In early December of last year Donald Trump, the then-President-Elect, took to Twitter to call for the criminalization of burning the American flag in protest, going so far as to say that one’s citizenship may be revoked. This was in direct conflict with the seminal Supreme Court ruling Texas v. Johnson, which in 1987, held that all laws prohibiting the burning of the flag of the United States were in violation of the first amendment. His supporters rallied behind the vitriolic language and supported the soon to be Commander-in-Chief’s remarks with devout patronage- oftentimes shown confronting protestors of Trump, even shown stripping flags away from those attempting to burn them. Trump’s peppering of impromptu, unsolicited, and baseless beliefs of government that ultimately fail to make it to any substantive legislation or policy had been a staple of the Make America Great Again campaign and post-campaign rallies, and his suggestion of criminalizing flag desecration was certainly not out of step. What the short-lived yet fervently argued issue does serve as, however, is a signpost for a conservative reclamation of patriotism. Specifically, this act is an attempt at counteracting this current era of frequent protest and the challenging of symbols once revered, such as monuments and flags of the Confederacy, former presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Ronald Reagan, and the ideal white, male president.
“Reagan, Mondale, which will it be? Either one means World War III” and “red, white and blue, we spit on you, you stand for plunder, you will go under” were just some of the chants led in part by Gregory Lee Johnson– member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and future appellee of the Supreme Court, who was arrested after he drenched the flag in kerosene and lit it ablaze outside Dallas city hall in protest of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Johnson’s desecration of the flag came at the onset of what would come to be known as the culture wars, shorthand for socio-political strife wherein similarly minded, politically and culturally attune blocs are positioned diametrically opposed to one another, across an array of issues. The most notable ‘hot-button’ issue from the culture wars of the 1990s was the battle over reproductive rights, and whether or not one could access a safe and legal pregnancy termination. Opponents of access to abortion and other conservative mainstays also supported the anti-desecration laws that Johnson later challenged, and whom the Court later enraged in its’ split decision. Half a dozen times still, would Congress attempt to create a constitutional amendment that would outlaw the desecration of the flag, therefore bypassing the Court’s rulings, all of which, however, failed to pass the Senate.
For obvious reasons, many who claim the most sincere loyalty to the nation contend that flag burning is akin to treason, or that it is at least symbolic of anti-American sentiment. Despite the holding of the Court, abhorring the defiling of Old Glory should be understandable to all. Many states’ children in public school pay their daily respects to the flag, the National Anthem itself is centered on the flag’s symbolic nature of the Revolutionaries’ resilience, we drape ourselves in the stars and stripes at the Olympic games, our armed service members charge forward with it head on, and above all, it is over our hearts wherein we take our pledge of allegiance. It is certainly logical, given the desire to keep sacred the most precious symbol in our national identity arsenal, to enact legislation to enforce its’ protection. In their view, from the state legislatures that passed the anti-desecration laws to the current president, the very spirit of patriotism is jeopardized when the sole image of the Union is disgraced. Even after the landmark decision, and its affirmation thereafter, the controversy still persists– now elevated to the highest office of the land.
More importantly, however, do we all too often, Americans of all backgrounds, mistake a patriot for the caricaturized, antiquated, jingoistic, bull-headed, rifle toting, protestant, Caucasian, white patriarch. Trump, too, falls victim to this myth. The then-president-elect’s calls for complete criminalization of flag burning emanates from a deep seeded reverence for, and subsequent defense of, a corrupted understanding of what constitutes a patriot. To him and his most ardent supporters, patriots do not question the nobility of an American war, patriots are blind to race, patriots are proud to contribute to institutions that burden them, and patriots always respect the flag. The flag represents, to the patrons of this national creed, more than a symbol of patriotism, but rather the definition of patriotism itself- attacks on which threaten the fabric of the national identity.
The myth of the American Patriot is nothing more than a tool of presidents past; wielded with reckless abandon and struck at the most vulnerable citizens. This is most evident in the recapitulation of the Civil Rights Movement, wherein the term patriot is forgotten from the vocabulary of those paying (or claiming to pay) their deepest respects to public servants of the past who dedicated their lives, some the ultimate price, to see that their descendants could enjoy the same opportunities of white children. The term patriot seems to flee from the tongue of those recalling the Chicano or disability rights movements, gender and sexual minority or environmentalist organizers, or the journalists who seek to uncover the corruption and deceit imbedded in the highest seats of power. Gregory Lee Johnson’s political philosophies are hard to stomach, and understandably so, yet his consistent desecration of the flag shouldn’t automatically render his activism unpatriotic, but instead compel those near to engage in debate, a fundamental fixture of our democracy, in both an act of empathy and dignity.
What defines who is and who is not a patriot of this country is neither contingent on their fondness for donning American flag swim trunks at the lake nor their ambiguous expressions of appreciation on Veteran’s day. Rather, the content of one’s character, their capacity for love of kin and neighbor, and their commitment to creating a better life for themselves and their children define one’s patriotism, regardless of their political affiliation or agenda. The connotations that have high-jacked American patriotism, invidious and exclusionary, are escapable only through the education of forgone histories and the dismantling of superficial stereotypes that have separated far too many identity groups from participating in the celebration that is American success and spirit. It is imperative, more so now than ever, that the nation’s youth frame trailblazers, political mavericks, titans of industry, and the defenders of civil liberty and freedom as the patriots they are, rather than entertaining conspiracy theories from individuals that cannot reconcile this new American identity, that the first African American President of the United States was born in Kenya, or that he allied with terrorist organizations, or that he misused executive power to exact political revenge, all of which are attempts to rebuke any challenge on this empty, bastardized, travesty of the idea of whom we regard as a patriot. In the name of patriots forgotten and patriots to be, it is time to claim what has been stolen: fearlessly label those who advance our way of life for what they truly are– red-blooded American patriots.