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 of us, 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 now see being shred?
In these times, any proud image of the banner Francis Scott Key celebrated over the Baltimore harbor may be difficult 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 our collective security from foreign foes.
You may just want the national anthem to end and the distraction of sport to begin.
Few will find in the star-spangled words, which we all know by heart, any real and effective critique — through song, chant, or pledge — expressing our connection to each other while exposing the internal threat we now see to the Republic. 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 can protect us from tyranny. Most of all, we want words that bring any entitled, retaliatory, and abusive White House to its knees.
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 straightforward, a song about a flag. Its words may serve to unify, but the actual language expresses relatively little about what our nation believes or what we share in common.
Trump, we now know, thrives by exploiting such ambiguities and he could easily use traditions like the anthem to establish new norms for delegitimizing one’s place in the American family. We see hints of this in his inaugural address and subsequent decree establishing a national day for patriot devotion. We see it in his immigration policies and assumptions about minority religions. Indeed, Trump, aided by his chief strategist Steve Bannon, seeks to draw a line between those who support their skewed vision for our country and those who do not. We can expect White House criticism directed at our fellow citizens who, in good conscience, choose to boycott or otherwise eschew the anthem ritual.
These circumstances pose a dilemma for an otherwise robust pro-democracy movement now taking shape. The anthem is unique. 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. We sing “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” sparingly. And other than primary school, we rarely pledge allegiance to the flag.
Indeed, the national anthem is the only shared ritual in American public life that asks us to vocalize, in unison, what we might truly care about. And while it does not give voice to too many specific values, it still represents a moment of civic participation communicating assumptions about who does or not belong in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
We simply cannot let Trump own 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 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 relinquishing “The Star Spangled Banner,” we should continue to sing this tune boldly alongside our fellow citizens, including those who continue to proudly hail the obvious and familiar first verse. But our words need not be their words.
In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes added a fifth verse 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 verse, published in songbooks during the war and aftermath, does three things the 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.
Holmes points us to a core American value worth preserving — inclusion. That is a song we can sing together in this troubled moment. We can sing to a history that welcomed newcomers and incorporated our differences. We can sing to the struggles that divide us. We need not sing merely to a flag that proved through the night it could survive a foreign military attack, but to a banner raised gallantly by activists continually remaking American into the land of the free.
We can choose what words to sing. And through our diverse voices we can remind Trump that this is our American tune.
Stephen Mucher, Ph.D. directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.