or “power.” As George Orwell famously noted, nationalism isn’t the same as patriotism. In the American sense, patriotism is a fidelity to a place and the Constitution, and is by its nature “defensive, both militarily and culturally.” Nationalism, on the other hand, “is inseparable from the desire for power.” A devotional to our “new national pride” strongly hints at the latter.
You can hate your president and love your country. You can hope your president fails and still be patriotic. We don’t always have a “shared purpose.” That’s because presidents are not only commanders in chief, they are politicians with agendas. And sometimes those agendas clash with your worldview. Let’s not have devotionals venerating of their ascendency every four years.