Ruth Ben-Ghiat: For decades, the GOP wrapped itself in the mantle of patriotism
Democrats are experiencing a surge of patriotism, which could revive the party
Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
We will remember 2017 as the year patriotism started to acquire a new vitality and force among Democrats – and the year that the GOP lost control of its narrative. We have President Donald Trump to thank for both of these things.
Over the past decade, patriotism has been out of vogue among many liberals. Rituals like saluting the flag were largely left to those serving our country at home and abroad through military or government service. Meanwhile, pledges of allegiance conjured memories of school assemblies.
Republicans, in contrast, wrapped themselves in the mantle of patriotism. Open love of country justified the party’s claim to moral authority and united its members. Drive through America and you know when you’ve entered Republican strongholds by the number of flags displayed. Despite its embrace of anti-big government ideologies, the GOP managed to preserve its reputation in the eyes of its base as the party of national fidelity.
Trump stands to change all that. Our 45th President has spoken and acted in ways that for millions test the basic definition of what it means to be a patriot: someone who loves one’s country and acts with its best interests in mind. Like the many authoritarian rulers he so admires, Trump seems intent on making public office serve his personal desires and goals. He has done very little to resolve the conflicts of interest with his business concerns, leaving the impression that private profit comes first and national well-being second.
The ongoing Trump campaign-Russia investigation, which has placed his stewardship of the nation under a cloud of suspicion, is merely the most obvious sign of his dereliction of patriotic duty. He’s cultivated a fawning relationship with a man who openly aims to unseat our country from global leadership – Russian President Vladimir Putin – even leaking intelligence about terrorist operations to senior Russian officials while granting Putin’s request to receive them in our most holy civic temple.
When it became known that he had excluded our national press corps from the Oval Office meeting while allowing a Russian photographer access, it seemed to many Americans another sign of loyalties that did not seemingly lie with the country he took an oath to serve – and certainly a gamble with our national security and intelligence allies.
The GOP’s partnering with and pandering to Trump in these circumstances will likely cost it patriotic credibility. Republican leaders have given the President carte blanche to attack the democratic institutions that have long defined the country. We’re the land of the free, but they stay silent as Trump maligns the judiciary, national security and intelligence communities, and the press. We’re the home of the brave, but they stay loyal as Trump calls one of our top leaders – John McCain, a former POW, a loser.
Millions of Americans who feel the void in political leadership are looking for patriots to admire and emulate. Fearing that their civil liberties and rights are threatened, they are scanning the horizon for individuals who have stood out and stood up to power, putting the national interest before their own careers. Sally Yates has been anointed and, for many, James Comey too. Others will likely emerge before we are through with Trump.
Trump’s presidency has already caused some Americans to discover the full depth of their own patriotic feelings. Yaël Eisenstat, a former CIA analyst and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, has seen a “patriotic fervor” rising among Americans, who have realized how much they have to lose under Trump. Such sentiments have led many to engage for the first time in familiar forms of political action such as turning out for protests, calling elected officials or signing petitions.
Yet patriotic reactions of a less traditional or more intimate sort, while not yet tracked by polling, also deserve our attention. Some individuals are deciding not to pursue professional opportunities abroad to be here in our country’s time of need; others burst into tears when they hear a street musician play the Star Spangled Banner, or simply upon hearing a pilot announce “welcome to the United States of America” when returning from abroad.
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This quiet building of patriotic sentiment presents an opportunity for the Democrats, who have been struggling to craft an identity in the wake of the lost presidential election. The use of powerful patriotic rhetoric and symbols can underpin the party’s assertive positioning of itself as the guardian of American freedoms and values now imperiled by Trump and his GOP allies.
The GOP squandered patriotism’s precious currency by backing Trump. Their loss can be the Democrats’ gain in 2018 and 2020.