Patriotism, the first refuge of the scoundrel

Among the endless and increasingly panicked reasons offered to try and rationalise Trump’s success in the US presidential race – from obvious voter frustration to the hidden psychology of his facial expressions – one factor remains consistently overlooked. His unabashed use of patriotism has allowed him to instantly and consistently connect with a broad swathe of voters in a deeply proud, but otherwise deeply divided, nation.

Characteristically, he has not been shy about it. It was in plain view right from the start when, on that fateful day 17 months ago, he descended the golden escalator to announce his candidacy in front of eight US flags.

The patriotic posturing has continued unabated since then, much to the delight of his supporters. His populist promise to Make America Great Again, his damning of the Democratic convention for not having big enough flags, and his pledge to promote ‘pride and patriotism’ in schools – with the help of the American Legion, no less – all pander to the kind of nostalgic, insular and unhappy patriotism that is widespread among the many Americans eyeing the future with fear and distrust. To those languishing in the Rust Belt, it is reminiscent of an economic golden age that hasn’t been seen for over 30 years; to those concerned about an influx of ‘new Americans’, it hearkens back to a purer, whiter time in American history. That such political time travel is impossible appears largely irrelevant; here is a candidate presenting a view of America they can rally around.

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You might think it pointless to comment on something as ubiquitous as patriotism in American politics. After all, just about the one thing that united all 23 presidential candidates this year, from Sanders to Santorum, was their professed love for their country. It becomes so commonplace that we simply tune it out, even in less diverting elections than this one.

So why pick on Trump? Why not Clinton, who is just as comfortable extolling American exceptionalism? (Although her personal best for number of flags on a stage – 19 – falls far short of Trump’s 36.)

Trump is worth discussing here because he is a particularly fine example of how dangerous patriotism can be. Whereas Clinton’s patriotic appeals are at least loosely centered on ideals such as ‘freedom and equality, justice and opportunity’, Trump is encouraging a blind allegiance to the nation unencumbered by morality, let alone policy. His recent gimmick of hugging the flag, pointing at it and then giving a thumbs-up is about as articulate an account of his patriotism as you’re likely to get from him.

It would be a mistake to dismiss all this love of country just because it is so prevalent. When a presidential candidate can be greeted by chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’, or when one of his supporters threatens to murder Clinton because ‘I have to be a patriot’, things begin to look a little unhinged. Shouldn’t we look at the issue again?

It was patriotism, after all, that helped Nixon discredit anti-war protesters, when he praised the ‘hard-hat patriotism’ of construction workers who hospitalised dozens of demonstrators in New York in 1970. And it was patriotism that was used to encourage support for the deeply troubling USA PATRIOT Act (the name itself is no coincidence), when in 2001 Attorney General John Ashcroft openly questioned the loyalty of those who raised concerns about the act’s unprecedented surveillance and detention powers.

“The trouble with patriotism,” writes Simon Keller, professor of philosophy, political science and international relations at the University of Wellington, is that “we generate extra work. We commit ourselves to telling a story about what our country is, and making that story cohere with the views we are recommending. At best, this is a distraction. At worst, it hands the advantage to those whose political views are the least sophisticated and most parochial: those whose views can most easily be squared with a familiar and attractive national myth.” Sound familiar?

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Of course, patriotism can also be used to generate support for noble causes. Martin Luther King’s inspiring blend of biblical and national rhetoric remains one of the most memorable moments of the US Civil Rights movement. And Abraham Lincoln, himself now a patriotic touchstone in America, skilfully employed national sentiment to generate support for a civil war that emancipation alone could not have done.

But the underlying psychology of pride and division that comes from believing ‘a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it’, as George Bernard Shaw put it, means that patriotism is far more easily used to support reactionary, conservative, isolationist or even xenophobic views than it does open, progressive ones. Put another way, Trump would have a much harder time ushering in his self-proclaimed ‘new era of American greatness’ with an internationalist stance that welcomed free trade and open borders. It is simply difficult to express such things as patriotic.

Patriotism has been subject to sharp criticism in literary and philosophical circles for hundreds of years – Tolstoy’s and Tagore’s philippics are particularly good fun – but this has made little headway into the political realm. The reason why is obvious: it’s simply far too useful for politicians to do without. So long as they can appear sincere, patriotism allows them to connect on a personal level with vast stretches of the electorate. By appealing to emotion over reason, it also allows them to drift over any finer points of policy, something Trump is more than adept at.

‘My country, right or wrong’ has been used to denounce chauvinist attitudes for decades, though it seems to have had little effect. When a demagogue as unpredictable and power-hungry as Trump uses patriotism to build support and whip up hatred for his own ends, we might soon see just how wrong it can get.

(Photo credit: Jnn13)

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