The debate over whether or not Donald Trump “respects the troops” would be less intolerable if its interlocutors stopped relying on appeals to patriotism. Myeisha Johnson, the widow of a fallen soldier, asserted that Trump was callous in his condolence call to her. In response to the allegations, Chief of Staff John Kelly denied that Pres. Trump had spoken callously and explained that the accusations only came about because Americans no longer thought of “women,” “Gold Star families,” and “religion” as sacred.
Firstly, a man who works for Pres. Donald Trump should not be levying accusations that others do not consider women “sacred.” Secondly, Kelly should take up his grievance about religion with the Founding Fathers, who provided Americans with the right to criticize anything, including religion, with the First Amendment. Thirdly, the President used Captain Humayun Khan’s death to rail against “radical Islamist terrorists who killed him and the attempts by such people to enter the United States”. John Kelly cannot honestly expect anyone to think the man for whom he works does not use sacred subjects, including Gold Star families, as the mud for his slinging. Kelly said he was so shocked by the politicizing of Trump’s condolence call that “the only thing [he] could do to collect [his] thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth … in Arlington National Cemetery”. This is an emotional appeal that does not refute any of the allegations made about Pres. Trump’s improprieties. John Kelly and the rest of America should stop using patriotism to bolster their flimsy arguments.
The view is no prettier on the other side of the political spectrum. Keith Olbermann said that John Kelly and Sarah Huckabee Sanders should resign for defending Donald Trump’s “disgusting disrespect for this nation’s flag”. Olbermann rose to fame as a sports journalist, but now works mostly on his GQ web series “The Resistance.” Every single episode of “The Resistance,” and there are almost 150 of them, is devoted entirely to lampooning Pres. Trump and his administration. It is childish to call for the end of Sanders’s and Kelly’s careers over this scuffle with Myeisha Johnson, and it is even more childish of Olbermann to disguise his vitriol with patriotism. Olbermann and Kelly both used patriotism in malformed attempts to criticize political opponents. They both proved that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.
There is nothing wrong with harboring a personal respect for the country, the flag or American soldiers. However, this respect is not substantive in political debate and it should not be allowed to serve as justification for attacks on basic freedoms. There are many government functionaries, including the current President, who say they would like to make it illegal to burn the American flag. Those who feel insulted when they see a flag burned have every right to feel as they do, but being personally insulted by a political statement is not sufficient grounds for making that statement into a crime. The worst that can be said of flag-burning is that it is disrespectful. Perhaps, it is disrespectful. But it is not the business of the United States government to outlaw political expressions for being disrespectful.
Pres. Trump would love to regulate political expression. This fact can be gleaned from his recommendation that flag-burners be stripped of their citizenship and his use of the bully pulpit to recommend that the NFL “fire or suspend” players who kneel during the national anthem. Are Americans expected to believe that their Commander-in-Chief, who happily turned the five years a war hero spent being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison camp into a cheap political barb, has the authority to accuse others of disrespecting “Flag & Country”? The better question is, why do so many pundits and politicians, from Olbermann to Kelly to Trump, rely on patriotism when exculpating themselves, criticizing an opponent or advocating for an abridgement of Constitutional rights? The answer is simple: Patriotism is a way for people to cloak their sectarian interests with something resembling a virtue.
Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.