It’s July 4 weekend, and we’re all watching the fireworks together: my partner and I, and a few hundred strangers. And it occurs to me: What I love about America is not what the loudest America-lovers love. In fact, I have a sense that it’s the opposite.
I love the threads of American multiculturalism, the promises that it sets forth – and can’t keep – of an identity constituted not by race or religion but by allegiance to certain ideals, among them social equality, freedom to do what you want if you’re not harming others, and the rule of law. Like all ideals, these have not yet been attained. But they measure our shortfall; they tell us where to navigate.
This is why it is impossible to ‘make America great again.’
The greatness of America lies in its promise of a better future, a future closer to its own ideals. We have progressed unevenly in the direction of greatness, but the overall trajectory is unmistakable. In the past lie only lesser iterations of this greatness, with promises broken to Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, women, LGBTs.
Donald Trump’s white supremacist supporters despise these groups – including Jews – because they see, correctly, how the hegemony of white protestant men has decreased as the voices of everyone else have been amplified. Where they err is in deeming this change a diminution in America’s greatness, rather than a hesitant step toward it.
Their America is a place of their own cultural primacy. But the great America is a place where there is no cultural primacy.
When the fireworks explode, I am celebrating religious liberty, which enabled my Jewish ancestors to settle here and maintain their identities – not the Christian Nation. When the kids behind me are shouting with joy, I am celebrating their diverse accents and appearances – not resenting them. When we honor those who have given their lives for this country, I honor their sacrifices and resolve never to support the needless loss of life.
Is this patriotism?
Moral psychologists point out that liberals like me tend to value norms of freedom, fairness, and equality more than norms of group identity, authority, and loyalty. That means that liberals tend not to be “patriots” when patriotism is defined as waving the flag, chanting “my country right or wrong,” or believing that America’s greatness has anything to do with its previously dominant language, ethnicity, or culture. On the contrary, these markers of identity that supposedly sort real Americans from everyone else are the opposite of what makes America great.
But progressive patriotism is still patriotism. In the long tradition of American dissidents, I see resistance as patriotic, because it demands that our country live up to its values. The war protester is a patriot; the Occupy activist is a patriot. America is not a football team, and its fans are not the ones who cheer the loudest. Real patriotism is a belief in the possibility of American ideals becoming real.
To make America great, Americans need to end white supremacy; to ensure equality of opportunity; to be courageous, rather than cowardly, in the face of global climate disruption; to fight out of necessity, not out of bluster. To make America great, we must curtail gun violence; dismantle institutional racism; educate our children to be thoughtful citizens. To make America great, right-thinking Americans must fight against the ignorance, anger, prejudice, fear, bluster, and vulgarity that forms the core of Trump’s campaign.
Progressives need to reclaim this patriotism as patriotism, rather than allow the party of nativism, militarism, and vulgarity to own the term. The risk is great.
It is foolish to pretend that our country cannot go the way of Great Britain and allow our loudest “patriots” to destroy it. It can happen here. We have no idea how many people support Mr. Trump but are (rightly) too ashamed to say so. Hillary Clinton is unpopular, both deservedly and undeservedly. Trump could win. From the grass roots up, we need to articulate not just what is broken in our society but also what we love about it – even if that love has yet to be earned. The Trump campaign is built on the rage of a white working class that has been left behind by globalization’s economic shifts, and left behind by demographic changes here at home. That rage, and the fear buried beneath it, is a potent political force.
It doesn’t matter that Trump is ridiculous, stupid, sexist, xenophobic, ignorant, dangerous, dishonest, and inconsistent. What matters, as with the Brexit’s backers, is that he has tapped into the darkest, meanest sides of human nature – vengeful, spiteful, ethnocentric, anti-intellectual, adolescent.
It will not be enough to point out how he doesn’t know Syria from the Sudan, or how his bogus university was a Ponzi scheme.
His hard-core supporters don’t care about any of that, and the people on the fence about him seem not to either. They care about the lingering sense that America has gone off the rails, that “politicians” are the problem, and that it’s worth trying an alternative, any alternative.
These voters love a certain America – the fictive America of The Gipper, Main Street, and apple pie, never mind the details, or who was pushed out of the picture frame. And that fictive country seems quite distant from Barack Hussein Obama, sushi, and Starbucks.
The alternative cannot be the anodyne cosmopolitanism of the European Union or the preposterous, post-everything worlds that billionaire narcissists blather on about at their pointless Idea Festivals.
Rather, progressives need to be American patriots too. We need to wave the flag in order to save it.
Besides, our America is worth celebrating. It is the home of Sojourner Truth and Harvey Milk, Samuel Gompers and the late Elie Wiesel. It is a place, and an idea, still in formation: the possibility of a more perfect union, one in continual, if uneven, evolution. Yes, America has profound flaws – racism, militarism, hyper-capitalism, jingoism, cultural imperialism – but we can see those flaws because of the light of America’s profound greatness, its unmet promises of justice, law, freedom, pluralism, and equality. We must not let the past steal the future from us.