National Perspective

We're coming off a big patriotism week, full of fireworks real and metaphorical. And as we lean into an even more critical week -- with President Donald Trump about to nominate a new justice for the Supreme Court -- we might do well to reflect on the nature of patriotism.

Long ago, back at Shaw Junior High School, the civics teacher Warren Stromberg used to tell us -- young men and women growing up in the Vietnam years, when patriotism sometimes had a stink to it -- that however we were to define patriotism, the first two words should be, "A feeling ..."

Stromberg was right, as he so often was during the two years in which he taught, inspired and helped shape scores of us now in our 60s and 70s. Patriotism indeed is at base a sentiment. But it is not necessarily sentimental, which is the sort of patriotism that Samuel Johnson defined, and derided, as the "last refuge of a scoundrel."

In the 50 years since I sat in those confining chairs in Stromberg's classroom on Forest Avenue, much mischief has been made in the name of patriotism -- but much of value has been recorded as well. We've come to see that love of country means love of this land, as Woody Guthrie wrote in "This Land Is Your Land," his wonderful musical response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which I once found treacly and now consider a national treasure.

But love of country also means adherence to American values.

Here we get into more complicated territory, because in the course of the nearly two and a half centuries of our national life, the United States has gone from an insurrectionary force that revolutionized the way people were governed to a country that is at its base conservative. As the most powerful nation in the world, it has a bigger stake than any other entity in conserving the global status quo.

That necessarily changed what love of country means. And that affects what patriotism is, for it is equally patriotic to celebrate what the country is now (at the top of the heap) as it is to work to change it (and to channel the disruptive forces of change that created the country).

That collision helps to define our contemporary politics.

The president is not a passive observer here, for he has expanded this fundamental tension in an important, historic way. In seeking to "Make America Great Again," he has torqued conservatism from the preservation of the status quo to a return to past greatness. (That is the power of the word "again" on his red ball cap and in his MAGA acronym.)

But those many who oppose Trump also are summoning a different American past, an 18th-century past where activism and dissent created the country, and a centuries-old past that demonstrates that only through activism and dissent did slavery end, barriers against women and minorities fall, and the country reckon with its war in Vietnam and its discrimination against gays, lesbians and others.

This tension over what patriotism is and means is occurring at a time of fundamental change within a country that, as we have seen, would prefer that the world order not change fundamentally.

Here is one change: The Republicans, who until the Ronald Reagan years resisted identifying themselves with single political figures besides Abraham Lincoln (and he was president a century and a half ago), now are a party identified almost solely with a single figure, Trump. His support among GOP members is unassailable, and his power over Republican lawmakers is so great that he is acting less as a president (proposing legislation, allowing Congress to dispose of legislation) and more as a prime minister (a member of the executive branch giving instructions to the legislative branch, conquering the separation of powers even as he is about to secure GOP dominance of the judicial branch).

Here is another: Trump has reshaped the Republican Party as the protector of working Americans, not so much among farmers (where the GOP once was strongest) but among workers in mining and manufacturing (since 1933 the exclusive province of the Democratic heirs to Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

Another one: The Democrats -- who nominated three war heroes for president since 1960 but who became the leading skeptics of the military -- once again are turning to veterans to carry the party flag. This fall 26 of the Democratic challengers in House races, about a third of them women, are veterans.

One of those women candidates, M.J. Hegar, squares the circle on patriotism, personifying both traditional military service and a commitment to change. More than 2 million people have viewed a stirring campaign video that catapulted the candidate from Round Rock, Texas, to national prominence.

"This is a story about doors," she says in the video, speaking of the doors she passed through and the ones she spent time "opening, pushing, sometimes kicking through." A woman who both saluted traditional American values and who dissented from the status quo, Hegar -- she describes herself as an "Air Force combat pilot and a mom" -- was shot during an Afghanistan rescue mission and her helicopter crashed. She fired on the Taliban as she was evacuated from the scene and is only the second woman to win the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

And a final element of change that should trouble us all, no matter what patriotism we embrace: A new study by the George W. Bush Institute, the University of Pennsylvania's Biden Center and Freedom House -- groups not exactly alarmist in nature -- found that more than half of Americans see democracy as "weak," with more than two-thirds believing democracy is "getting weaker." These sentiments reflect a disturbing national unity, and a reason to mobilize patriots of all races, parties and ideologies.

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Gillian Titus,

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