Trump confuses nationalism with patriotism. We shouldn't.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

As it turned out, Memorial Day came and went without President Trump deciding to pardon a bunch of soldiers convicted or accused of horrifying war crimes by the U.S. military, which is something he apparently wants to do, despite the objections of every credible leader in uniform. (Here’s a very good overview, from the blog Lawfare, of what this means.)

Maybe Trump, traveling in Asia over the holiday weekend, was just too busy siding with Kim Jong Un over his own intelligence experts to sign any pardons. Or maybe he was having too much fun ganging up with the self-proclaimed demigod of North Korea in mocking a former vice president of the United States.

Or perhaps Trump has just decided to wait until the July 4 holiday, which he intends to rebrand this year as Trump Independence Day. The president is pushing to deliver a nationally televised address — more like a campaign rally with military flourishes — from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, displacing the usual fireworks with a display of flammable oratory.

To me, Trump’s grand plan for the Fourth provokes some deeper questions about what it means to be patriotic in the Trump era. Specifically, it gets to the issue of whether we think the country’s greatness arises from a common culture, on one hand, or from the principles that underlie our government on the other.

That Trump’s design hinges on the Lincoln Memorial is not a small thing. For almost a century, that hallowed space on the western edge of the Mall has acted as a kind of national town hall, a symbol of our commitment to free expression and peaceful dissent. It’s where the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s came to be heard.

The words of Lincoln’s brilliant second inaugural address, chiseled into the walls (along with the Gettysburg Address), reaffirm the basic choice of an American union over more parochial allegiances. The disagreements Lincoln revisited in that speech, in unsparing terms, were profound, and yet the phrases we remember best are “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

American presidents have been careful about treading on this turf, and other sacred spaces like it. When Richard Nixon found himself debating a group of Vietnam protesters under Lincoln’s eerie gaze in the spring of 1970, it wasn’t because he’d come there with cameras in tow to make a point, but rather to quietly reflect, alone, in the middle of the night.

Barack Obama spoke at the memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal speech there, which seemed appropriate for the first black president. In other circumstances, though, our presidents have decided that using national shrines for political theater is what despots do.

Without exception, these presidents defined patriotism not as devotion to them or to any one segment of the society, but rather to a series of principles — tolerance, free expression, blind justice — that exist outside the political sphere. They haven’t always interpreted that code in a way that history would honor (and this is just as true for Franklin Roosevelt as for George W. Bush), but it’s fair to say they aspired to it.

Now comes Trump, marching up the steps of the memorial — assuming he gets his way — to a very different drumbeat. To Trump, and to his most ardent lackeys, America’s greatness lies in a shared cultural identity. And all of this other stuff, about tolerance and free expression and whatnot, is just a bunch of ideas that the educated elite have used to distort and obscure that commonality.

To Trump, the self-evident truths laid out in the Declaration of Independence are no longer the solid foundation of American greatness; they’ve been stretched so far that they’re cracking the cement. To him, a nation lost in the technicalities of law has forgotten how to be a nation with a recognized culture and language and social hierarchy.

And so Trump bullies judges, mocks congressional authority, slams the door on immigrants (legal and illegal). He would put murdering soldiers above the law, as long as they didn’t murder Americans, and change the libel laws to shut down dissent.

He sides with lying despots against his leading analysts and our longest-serving politicians. He has no use for a governing class that chooses the sterility of law over the visceral pull of tribalism.

We’re not the only ones confronting this kind of nationalism masquerading as patriotism. All over Europe, too, and in other parts of the world, societies have been reacting to the twin threats of globalism and terrorism with a kind of ethnic retrenching.

But we’re the only country that was founded in opposition to this idea — that has, from the very beginning, defined patriotism expressly as fealty to a series of principles, rather than to a monarch or a common identity.

Trump’s attempt to reverse that formulation is stunning, and his doing it in Lincoln’s shadow, on America’s birthday, would mark another Trumpian milestone.

You might think some of Washington’s leading Republicans would speak up against the plan. (Or at least you might think so if you hadn’t been living in the country for the last few years.) After all, they’re the ones who waved the flag of patriotism for decades when they thought it meant chiefly supporting the military.

But having lost control of their party and fearing for their seats, governing Republicans seem to have decided that it’s better to be quiet and wait for Trump’s time to pass, because eventually things will get back to normal.

They’re not big history readers, these Republicans.

Some inside the administration have apparently raised concerns about the cost and logistics of Trump’s July 4 blowout, which may be a way of saying they think it’s just plain unwise. Democrats, of course, are appalled by the idea of a rallying cry to the nation, complete with military trappings, which they think harks back to old newsreels of Mussolini.

On balance, though, unseemly as it is, I really don’t mind Trump doing his nationalist strongman act at the memorial, and that’s because I still have faith that Lincoln’s vision will prevail.

At bottom, despite a very loud minority, I really don’t think most Americans buy the argument that our greatness lies more in our cultural history than in our Constitution. If they did, they wouldn’t have elected Obama twice, and they wouldn’t have slammed Trump’s party in the last midterm elections.

Confronted by the image of an American president using our most revered space and our military to champion nationalism and berate critics, a lot of Americans, I think, will recoil. Faced ultimately with a choice between patriotism as Lincoln defined it, or patriotism defined as loyalty to Trump and his movement, American voters will see through the histrionics.

If they don’t, then I guess the words on that memorial have already lost a lot of their meaning, with or without the fireworks.


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