Washington • Because reality in 2018 is indistinguishable from ham-handed parody, here is what happened this week.
Only a few of the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles were going to show up at the White House to meet the president, so the White House emitted a Very Strongly Worded Statement saying that the Eagles had been disinvited because they were not willing to respect the national anthem. No, the statement said, the president could not bear to see the flag and the troops and this amber-grain-waving land so sorely disrespected, so therefore they would be having an afternoon of patriotic singing and troop saluting with no Philadelphia Eagles whatsoever, just regular eagles, if any were available, that fans of the sports franchise (or White House staff) would be free to attend (whichever filled the venue in a lifelike manner first).
And then what happened? If you guessed “they had an afternoon whose only purpose was to showcase the president’s sterling and remarkable patriotism, which was far, far better than any Philadelphia Eagle could hope to have, in which they sang ‘God Bless America’ and President Trump did not seem to remember all the words,” you would be correct.
The incident poses the same problem as most Trump-era incidents, in which what actually occurred is more ridiculous than anything you could liken it to. This is more palpably absurd than if the president had decided to declare Tuesday Good Speling day. It is like if the first lady decided that her pet issue would be stopping people from being mean to other people online. No, it is like if the president had a special event expressly to exhibit what True Patriots Singing looked like and failed to sing some of the words to “God Bless America,” a song with 47 words, nine of which are just “God bless America” repeated three times.
But what is patriotism, anyway? Is it a genuine love for country, a belief in its ideals even at personal cost, a desire to honor those who have sacrificed to keep it safe, a willingness to help it move closer to its ideals? Or is it weaponizing the symbols of your country in order to trample over human beings, and becoming very, very upset whenever a black athlete engages in political speech? Is there anything more patriotic than insisting that you, the president, can pardon yourself (but, of course, have nothing to pardon)?
As the song goes, America. America. Something something.
Donald Trump is America’s biggest fake fan. He doesn’t know any of the hits (“Lincoln ... he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time”; “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more”), but he owns all of the gear.
His is the patriotism of valorizing empty forms of devotion, mouth-honor, military bands and bunting. It’s swaddling yourself in the flag and trying to get a tank to drive down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s crying “America” whenever anyone criticizes something that is not America — our legacy of racism, or the Trump presidency.
Trump’s patriotism is making fine distinctions for some and not for others. Trump is not calling all immigrants “animals.” Surely not! But an athlete who protests during the anthem is doing so because he hates America, full stop, and fails to respect the troops. President Barack Obama has to show literally 8,000 birth certificates printed in triplicate and signed by George Washington himself, but Trump can stand in front of a memorial to the CIA’s honored dead and boast about his electoral college victory, or insult Gold Star families, and — well, his patriotism goes without saying.
Trump’s patriotism is the pernicious notion of America as something distinct from the people and the ideas that compose it, the notion that the symbols themselves are inherently worthy of honor whether or not they stand for anything. It’s a self-serving and haphazard allegiance to the empty idea of allegiance, while the people in charge run roughshod over the ideals the flag is really supposed to be about and impose ever more ridiculous tests of devotion on those who are not Like Them. It is this America that is going to be made Great again that is nothing like the actual America, if you’ve bothered to do the reading.
Trump’s patriotism is remembering the tune but not the words.
God bless America, land that I love (animals, build the wall, lock her up), from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam! God bless America, my home sweet home. God bless America, hmm hmm, hmmm. Hm.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.” Twitter, @petridishes