Flag grope at CPAC 2020 (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, in 1940, an organization called the America First Committee was founded in opposition to both broad and ambitious domestic policies designed to pull Americans out of the Great Depression and foreign policies to confront the threat of fascism in Europe and Asia.

Before the rise of the MAGA faithful, the Firsters built upon a long American tradition of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nationalism. In the turbulent decades before the American Civil War, a secretive fraternal organization called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner grew into the moderately successful American Party. Instead of a ban on Muslim immigrants, the American Party reacted to a perceived threat of Catholic immigrants as harbingers of Papal domination over American sovereignty.

Long before the phrase “cancel culture” entered our political vocabulary, an American Party manifesto of sorts was published in 1856 by Thomas R. Whitney titled A Defence of the American Policy, as opposed to the encroachments of foreign influence, and especially to the interference of the papacy in the political interests and affairs of the United States. From its cultic origins, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner developed initiation rites, passwords, hand signs and, when asked anything about the Order by outsiders, members were compelled to reply “we know nothing.” The name stuck and the American Party would go down in political history as the Know Nothing Party.

With its various attachments to complicated and often-enough contradictory Enlightenment principles as liberty, equality and fraternity, American patriotism is difficult to pin down. Liberty has come to prioritize the individual over the collective and the Republican Party has masterfully tapped into that notion with tremendous success, moving past the historical appeal to the equality of Lincoln’s “government of the people, for the people and by the people” to Reagan’s “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” As a result, it has grown much too easy and effective to win over a bloc of the electorate by sticking a flag pin in your lapel, whining about taxes and regulatory oversight, demonizing immigration and loudly resenting the expansion of civil rights and opportunities for whole groups of our fellow Americans.

When Donald Trump descended his escalator in Trump Tower to deliver that speech kicking off his presidential campaign in the summer of 2015, after characterizing immigrants from Mexico as criminals and rapists, he said “We have a disaster called the big lie: Obamacare. Obamacare,” he repeated, referring to the same Affordable Care Act that Consumer Reports would give a large portion of credit for a fifty percent reduction in personal bankruptcies since its implementation.

“And it’s going to get worse,” Trump insisted, “because remember, Obamacare really kicks in in ’16, 2016. Obama is going to be out playing golf. He might be on one of my courses. I would invite him, I actually would say. I have the best courses in the world, so I’d say, you what, if he wants to — I have one right next to the White House, right on the Potomac. If he’d like to play, that’s fine.” It was all fun and games, just five years ago.

“From this day forward,” President Trump promised in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, “it’s going to be only America first. America first.” But once the limits on who is and who isn’t a real American have been established, “America First” can pass for patriotism while striking the freaky and scary and otherwise traditionally marginalized Americans from righteous American society. By now we are getting used to seeing militarized federal agents deployed to American cities with long running Black Lives Matter demonstrations, even after Trump rallied armed predominantly white protesters against their states’ pandemic response policies with tweets like “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!.”

Shortly after his removal as a Trump White House advisor, Trump 2016 campaign CEO Steve Bannon traveled to Europe touring right wing anti-European Union parties. “Let them call you racist,” Bannon spoke before French fascist Marine LePen’s National Front on March 10, 2018. “Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor.” Bannon sung the praises of a pan-national fascist movement and won its applause with accolades, like “you’re part of a worldwide movement, that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary — bigger than all of it. And history is on our side.”

During the Republican National Convention, before Bannon led the Trump campaign, he was the CEO of Breitbart Media. In an interview during the convention, before he succeeded Paul Manafort as CEO of the Trump campaign, Bannon told Sarah Posner in an interview for Mother Jones magazine that “We’re the platform for the alt-right.” As such, when Trump faced questions about his relationship with Bannon following the fatal 2017 Unite The Right rally that focused its grievances on the protection of a controversial statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump offered one of his now familiar compulsive rambling obfuscations, describing Bannon as “a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that,” before adding, “but we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.” Three days later, seven months into Trump’s term, Bannon was dismissed.

Upon Trump’s inauguration, Bannon had told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” of Trump’s inaugural address, also known as the American Carnage speech, referencing the President Jackson who ethnically cleansed the South of its Cherokee population and forced them to what is now Oklahoma on the historic Trail of Tears. “It’s got a deep root of patriotism,” Bannon added.

When Barack Obama was running for the Democratic nomination in 2008, superficial displays of symbolic patriotism metastasized into a real campaign issue, articulated by a voter in a video question and amplified by ABC News moderator Charles Gibson during a debate in Philadelphia, asking “I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don’t.’’ Gibson even felt compelled to expand on the voter’s concern with his own angle.

“It comes up again and again when we talk to voters. And, as you may know, it is all over the Internet. And it’s something of a theme that Sens. Clinton and McCain’s advisers agree could give you a major vulnerability if you’re the candidate in November. How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability?’’

“There’s no other country in which my story is even possible,” Obama replied. “Somebody who was born to a teenage mom, raised by a single mother and grandparents from small towns in Kansas, you know, who was able to get an education and rise to the point where I can run for the highest office in the land, I could not help but love this country for all that it’s given me. And so, what I’ve tried to do is to show my patriotism by how I treat veterans when I’m working in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee,” and other matters of public policy that promote the general welfare. “Talking about how we need to restore a sense of economic fairness to this country,” he continued, “because that’s what this country has always been about, is providing upward mobility and ladders to opportunity for all Americans.”

Back in February of 2011, Donald Trump gave a speech at the CPAC convention, the same annual event where, returning years later as president, he would introduce his signature flag grope. Trump made a little noise about entering the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination but also raised the issue of President Obama’s legitimacy to serve in the office by questioning the authenticity of his birth certificate. “Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere,” he lied. “In fact, I’ll go a step further: The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.” In a glaring example of “cancel culture” before we even had that name for it, Trump went all in on the question, not only of President Obama’s qualification for office but on whether the president was even American at all.

“And let me just make one last point on this issue of the flag pin,’’ candidate Obama said back in Philadelphia. “This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I’m commander-in-chief, which is going to be figuring out how we get our troops out of Iraq and how we actually make our economy better for the American people… to beat back these distractions.”

From time to time, enough American voters have understood enough about America to know that politically correct flag pin patriotism is a distraction and is really no kind of patriotism at all.

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