Many an American election has revolved around the stated or implied accusation that the accused (usually a Democrat) does not love the country as much as the accuser (usually a Republican) — or perhaps not at all. Eight years ago, the question lingered on the margins in an especially pungent fashion. A young Senator Barack Obama had eschewed the flag pin that had become a mandatory fashion accessory among the Washington political class after 9/11. (The last time I purchased a suit in Washington, some half-dozen years ago, it came with a flag pin attached to the lapel.) More damaging still, he had been photographed standing during the national anthem without placing his hand on his heart. From Fox News to emails with “Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re” subject lines, the suspicion circulated that Obama’s lack of overt reverence for patriotic displays revealed a deeper hatred of the country, one Obama’s opponents believed was rooted in his race. As Rush Limbaugh warned in 2008, “It is these wackos, from Bill Ayers to Jeremiah Wright to other anti-American Afrocentric black liberation theologists with acorn, and Barack Obama is smack-dab in the middle of it; they have been training young black kids to hate, hate, hate this country.” Obama hated his country because he was black, those on the right suspected. For them, his belief that he had experienced racism negated the possibility of his patriotism.
A version of this belief has resurfaced this summer. Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, stopped standing during the national anthem before games. The anthem itself is a lousy piece of music celebrating a minor, inglorious war, a fact that has not stopped conservatives from growing outraged that Kaepernick has chosen to sit it out. But unlike Obama, who disdained the flag pin as an empty gesture of patriotism, Kaepernick is boycotting the anthem precisely because he sees it as a stand-in for patriotism. His target is not the ritual, that is, but the country it intends to honor: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. What had been hurled against Obama as an accusation — that awareness of racism precluded pride in one’s country — was, for Kaepernick, a boast.
Kaepernick’s politics are hardly Obama’s. He has depicted the president as something of a well-intentioned disappointment and said that if Hillary Clinton were any other person, she would be “in prison.” But his protest throws into relief a transformation of the politics of patriotism itself, which are playing out altogether differently at the end of the Obama era than they did at the outset.
Modes of patriotism can be clumped into four broad categories. The nationalism of the far right, the Trumpian version, expresses a love of country simply because it is one’s own. Abstract ideals have nothing to do with it. Your country can do whatever it wants — say, invade smaller, weaker states in order to seize their natural resources or hold them for ransom — for the same basic reasons a Mafia family can take what it wants. The quality of Americanness that interests Donald Trump is not goodness of any kind but strength.
The second category, national pride of the conventional conservative variety, connects patriotism to national ideals, like democracy, and insists that those ideals have always been more or less fulfilled. A Reagan or a Bush — any Bush — would speak movingly of America as a shining city on a hill and a beacon of hope to the world and treat any acknowledgment of the country’s failure to uphold its ideals as an attack on its essential goodness. “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America, ever,” said George H.W. Bush, a fervent believer in his country as a force for good throughout the world. “I don’t care what the facts are.” Mitt Romney’s book No Apology is built on the very same premise. Their belief in American goodness is a nearly theological conviction — no set of facts could dent their certainty that the country is a light unto other nations.
Moving farther left, liberal patriotism, the patriotism of Obama and Clinton, also connects love of country to ideals. Liberals, though, acknowledge the disparity between the country’s ideals and its reality, and place the struggle to bring the two into line as the essence of patriotism. In his 1993 inaugural address, Bill Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” At the Democratic National Convention in July, Obama, repeating a constant theme of his, declared, “We’re not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed that all of us are created equal; all of us are free in the eyes of God.” Or, as Michelle Obama told the same convention, “The story of this country” culminated in a world where she could “wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Liberal patriotism is the celebration of an ongoing progression to realize the country’s ideals.
The final position, one that has largely resided outside the mainstream debate, rejects patriotism altogether. The far left focuses on the failure of the United States to live up to its ideals, as do liberals, but sees that failure as an irredeemable indictment making the country unworthy of love. There is certainly no shortage of failures, from slavery to segregation to installing banana republics to police mistreatment of people of color. Whether one sees these as the exception or the rule and whether one discerns in them an upward arrow of progress or dreary repetition divides liberal patriots from the left’s anti-patriots. The difference between the two is the difference between the flag-wavers onstage at Hillary Clinton’s convention and her insistence that “America never stopped being great” and the flag-burning protesters who during the Trump campaign adopted the slogan “America was never great.” In some ways, the left-wing anti-patriotic view of America is the mirror image of the right-wing nationalistic one — plunder and white supremacy are and always have been America’s defining traits — but simply viewed from a morally opposite perspective.
The struggle between conservative and liberal patriotism has been a defining feature of American politics since Vietnam. But in 2016, that struggle over patriotism has taken on a different cast. In part, this reflects the Democrats’ identification as the party of the state, which has turned the anti-patriots of the left against them in a way that could never happen when Republicans hold power. It has also happened as a result of the peculiar character and beliefs of the Republican nominee.
Trump’s aggressive nationalism makes barely any pretense of championing America’s ideals, instead defending its people as a clan. He poses as a barbarian chieftain, promising spoils of war from zero-sum conflicts pitting tribes against one another, both domestically and abroad. He has lamented the Bush administration’s failure to steal Iraq’s oil after the invasion, insists NATO allies should pay more for protection by the U.S., and maintains that he can force Mexico to pay for a border wall it does not want. Trump’s veneration of strength not only fails to rely upon American ideals as justification but also treats those ideals with contempt, which is why the leaders he lavishes with the most fulsome praise are ruling from places like Moscow and Beijing. Trump’s America is like Russia, but bigger and stronger and richer.
Trump has left a void for the Democrats to defend American ideals. And Clinton is filling it. She addressed the American Legion Convention in Cincinnati, where she delivered a speech on the theme of American exceptionalism. Anti-Trump conservatives have moaned that their nominee allowed Clinton to pilfer their campaign themes. “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff,” complained National Review editor Rich Lowry during the Democratic Convention. In her convention address, Clinton could boast of America’s “enduring values — freedom and equality, justice and opportunity.” In an ordinary election, this would be just so much pabulum. In 2016, it is the delineation of an important philosophical divide.
*This article appears in the September 5, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.