The Importance of Liberal Patriotism

Red hats are a Donald Trump thing now. The power of his brand has laid claim to that shape and color of headgear. And now he’s pushing that brand one step further with the new red cap that just says USA on the front and “TRUMP” on the back. There’s also a humble little “45” on one side, opposite the American flag.

It’s a powerful marketing move by a seasoned brand builder. No need for a campaign slogan anymore: Donald Trump is America. The more he can get people to conflate a love of Trump with a love of America, the better off he will be. He knows he will be the center of bitter debate for four years, and he will be better served if his supporters feel like they are arguing for America (an infallible concept, for many Americans) instead of arguing for him as a person. This trajectory of his brand will get it’s greatest assist when he takes office in January.

I certainly can’t fault Trump for expressing his love of country. I can’t even fault him for trying to conflate his personal brand with patriotism — ideally the President does personify an America we can all be proud of. So, I sincerely hope that he makes us all proud as President and that the mingling of his personal brand with the American brand ends up being a net positive for both…like Disney and Pixar.

But I have a feeling it will be more like AOL and Time Warner. My prediction is that it will unfold this way:

  1. Trump supporters, a profoundly patriotic group, will happily accept the blending of the Trump brand and the American brand
  2. Trump’s opponents will continue to argue against his policies and point out his defects
  3. Trump will paint his detractors as unpatriotic — subtly (and then not so subtly) equating any disdain for Trump with a disdain for America

It’s that third step that I think Trump’s branding play is ultimately moving toward. It gives legitimacy to the infallibility he already sees in himself. It unites his supporters in a glorious cause and reduces his detractors to nay-sayers whose belly-aching should be taken elsewhere.

And all of this happens under the guise and symbolism of an attempt to unite “all” Americans. But patriotism doesn’t bring about unity; unity brings about patriotism. And when a large number of people feel their country has abandoned them, they aren’t likely to be drawn into unity with a group that’s turning up the volume on their pride in that country.

I’m definitely not saying that anyone’s pride should be suppressed, we just can’t skip the hard work of unifying the country and we can’t make the mistake of putting an “un-American” label on the individuals that aren’t feeling prideful in this moment. That will only make the divisions worse.

Liberals and conservatives increasingly exist in disparate American bubbles. In my opinion, both sides genuinely feel patriotism, but disagree about how (even IF) that emotion should be expressed. Additionally, they express their patriotism using different languages. It’s one of the many reasons we speak past each other. And it looks like Donald Trump is more interested in sorting than translating. In his world view, it’s easier to have a clear line between friends and enemies than it is to find common ground.

So I’ll do my best to translate.

Conservative patriotism places heavy value on symbols, tradition, and history. Liberal patriotism emphasizes possibilities, with pride stemming from a system they see as capable of undergoing constant improvement. They’re both legitimate. But they manifest very differently.

Conservative patriotism is visual and competitive. Take a look at the Breitbart store. It’s mostly merchandise that not only touts the owner’s patriotism, but also disparages anyone that doesn’t match their level of enthusiasm and confidence. Why just be American, when you can be “Unapologetically American?” It reflects a culture in which the more pride you show in being American, the more American you are. Inversely, if you lack pride you are less American — perhaps even unworthy of the title.

Patriotism in this culture is an obligation; it’s a prerequisite to just about everything else in life. It’s a deeply felt part of the individual and collective identity, and the language that supports it becomes such a recognizable refrain in the cultural dialogue that it could respectfully be called a civic religion.

I have a lot of respect for the conservative brand of patriotism. I think that culture plays a big part in motivating many of our men and women to join the armed forces, for which I’m endlessly grateful. And respect for history and tradition can keep people grounded in a world that’s often either blind to anything outside the present moment or fearfully focussed on the future.

It’s not fashionable in liberal culture to express unbridled patriotism the way it’s expressed in conservative culture. To do so without caveats, people worry, will be perceived as an ignorance of the country’s countless shortcomings and, worse yet, a lack of empathy for the individuals that are deeply and personally affected by those shortcomings. It’s one of the mental blocks that often accompanies a “progressive” outlook; always looking to the future and the way things should be makes any celebration of the way things are seem like a complacent lack of perspective.

So, liberals don’t (as frequently) have the stars and stripes dominate their wardrobes and walls. Instead, they quietly take pride in a system that has allowed the arch of our moral universe to bend toward justice. Rarely feeling that it’s appropriate to stop and celebrate progress made, they prefer to move quickly on to the next issue to ensure the progress continues.

I’ve heard conservative friends describe liberal patriotism as “conditional.” Conservatives intend that word to be an undermining insult to liberal patriotism, but I think most liberals would agree with it…

Liberals are more likely to take pride in concepts than symbols. Their patriotism is rooted in ideas like the separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and due process. So, their sense of pride in the country is diminished when they feel like those concepts are not upheld by the country. In fact, liberals view it as their patriotic duty not to display national pride if/when America abandons the principles that make it worthy of pride.

Those conditions don’t fit in the conservative world view of patriotism; with its focus on honoring the past, it’s somewhat freed from complications of the present and future.

Ultimately, the differing world views most often come down to this conflict:

Conservatives view the liberal brand of patriotism as fair-weathered (often using Thomas Paine’s term “Sunshine Patriots” for its historical value and hint of hippie-shaming). Conditional patriotism, by conservative standards, isn’t patriotism at all. Liberals view the conservative brand of patriotism as so unconditional that their pride becomes a blindfold to weaknesses and, therefore, a barrier to progress.

It’s a shame we don’t often make an effort to learn from the view that opposes ours. At the very least we can recognize how dependent these world views are on each other.

So, to my conservative friends, I say: be patriotic without assuming that people who disagree with you (on whatever issue) are unpatriotic. Resist the temptation to dismiss people that don’t meet your minimum threshold of pride in the country. And remember that there is no spectrum of American-ness; people that have grievances with America are no less American than people that fly 10 flags in their yard.

And to my liberal friends I make a more urgent plea…

Show your patriotism. Know that it is not a contradiction to show enthusiastic patriotism while you express your discontent.

I’m not demanding that you be proud of this moment in our history, but I am asking you to find some part of America in which you can be sincerely proud — and focus on that. Hold on to it tightly even while you fight for changes. Understand that expressing pride could be the thing that gives you common ground with the people you disagree with. It could be the thing that helps give us all a sense of unity.

It’s much harder to label a person un-American when they’re draped in the stars and stripes. And as Donald Trump tries to paint a narrower picture of who is truly American, it will be up to you to use the symbols of the United States to show that proud Americans can be any skin color, speak any language, practice any religion, and love who they love.

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