BY JOE CONASON
Americans marked this Independence Day with family, food and fireworks as we always do – and yet for many of us, these celebrations now occur under a shadow of doubt. Not doubt about the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but the officials sworn to uphold them in Washington, starting with Donald J. Trump.
The most recent Gallup poll reveals a record decline in the number of fellow citizens who say they feel proud of our country, a dispiriting statistic that can only be attributed to the inimical performance of Trump as he dismantles our traditions, violates our laws, disdains our customs, divides us from each other and our allies, and shames us before the world.
Trump’s ignorance of constitutional principles is so glaring that former judge Andrew Napolitano, the very conservative senior legal analyst on Fox News, has denounced his authoritarian thrust. His government of kleptocrats and nepotistic appointments more closely resembles a corrupt 18thCentury court than a modern democratic government. His foreign policy, destructive of American principles, alliances and prestige, often appears to serve the interests of a hostile foreign power rather than our own.
And perhaps worst of all, along with his sons and political associates, he has promoted the very worst elements in American politics: the white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and every category of bigot, all echoing “Make America Great Again.” Of course, neither Trump nor his lackeys on the far right can fulfill that promise [although their immediate departure from public life would help].
Everyone who has studied history knows that right-wing extremists always insist on their supreme patriotism – even when they are consciously committing treason. During the years that preceded our entry into World War II, the Nazi agents working to foster hatred and protect Hitler were constantly parading around with swastikas and American flags. We saw the same revolting spectacle last year in Charlottesville, VA, when neo-Nazi gangs defiled the flag again.
Such fascist elements are not alone in seeking to monopolize the symbols of patriotism. Many Republican “conservatives” – who too often enable the most unsavory and bigoted figures in their party – will likewise claim to be the only true patriots.
So every Fourth of July, in memory of my veteran father, I remind myself why that assertion rings so hollow.
We don’t need to imitate the exclusionary style of the right; we need only insist that liberals and progressives are equally entitled to share in the nation’s heritage – and far more entitled than Trump’s friends on the far right. In honor of this national holiday, the place to begin this argument is at the official beginning, with the first Independence Day.
While right and left were not yet the categories that defined politics back then, there can be little doubt that freethinking radicals as well as lauded elites were behind the Revolution, and especially the writing of the Declaration of Independence. More than a few, notably Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, were uncompromising opponents of aristocracy – an attitude that sometimes troubled their wealthier comrades. But George Washington himself ordered Continental Army officers to read the eloquent immigrant’s pamphlets to his troops.
On the “right” were the Tories – colonists who feared change and bowed to the British crown while assisting the occupying army of George III. They were not regarded as patriots, to put it mildly.
The next great historic test was the Civil War, another struggle between the left and right, or between patriots and a conspiracy of traitors, as the leaders of the Confederacy were deemed at the time. Whatever economic interests may have motivated hostility between North and South, the movement on the left to abolish slavery and preserve the Union confronted a conservative aristocracy that fought to preserve slavery and dissolve the nation in disgrace. Today the Confederate legacy is mainly an obsession of Southern politicians like Roy Moore, as well as neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other extremists [who despise Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party].
The first global confrontation between democracy and dictatorship tested American patriotism again. Eighty years before Trump adopted “America First,” it was Hitler’s witting and unwitting allies in the United States who adopted that xenophobic slogan. Costumed in red, white and blue, the America First movement became a powerful instrument for foreign agents plotting against the United States. Is that tragic history repeating itself now as farce?
As we observe the founding of this country, we can only renew our vigilance, and our commitment to vindicate the ideals that truly make America great – even under a government that dishonors them every day.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer