By Jacob Kaye
Throughout much of the last two years, talk of patriotism has been at a fever pitch.
Although defining patriotism – and what it means to be a patriot – has long been a contentious debate between the left and the right, the nationalism evoked by President Trump has added new life to the conversation.
The conversation itself, it seems, has been fairly inadvertent.
Few politicians, political pundits, or journalists have spoken of patriotism by name.
Instead, we have been subjected to certain phrases that speak to the core of what the two sides believe is patriotic behavior – or, more often, what they believe it is not.
Whenever someone suggests that we give President Trump a chance – to fail or succeed, they never do specify – or that those who are upset by his electoral victory or his onslaught of executive orders should move out of the country, they are speaking to the core of their form of patriotism.
One that relies on the belief that the actions, policies, and traditions of this nation should be unquestioned and often celebrated.
This is typically the belief of a patriot of the right.
Conversely, when someone proposes that we overhaul or dismantle large and deeply embedded systems of American society, they are speaking to their form of American patriotism.
One that relies on the belief that the actions, policies, and traditions of this nation be questioned often and celebrated when reformed, calibrated, or undone.
This is typically the belief of a patriot of the left.
Both forms of patriotism come from a place of love and an insatiable need to believe in American goodness or, at the least, it’s potential for goodness.
But both forms of patriotism – at their worst – can also inspire great and terrible violence.
The inability – or, in some cases, willful ignorance – to question the country, it’s people, or government, can lead to a national blindness that allows evil actors to bring injustice upon groups of people indiscriminately.
On the other hand, the constant destruction of long-standing institutions – in the name of either love or despair – can lead to anarchic revolution.
Of course, both cases speak the most extreme deployment of one’s patriotism.
What I find most curious is that a both sides feel their patriotism is in direct opposition to the patriotic believes of the other.
It is not simply a matter of disagreement but both believe the other patriot is inherently acting to destroy America.
One patriot uses their love as a weapon against the other.
Both sides have failed to recognize how their patriotism is rooted in the same belief-American Exceptionalism.
Patriots of the left believe that America has the ability to solve the world’s ills – inequality, systemic injustice, racism, or poverty – and that we have a duty, as well as a unique gift, to diagnose these flaws.
Patriots of the right believe that the exceptionalism of our past has so strongly guided us to a present in which the world’s ills exist in America only fractionally and this difference is worthy of celebration and continued dedication.
Whether or not one can be an American patriot without believing in some form of American Exceptionalism is a conversation for another day – or if we can put it off, another election cycle – but I believe that the two patriots outlined above both feel that this country is unique.
Although it certainly isn’t the only disagreement between left and right, the definition and qualities of a patriot remain a critical cause of the current political chasm.
But still, we avoid a deeper conversation about what a patriot is because it is rude, tacky, confrontational, and at times, incendiary, to proclaim one’s self a patriot or to say that someone is not.
Maybe we believe that the times are not dire enough to speak fervently about patriotic notions.
But they are.
Every day, we adjust and recalibrate most aspects of our lives to the 21st century.
A patriot of 1776 is not a patriot of 2017.
American institutions and systems and history have informed the patriot over time and the patriot has a duty to allow American institutions, systems, and history to do so.
There is one patriot who has decided to change the definition of American patriotism altogether.
He even declared that January 20, 2017, this year’s inauguration day, be forever remembered as the “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” implying there is no further discussion to be had over what patriotic behavior is.
President Trump, as suggested by Paul Krugman in The New York Times, believes in a haunting credo – “L’état, c’est moi,” or, “I, myself, am the nation.”
Patriotism, as he has defined, is devotion to him.
As patriots of the left and right, we owe it to the love we both have for this country to empathize with one another and open our eyes to the common ground we all stand upon.
Understand that this is not a fight over who loves the country and who doesn’t but instead, it is a fight over how we, both as patriots, choose to express our love.
If we don’t, one man will make sure, through credo, proclamation, or law, that both patriots are patriots no more.
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Cover Photo Credit: Luz/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)