A few days after the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center, I received a chain email that read ‘All Americans wear RED, WHITE and BLUE today.’ The email told its readers to pass this message on to ‘ten other Americans.’ In other words, members of the same club. It concluded with ‘Let’s unite against terrorists. GOD BLESS AMERICA.’ I coiled up in my revulsion and wondered if there were any way I could take the ‘dual’ out of my dual citizenship, cut my elongated vowels and just be British. I then braced myself for a round of nauseating American patriotism.
Over the years, I’ve run into non-Americans who assume that if someone is American, they are by definition patriotic. Not true. There’s something about American patriotism that has always gotten under my skin. Having spent most of my adult life outside of the US, I’ve clung to only a portion of my youth – the unpatriotic portion. I was growing up when the Vietnam war and television characters like Archie Bunker made patriotism look foolhardy and ‘uncool.’ Certainly, other Americans grew up at this time – this awkward border between baby boomers and x-ers – but many of them seemed to have shaken off this brief trend of embarrassment at being American, this blip in American history.
Of course, my contemporaries were helped back into patriotism by the usual culprits, the US media and public relations firms. I recall in 1979 when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, marketers had discovered that patriotism could sell. Then, it was through advertising that ideas and trends gained their currency in America. The Pepsi ads that ran during the Iran-hostage crisis had pop stars singing about Pepsi as being ‘the American way’ while dancing in a sea of red, white and blue. Now, of course, this fervour is drummed up largely on social media.
Most of this patriotism has been harmless, but it does have an ugly side. I first experienced this nearly 30 years ago. I found myself in the States in 1990 just as the first Gulf War was starting. I strongly opposed US involvement and felt that the escapade was a set up to use the stockpile of arms left by President Reagan and to help his successor G.H. Bush overcome his image as a wimp. One morning, I stopped by my local convenience store in Boston to pick up a newspaper. When I was handed my change, the cashier held out a little foot-high American flag and said, ‘Here, Ma’am.’ The last thing I wanted was an American flag. What was I going to do with it? Wave it around like a cheerleader, promoting a country I was embarrassed to be from at a time when it was policing the world to the resentment of millions? Being polite, I simply said, ‘No thank you.’ I saw her mouth hang open and her eyes roll in disgust as I turned away to walk towards the door. I heard the cashier spit out the word, ‘Bitch.’ I knew it was meant for me, but I pretended that it was for someone else or that I hadn’t heard it. This stranger’s hostility shook me to the core.
Since then when the topic of American patriotism came up and someone would comment about my lack of it, I would give them one of two responses. One – I would remind them of Samuel Johnson, who once called patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ Or two – I would confess to experiencing patriotic moments, such as when the American hockey team beat the Canadians at the winter Olympics or when Obama give his acceptance speech in Chicago on the night of his first presidential election. Honestly, goosebumps.
Flash forward to 2016. Donald Trump is running for president and he is gaining support. And this is not a joke. The people who support him are mostly the flag-waving, intensely patriotic Americans who seem to be the stuff of satire. Supporters of Trump’s opponents will wave flags at rallies, but are otherwise more subdued in their patriotism.
Throughout this presidential campaign, Trump spewed out racist, intolerant and misogynistic attacks – and gained patriotic supporters. Now here’s the strange thing – given my history with American patriotism, you would expect me to roll my eyes, get angry at the television and computer screen and feel even more alienated from American patriotism than ever. But that didn’t happen. Trump has injected poison into America. He’s ruining it. In doing so, he has reminded me of the many good things America stands for – even if it doesn’t always get it right. Things like liberalism and democracy. Like many Americans, I find myself feeling protective and perhaps even patriotic over the country of my birth. Perhaps I have finally fallen into the grips of patriotism – the kind of patriotism that happens at a time of war when you don’t want to see your country destroyed. But, frightfully, in this war, the enemy is within.