On a recent trip to the craft store, I picked out a blanket printed with the Stars and Stripes — but not without hesitation. Does Americana-covered fleece lean Republican? I debated. In the end, I bought the blanket, along with the theory that our symbols belong to us all.
Though conceived as a national emblem, Old Glory has played its part in partisan politics throughout American history. More often than not, it is conservatives who have draped themselves in the flag — a phenomenon that has intensified as of late.
Nowadays, Republicans are holding the flag hostage, alongside its values. This takeover of the literal fabric of our nation is ripping apart the figurative fabric. And the grab for ownership does not stop with the iconic cloth that waves on poles and adorns podiums and appliqués T-shirts. It readily extends to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which pays exquisite tribute to those “broad stripes and bright stars … so gallantly streaming,” and to the troops, who valiantly defend the honor proclaimed by the bunting and banners.
When the White House tweets a photo of President Donald Trump hugging a flag, the subtext is that his party has a lock on patriotism. When Vice President Pence shows up at an NFL game only to exit after players kneel during the opening anthem, the message is that the song is inviolate but the First Amendment is not. And when the president seizes the spotlight at the Lincoln Memorial this Fourth of July, the goal is to hijack a bipartisan holiday.
A senior adviser to the president’s campaign writes, “The increasingly tolerated celebration of disrespect for American symbols and recasting of the founding generation that endowed us with the flag cuts against the core of President Trump’s value system.” The president says, “Megan [Rapinoe] should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag….” These statements, like scores of similar ones, are red flags that something insidious is going on.
Co-opting sources of communal inspiration is a potent tool for remaking politics. By lassoing American images for their own purposes, conservatives seek to make their liberal neighbors feel like intruders in their own home. When Republicans boast about how much they respect the flag, their aim is to brand Democrats as unpatriotic. When the GOP — more OP than G — hoists the flag to embrace the military and law enforcement, they want the Dems to cede these points of pride to them.
But real patriotism is humble. As George M. Cohan penned, “there’s never a boast or brag” when it comes to the "grand old flag.” To be sure, theater’s most acclaimed patriot had a gift for rhyme, but beyond that, the sentiment of unpretentious sincerity rings true.
America’s flag stands for its highest ideals. Freedom, equality, diversity, tolerance and justice — those are the foundations on which the imagery rests. Rather than hearkening back to some mythical great time in American history, the nation’s precepts are aspirational in nature, guiding and prodding us ever onward to form a more perfect union.
This administration’s practices are incompatible with patriotism, no matter how many flags are grabbed or anthems belted or monumental rallies held. Separating families, attacking the media, hurling insults, enacting tax cuts for the wealthiest tier at the expense of those in dire straits, turning a blind eye to the dangers of climate change — the litany of wrongdoings just cannot be explained by love of country when it smacks of love of self.
True devotion to one’s country looks more like casting a ballot, contacting a legislator, marching in protest or writing a letter to the editor in support of laws that lift up the poor, assist the disabled, insure the sick, protect future generations and expand voting rights, even if and especially if the activist does not stand to benefit personally.
Let us draw inspiration from our tricolored flag. Rather than a red nation or a white nation or a blue nation, this country lives its best life as a stirring union of red and white and blue, more glorious together than apart.
No party has a monopoly on displaying the flag to display patriotism. Singing along, taking a knee, rallying around heroes and advocating for systemic reforms are all as American as apple pie.
In response to the right wing’s attempts to wrest our nation’s symbols for themselves, the left must not be left out. Festooned in liberty and sparkling with promise, Independence Day should serve as a reminder to fed-up and forward-looking Americans to recapture the flag.
Jan Zauzmer (Twitter: @JanZauzmer) is a writer who plans to sit on a red-white-and-blue blanket while watching fireworks this Fourth of July.