Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
I went to a patriotic rally on Sunday. There was a lot of talk about flags, which were shown with great reverence. Military veterans were honored as heroes, due great respect. It was colorful and loud.
The rally had nothing to do with Trump. The event was a traditional Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe or Chippewa, Pow Wow, celebrated every year at the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in northwestern Wisconsin. The Honor the Earth Homecoming Pow Wow is the opposite of the “patriotic” rallies that Trump is holding as the beginning of his re-election campaign.
On the way to the site, signs were posted along the road urging everyone to think of themselves as unique and worthy persons. Inside, the focus was entirely on the celebration of Native American traditions, wisdom, and culture, without any hint of comparison to other cultures. Members of the local tribe were joined by tribes from across the region, each of whom could sing and drum their own songs. There were no enemies, just friends.
Ojibwe veterans from all service branches were named and honored for their service to the American nation and to the Ojibwe nation. But no weapons were displayed, except ceremonial versions of traditional hunting weapons displayed by brightly costumed dancers.
Politics was conspicuously absent, as was any complaint about how the Ojibwe and all other Native Americans have been treated by white settlers who invaded the lands they lived in and took them for their own. The only historical hint I heard from the announcer, who was also broadcasting over the reservation’s radio station WOJB, was his brief mention that the Anishinaabe had been defending their land for hundreds of years, long before the appearance of whites.
The messages of the Pow Wow were clear: “We are patriots. We love our land and our unique culture. We love America and have defended it in every war. We welcome and respect all Americans.”
Donald Trump’s rally in North Carolina, and his whole constant campaign about himself, send the opposite messages. “We are patriots, better patriots than you. We love America and therefore we hate you. Hating you is true patriotism.”
I find the implicit violence of the crowd in North Carolina to be just a few steps away from the real violence of the white supremacists in Charlottesville. What if a woman in a hijab had walked in front of that crowd as they chanted “Send her back”? That is the new Republican model of patriotism.
What could love of America mean? It could be love of the land, the amazing lands of our 50 states, encompassing beautiful vistas of mountains and lakes and prairies and desert that might be unmatched anywhere else. The Ojibwe love their land as a sacred trust from previous generations, the little bit that has been left to them after centuries of white encroachment. They wish to preserve it forever.
Love of America could be allegiance to the principles at the foundation of our political system. Those principles have not been consistently followed, and a truly democratic and egalitarian nation is still a dream to be realized, rather than a reality to be defended.
It could be reverence for American history, our unique national story of the creation of a new democracy by European immigrants and the evolution of the United States toward a more perfect union by embracing the lofty principles set forth in our founding documents. That story has many dark chapters, but we could say that American history is a narrative of overcoming – the struggle to overcome regional division, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, a struggle that may continue long into the future.
Love of America could be affection for Americans. I think of my own tendency to root for American athletes when they compete against athletes from other nations at the Olympics, the World Cup, or in tennis Grand Slams. Americans are incredibly diverse, and it is not easy to put into practice a love for all Americans, no matter ethnic, economic, educational, regional and personality differences. At the least, it should mean that one practices good will toward another American until proven wrong by inhumane behavior.
I don’t see any of these forms of love for America in contemporary conservative politics. Conservatives support digging up American land rather than preserving it and fight against every attempt to preserve clean water and air. They taunt conservation organizations who worry about global warming, deny the science of climate change, and oppose all efforts to prevent our own land and the whole globe from becoming less friendly to human habitation. The Trump campaign now sells Trump-branded plastic straws as a deliberate sneer at attempts to save ocean life from being overwhelmed by plastic. For today’s conservatives, American land is a source of financial exploitation: don’t love the land, love the money you can make from it.
Today’s conservatives, preceding and following Trump, don’t respect the democratic principles that America has at least tried to embody. From blatant gerrymandering to vote suppression to attacks on the free press to praise for dictators and criticism of foreign democracies, principles have been entirely replaced by temporary political advantage as the source of conservative action.
Conservatives hate American history, instead trying repeatedly to substitute myths for facts. They deny the historical realities of racism, the “patriotic” excesses of McCarthyism, the expropriation of Native American lands. They attack historians who simply do their job of uncovering evidence about how Americans behaved in the past, good and bad. And they celebrate some of the worst Americans: the Republican state government in Tennessee has now named July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day”, honoring the Confederate general who became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Conservatives don’t like most Americans. Again led by Trump, and operating as his megaphone, Republican politicians attack Democrats as enemies of America, despite that fact that Democrats represent the majority of American voters.
I didn’t see any Trump hats at the Ojibwe Pow Wow, and I doubt that any Native Americans cheered for Trump in North Carolina. These very different rallies represent opposing ideas about patriotism and America. In my opinion, one expresses a beautiful vision of land and people that has stood for America for hundreds of years. The other is an incoherent reverence for a cult figure of dubious value.
I never liked cults.