In an act of petty revenge against the Philadelphia Eagles, President Trump put on display the concept of patriotism that unfortunately has come to characterize America in the era of the national-security state — a concept that perverts the genuine meaning of patriotism on which America was founded and which characterized the nation throughout the 1800s.
The controversy began when Trump scheduled a ceremony at the White House to celebrate the Super Bowl win by the Eagles. Most of the members of the team, however, decided to boycott the event, which, not surprisingly, caused Trump to go ballistic. Rather than continue with the ceremony with the ten players who were coming, Trump disinvited the entire team and decided to hold what he considered to be a “patriotic” event at the White House.
Surrounded by military men, Trump’s event was what has come to define the word “patriotism”—militarism, nationalism, and an unconditional love of the U.S. military, the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI, whose members supposedly devote their lives protecting our rights and freedoms and keeping us “safe.”
The purpose of this type of “patriotism,” of course, is to encourage support of the government, especially through support of the troops, and to discourage criticism of the government or dissent against its policies.
The irony is that the type of patriotism that characterized the founding of our nation was precisely the opposite from Trump’s concept of patriotism.
Consider George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock. Americans have been ingrained with the notion that those men were great Americans. They weren’t. That’s because they weren’t Americans. They were British citizens. They were just as much British citizens as Americans today are American citizens.
They didn’t like what their government and the troops were doing to them. They criticized. They dissented. And in the final analysis, they began shooting the troops, doing their best to kill them. As the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, showed, this was not a friendly war by these British citizens against their own government and the troops. It was a brutal and vicious war, one in which the troops were doing their best to kill their own citizens, and vice versa.
King George took the same position as Trump takes today. He considered the British colonists who were taking a stand against their own government and who were killing the troops to be criminals, terrorists, and traitors. If King George and the troops had prevailed, all those rebels would have gone down in history as nothing more than common criminals.
Instead, most of us celebrate them as patriots, genuine patriots. Why is that? Because they had the courage to stand up against their own government and the troops. They were willing to risk their lives by standing for what was right, even if their government and the troops considered them to be criminals, terrorists, and traitors.
Today, Americans lives under a massively powerful government, including an enormous military establishment, CIA, NSA, and FBI. Trump’s version of patriotism entails conflating all of these entities with “the country.” In his mind, it’s all one and the same thing. Thus, if a person opposes the national-security establishment or fails to pay it proper reverence, in Trump’s mind that is equivalent to hating America.
That’s not the way our American ancestors viewed things. After the Revolutionary War was over, they did everything they could to ensure that the United States would never have a massive military establishment, CIA, NSA, and FBI. Also, no IRS. That’s because they believed such institutions were a threat to the country and specifically to the freedom and well-being of the citizenry.
That’s why there were no such things under the Articles of Confederation. It’s also why there were no such things under the Constitution. And why there were no such things for the next 100 years.
The American people didn’t want a strong, powerful, centralized government. They wanted a very weak government. They just wanted to be left alone to live their lives, support their families, and pursue happiness in their own way without interference from government officials. Setting aside the big violation of liberty known as slavery, by and large Americans just wanted the government to protect them from invasion and punish murderers, thieves, and the like.
Their concern was liberty, not nationalism. They didn’t believe in such things as a Pledge of Allegiance or a national anthem. They didn’t think in those terms. They thought in terms of freedom, not allegiance to the government or to the nation.
For a good example of Trump’s version of patriotism, look at the Nazis, who shared his same concept, especially after World War II began. Germans were expected to rally to the government, especially in time of war. Supporting the troops was considered the solemn duty of every German. Anyone who criticized the government or who failed to show the proper reverence for the troops was considered unpatriotic, even a traitor.
My favorite story in history is that of the White Rose. After I learned about the White Rose many years ago, I wrote an article that is my all-time favorite of articles I have ever written. It is entitled “The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent.” I was really pleased when I learned that it had been chosen to be included in an anthology of essays on the Holocaust for high-school students. Some years later, I made a point of visiting the University of Munich, where the White Rose members were students.
Those German students refused to support the troops, even in the middle of World War II. They stood against their government. They criticized it. They called on the German people to rise up against it. They paid for their dissent when they were caught, tried, and beheaded by German officials.
If you haven’t seen the movie “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” I cannot recommend it more highly. It is a German film with English subtitles. Pay particular attention to the courtroom scene, where Sophie and her brother Hans and their best friend Christoph Probst are being tried by military tribunal (the same type of tribunal being used by Pentagon officials in their prison at Guantanamo Bay). Watch and listen carefully to the chief judge’s diatribe against the defendants. He angrily accuses them of being bad Germans, traitors, because they weren’t supporting the troops and the government. His concept of patriotism is no different from that of President Trump.
But the fact is that the White Rose students were the real patriots, just like the people who were standing against their government and its troops in 1776. The patriots are the ones who stand for what is right, even if it means standing against their government and the troops. The traitors are the ones who use government in ways that violate the principles of liberty and justice and, in the process, use nationalist symbols to quell criticism and dissent.