Patriotism in the Age of Donald Trump
How to love your country when you’re not really feelin’ it
Last month, I took the oath to become a Canadian citizen, the inevitable result of my American parents telling me not to fall in love with a Canadian when I moved up to British Columbia for university.
I did, of course, and we married, and here I am in all my dual citizenry glory.
The most common reaction I get from Canadians is “Good timing!” as nearly the entire populace falls somewhere on the scale from confused to horrified regarding America’s political situation. From many Americans, especially from certain political persuasion, I hear, “You got out at the right time.”
I love the security, the openness, the kindness of Canada. The education system is awesome. They give me money to help with childcare. They actually took the time to do a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to face their past demons. This is a kick-ass country.
At the ceremony, I turn my fancy new citizenship certificate over to find a letter from Justin Trudeau, the much more palatable of my two heads of state. The first line sparks something: “Welcome to the greatest country in the world.”
For many years, I thought I already was living in the greatest country in the world. As a child, I was as patriotic as it got. I genuinely believed the story we were taught, in school and by our culture, that there was no country better to live in than the USA. I even won the American Legion Award for Patriotism at high school graduation — whatever that meant.
After ten years living off and on in another country, the narrative began to erode. People in Canada also seemed healthy and happy enough, despite not living in the US. And then, November 8, 2016: Donald Trump was elected. What was this country that elected this man? It wasn’t just that I didn’t prefer his policies. He stood for everything I was against morally, civically, and socially.
The last word I would have used to described myself on November 8th was patriotic.
But what was left in it’s place?
“Good timing.” “You got out at the right time.”
These responses left me with another question. In the Age of Trump, was there any way to salvage love for the country I lived in for 24 years?
In a lot of ways, it does feel like good timing to become a Canadian. I’ve lived full time in Canada for over five years, which means I got to sit out an exhausting and destructive election season. I feel protected from the violence that seems to be churning just below of the surface of many American cities. The Canadian wariness of American politics and policies has started to creep in.
I began to reconsider patriotism as a concept after graduating high school and moving to Canada for school. Outside of the US, many consider Americans to be nationalistic. I certainly can see it when I look back on my childhood. It’s not a criticism: we didn’t travel much outside of the west coast, because that’s where all our family was and we didn’t have money for international travel. (PS Can we stop poor shaming people who don’t travel? I think it’s important, but flying ain’t free.) And that wasn’t always a bad thing. I explored my home state of California from top to bottom, and knew it well. I, like every person, have a deep need to feel connected to a place and a people.
These days, I feels harder to find an honest, mature affinity for my home country. Instead, I see a childish, defensive “patriotic correctness” (hat tip to This American Life) that rejects any suggestion of American imperfection and defines a “real American” by an ever-lengthening list of requirements. And those who reject this brand of patriotism seem to fall into a deep, “everyone else is horrible so why even bother?” cynicism that offers despair as the only antidote to pride.
The night Donald Trump was elected, I completed my journey from the former end of this spectrum to the latter.
But in the intervening months, I realized something. I wasn’t willing to settle for nationalism. But I also wasn’t willing to settle for despair.
Ironically, the man who has made me question my American identity more than anything has sparked a new desire for patriotism in me, because believe it or not, I think it’s more important than ever.
It actually made me cringe a bit when Trudeau welcomed me to “the greatest country in the world.” It felt too much like the blind nationalism that I mistook for pride as a child.
But overall, I think this is an area where we Americans can get a little help from our Northern neighbors. Canadians, whether they’ll admit it or not, are patriotic. They are actually kind of obsessed with being Canadian. They don’t do it perfectly, but their patriotism tends to have a little more humility to it, and a little more humour.
It’s a lesson I’m trying to bring to my own view of America. A humility that’s willing to look square in the face of our real and present demons, coupled with a spirit willing to celebrate the things we have to offer the world. A more mature, honest patriotism that seeks to reckon with the bad and strive for the good.
In the age of Donald Trump, instead of rejecting patriotism, I’m putting out a call to embrace a truer, more honest form of it. Because it is nearly impossible to work for the good of something unless you love it.
And right now, we all need to be working hard to make America, not great again, but better than it’s ever been.
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