Singing the National Anthem in the Trump Era
It will happen to you sooner or later. Your favorite team prepares to take the field. The music starts. You hear the familiar tune and recall words you sang for years. But looking at the flag now, you know your nation has changed.
For many, the instinct to sing the national anthem now competes with piercing new questions: What shared values might cause us to rise and sing? Does my participation now signal political agreement with those I stand next to? What values are worthy of my allegiance? Can a song about a tattered flag speak to the Constitution I worry could be shredded?
In these times, the proud image of the banner Francis Scott Key celebrated over the Baltimore harbor may be difficult for some to conjure. The national anthem is not well suited for a musical escape. The red glare of news reports illuminates division, the closing of borders, diminished civil liberties, attacks on free press, and an emerging myth that only an authoritarian can ensure collective security from foreign foes.
Many of us will just want the national anthem to end and the distraction of sport to begin.
Those of us searching for star-spangled words — expressed through song, chant, or pledge — that celebrate our connection to each other while exposing the internal threat we now see to the Republic won’t find much in the anthem we currently sing. We want words reminding us that our land, this one nation, is marked by inclusiveness. We want words that acknowledge our founders’ belief that only strong institutions and accountability can protect us from tyranny. We want words will remind any entitled, retaliatory, and abusive government who it is they serve.
The anthem…..represents a moment of civic participation that communicates who does or not belong in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Unfortunately, “The Star Spangled Banner” is, quite simply, a song about a flag that endures. Its words may serve to unify, but the actual language in the anthem expresses relatively little about what our nation believes or what we might share in common.
Many observers recognize that our new president, who has thrived in the past by exploiting the ambiguities of patriotic language, could easily use traditions like the anthem to establish new norms for national belonging. We saw evidence of this in his inaugural address and subsequent decree establishing a national day for patriot devotion. We see evidence of this reactionary spirit in his immigration policies and assumptions about minority religions. We evidence of this in his tweets about flag burning. Indeed, President Trump seems to draw a line between those who support a particular vision and expression for the country and those who do not. As such, it is not difficult to imagine this White House directing specific criticism toward those who, in good conscience, choose to boycott the anthem ritual.
These circumstances pose a dilemma for the pro-democracy movements now taking shape. The anthem is a unique expression. Americans do not repeat the words of the Constitution together. We do not chant or repeat the Bill of Rights. We do not recite indelible lines from the “Emancipation Proclamation,” the “Declaration of Sentiments,” the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or other texts that illustrate America’s expanding democratic promise. While we sometimes sing “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful,” we do so sparingly. And outside of primary school, we rarely pledge allegiance to the flag in a public display of unity.
Indeed, the national anthem is the only shared ritual in American public life that asks us to vocalize, in unison, what we might believe. And while it does not give voice to too many specific values, the anthem still represents a moment of civic participation that communicates assumptions about who does or not belong in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
As such, we simply cannot let any authoritarian rob us of this tradition. But, neither can we, in good conscience, sing these words as we did before — playing into forms of nationalism that employ anthems to promote blind, unprincipled allegiance to the feeling a country elicits rather than values of justice enshrined in the Constitution.
One of the more encouraging developments in the rapidly forming protests has been the way activists have brandished the flag, elevated the Constitution, preached the Bill of Rights, and otherwise celebrated histories Trump ignores. At airport protests after the immigration ban, for example, thousands of diverse activists chanted “USA!” and sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Such rich symbolism, celebrating the ideals of a free nation while acknowledging where our experiment with democracy has come up short, matters. Indeed, these new demonstrations for national unity, built around democratic inclusion and social justice, will be necessary to defeat Trump’s authoritarianism.
With all these challenges in mind, I offer a modest proposal:
Rather than boycotting “The Star Spangled Banner,” we could continue to sing this tune boldly alongside our fellow citizens, including those who continue to proudly hail the obvious and familiar first verse. But we could incorporate a more meaningful verse into this old tune.
In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes added a verse to the original four as he attempted to make sense of a nation newly divided by a contentious election while on the cusp of civil war.
When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.
This fifth verse, published in songbooks during the war and aftermath, does three things the familiar first verse fails to do. First, it presents an image of liberty, now a statue in the New York harbor, that welcomes the immigrant. Second, it suggests we need to sing loudest at times when out greatest enemy threatens, not from abroad, but from within our own borders. Third, it addresses the institution of slavery boldly and reminds us that American democracy expands by extending the birthright of citizenship through courageous activism, bloodshed, contradiction, and struggle.
The fifth verse points us to toward inclusion — a core American value worth preserving. These words are worthy of our collective voices, especially in troubled times. Through this expanded anthem, we can sing to national ideals welcoming newcomers, incorporating difference, and sharply questioning authority. We can sing our admiration for the activists and martyrs who struggled against what once divided us. We can sing, not to a flag, but to the republic for which it stands. We can stand proudest, not just because a symbolic banner once proved through the night it could withstand a foreign attack, but because our people have endured by coming together and continually remaking this nation into the land of the free.
We can choose what words to sing — reminding any present or future foe that this is our American tune.
Stephen Mucher, Ph.D. directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.