There is a bizarre assumption at work in our politics today. Many people have got the idea in their heads that the President of the United States is patriotic. Ordinarily, this is such a safe assumption that we don’t really have to think about it. Yes, Ronald Reagan was patriotic. So was Barack Obama. All but the most rabid partisans will acknowledge that.
But when we extend the same presumption to Donald Trump, we’re actually reading against the evidence. Of course we’d like to believe the president of the United States is patriotic. But in this case there isn’t really any reason to think so.
In an interesting item today, Jonathan Chait calls Trump the “most unpatriotic president ever.” This isn’t true. That honor belongs to Andrew Johnson, who believed that people who had lately been killing as many United States soldiers as possible deserved more sympathy than citizens who remained loyal to the United States. Trump does appear to clear the low bar that Johnson set, so you can at least say that for him.
As Chait notes, the case that Trump is unpatriotic does not rest on asserting that one brand of patriotism is the only “real” patriotism. You can have Obama’s “more perfect union” kind of patriotism, or the “my country right or wrong” sort, or even Johnson’s execrable brand of patriotism explicitly premised on white supremacy. All of these sorts of patriotism, even if loathsome, can coherently reflect a genuine pride in one’s idea of a national community.
But profiteering at the public’s expense seems hard to square with any brand of patriotism we know of. It would be really odd for a patriotic person to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself at the risk of damaging the country. But of course, this is exactly what Trump does. Maybe the simple answer is the right one: he just doesn’t care about the country because he only cares about himself.
As Chait mentions, Trump also regularly insults the United States in terms that would make conservatives apoplectic if uttered by a Democratic President. Maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—he insults the country because that’s how he really feels about it. And maybe, just maybe, his lack of patriotism is part of the reason he hates Americans who demonstrate a sincere desire to improve their country.
Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:
Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…
In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.
In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”
While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.
Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”
I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.
I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:
1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.
The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.
2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.
As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.
3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.
The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.
4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.
U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:
While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.
The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:
On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:
One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”
Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”
Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.
Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”
I watched the Super Bowl and I was thrilled to see the Eagles win. It was a great game. But it was also a spectacular assault on the moral senses. Perhaps I noticed it more now that I don’t usually watch games. At the Super Bowl the volume is raised to 10 and we are supposed to submit to our overlords of militarism, nationalism, and materialism. A healthy dash of sexism and historical appropriation is also recommended.
This is all so normalized that to talk about it is to immediately render oneself a hand-wringing do-gooder unable to have fun. Oh believe me, I had fun last night. But yeah, I noticed what I was being asked to bow down to.
There were the manipulative pregame displays of patriotism, in which we’re told to bask in militaristic nationalism. Nothing could be more quintessentially patriotic than saluting our troops, our carefully depoliticized troops, who are always only protecting us, defending freedom, always ready to respond to aggression but never to deliver it.
History is carefully excised from the patriotism on offer here. The aggressive and acquisitive militarism that has defined centuries of American expansion is not to be seen. There is only “America the Beautiful” embodied most fully in the humble soldier. After watching last night’s display, it’s no wonder so many people have the impression that the point of singing the national anthem is to honor soldiers in particular.
It is to be expected that nations would recognize and honor the important role that soldiers play in a fallen world. And whatever we think of the big questions of war and peace, it is unjust for us to be dismissive of the sacrifices soldiers make while we happily enjoy the fruits of their efforts.
The problem here is that patriotism has become militarized, so that the highest and fullest expression of American nationalism is the depoliticized and dehistoricized American soldier. This is an anti-republican ethos more suited to empire than a democratic state. But perhaps that’s fitting. Though our national self-image speaks of freedom and democracy, our celebrations tell a different story. We honor America not through self-government and civic-mindedness but by paying lip service to the sacrifices of soldiers.
And so protesting racism and police brutality on the NFL’s stage was unpatriotic. Somehow kneeling during the National Anthem had something to do with the troops. If you have a republican conception of citizenship and patriotism, this never would have occurred to you. But if deep down you believe in a militarized American empire, the logic works.
The debate over the player protests has not been about whether NFL games would become politicized. It has always been about whose politics would be displayed. And this is all quite cynical. In militarism there is money to be made. Concern for human life doesn’t sell. It offends too many Americans.
And then there were the commercials. Advertising in general is something not to be taken for granted. Basically, there was a time when it did not exist. Now it does. We are molded by it and we like it. I’m trying to raise kids and form some good things in them. But I constantly find myself asking, “how can I compete with that?” They are little materialists before they know what hit them. And I don’t know how to stop it.
There was the infamous ad this year, the MLK ad. Some folks thought it would be a good idea to use some words from one of Dr. King’s sermons to try to sell some trucks. Nevermind King’s increasingly radical anti-capitalist rhetoric. Nevermind that the sermon in question literally warned against buying cars and being duped by advertisers. Nevermind that the values King spoke of rebuke the foundations of our economy. That the King estate had to sign off on this garbage is yet another sad episode in a long and sordid tale of King’s descendants fighting for the crumbs from the table.
And how about that halftime show? It was a remarkably insipid performance, but you can’t really blame the NFL, right? It’s not as though there are a bunch of other talented performers around who could do a Super Bowl halftime show. So someone said, “Hey, what if we invite back the cause of the most notorious moment in halftime show history?” Sounds good! But what about Janet Jackson? “No, America has seen her boob. She must never perform again.”
If things weren’t so rigged against white men, Justin Timberlake would do the halftime show every year.
I had lots of fun watching the Super Bowl. I invited my sons to watch with me, and I just tried to close my eyes to all that it was demanding of us.