Eugene Robinson Wraps Himself in the Flag

The Post columnist shows us how to meet the Republican idea of patriotism head on.

Eugene Robinson took aim at a familiar trope: “Progressives have to speak to those left behind by wrenching economic and social change. But our voices are as authentic, and as worthy, as anyone else’s. I am a real American, too. Deal with it.” (My italics.) The Post columnist argued that “real Americans” is bunk, and the Republicans should be ashamed on themselves for questioning the legitimacy of those they deem “unreal.”

Sadly, Robinson does not place the rhetoric of “real Americans” in the larger social context of ingenious political messaging that has, for the last 40 or so years, signaled to key voting constituencies that the Republican Party is the party of white people protecting the interests of white people. Oddly, for a pundit of Robinson’s consequence, he suggests that this trend began with President Trump: “Trump cleverly uses cultural, racial and geographic markers to define who is ‘real’ and who is not. And the Republican Party, to its eternal shame, has decided to go along.”

It’s the other way around, in fact, and I know Robinson knows this. The long arc of “dog-whistle politics,” as liberals often call it, is decades old. I’m guessing he was preoccupied by his deadline. (I know the feeling!) For my purposes, let’s connect “real Americans” to a couple of big ideas. One is that the Republican Party has been very successful in exploiting ordinary feelings of patriotism for partisan gain.

I’m not the first to suggest that George W. Bush and strategist Karl Rove conflated partisan interests and patriotism so seamlessly between 2001-2006 that for many voters “Republican” became synonymous with “real Americans.” The trend continued during the white backlash of the Obama years. “Real American” signaled opposition to the first black president. It spoke to feelings of betrayal, that the US broke a promise to bar nonwhites from the halls of power. During this period, we grew accustomed to seeing Republican campaign placards exhorting us to “Take Our Country Back.”

All of this was bunk, pure bunk, of course, as equally fictitious as saying city-dwelling coastal liberal elites, whoever they are, are somehow less legitimate in their political preferences than “real Americans.” Not only that: it was racist to the core.

That brings me to today’s other big idea. This trend—in which “Republican” is more or less a byword for “real American”—went unchallenged.

To be sure, plenty of people (myself included) have argued that “real American” is code for white people (as “San Francisco” is code for gay and “New York” is code for Jew). While such critiques are necessary, I think they’re insufficient. They take a moral position when they should also take a patriotic one in order to advance political goals.

For decades, liberals and leftists tied themselves into knots over the meaning of patriotism. I’m actually understating the case. According to the late Richard Rorty:

“The Marxist claim that the system isn’t reformable came together with the widespread post-Watergate feeling that the American government is hopelessly corrupt. This made it very difficult for leftists to think of themselves as American patriots, hoping to achieve their country. … Before the ’60s, wrapping yourself in the flag when you did leftist politics was as natural as breathing. But that became unnatural after the ’60s.”

Some liberals and leftists still argue that patriotism is another word for militarism (or worse, imperialism). That argument, however, accepts as true a conservative understanding of patriotism. Over the years, as liberals and leftists abandoned talking about it, for fear of being identified as militarist (or Republican!), they left the field open to conservatives free to redefine the meaning of “real American.”

True, liberals and leftists had a moral retort—that such claims to the flag were racist to the core—but they did not have a patriotic response, thus missing an opportunity to advance a liberal political agenda in ways that speak for all Americans.

Robinson is regrettably wrong in saying Trump was the beginning of this trend, but he is right in taking this debate a constructive direction. He not only blasts “real Americans” as fake but points to himself—and the pluralist values he represents—as an example of a rainbow of views, ideals and principles that make up America.

In saying I am a real American, too, Robinson met the opposition head on. He made something exclusive inclusive, something conservative liberal, and in doing so, he showed us how wrapping ourselves in the flag can be as natural as breathing.


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