The one-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington offers an opportunity to remember not just that unprecedented and shocking event, but the echoes throughout the year that followed. Another striking event took place last January that would also echo into the remainder of 2021: the Martin Luther King Jr. Day release of President Trump’s 1776 Advisory Commission’s Final Report on American historical education, a document that attacked educators for presenting an insufficiently positive perspective on America’s revolution, founding, and ideals.
Both of these events have something in common: prominent narratives of a very particular form of patriotism, as illustrated by a pair of telling quotes. In Andrew McCormick’s January 7th Nation article on the insurrection, one of its participants is quoted as saying, when the police begin to fire tear gas into the crowd, “This is not America…They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM [Black Lives Matter], but they’re shooting the patriots.” And the 1776 Report defines its mission as “restoring patriotic education that teaches the truth about America,” in opposition to educators who “generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.”
These statements embody what I would call mythic patriotism, the most divisive and destructive of the four types of patriotism I discuss in my book Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism (2021; the book’s other three types, all in their own ways more positive, are celebratory, active, and critical). As I define it, mythic patriotism is a form of patriotism that creates and celebrates a mythologized, white supremacist vision of American history and identity, and which uses that vision of the nation not only to exclude those American communities and cultures that are not part of that myth, but also to attack as unpatriotic and even un-American those Americans who are not willing to uncritically celebrate that myth.
If we examine one particular century-old moment when mythic patriotism was most central to American politics and society, we can see many of the same divisive and destructive elements that were embodied by these January 2021 events. One particularly prominent such element is a belief that American ideals and identity are under attack from unpatriotic forces against which all patriotic Americans must fight back. In his December 1915 State of the Union address, President Woodrow Wilson expressed that belief clearly, arguing that “There are citizens of the United States, … born under other flags but welcome under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life” and “urging [Congress] to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation” by passing laws to counter these threats.