Monday, October 16, 2017

Trump and de Tocqueville: America's Battle Between Two Types of Patriotism

 by Nomad

Patriotism and What it Means

In 1831, the French diplomat, political scientist, and historian Alexis de Tocqueville made an excellent observation about patriotism in his masterwork "Democracy in AmericaDemocracy in America."

Strictly speaking, the term, patriotism means an attachment to a homeland. The word "patriotism" is derived from the Greek word πατρίς (patris), meaning 'fatherland.'
And with that comes all the loose connotations of a patriarchal system, defined as "a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authoritysocial privilege and control of property."  Historically, the term patriarchy was used to refer to autocratic rule.

Interestingly, the abstract noun patriotism is a relatively recent word and appears only in the early 18th century, roughly coinciding with the rise of nationalism which placed one's own nation's interest over those of all other nations.

According to the dictionary, the exaggerated form of patriotism in the defense of a nation is called chauvinism, otherwise defined as "an irrational belief in the superiority or dominance of one's own group or people." The chauvinist's own people are seen as unique and special while the rest of the people are considered weak or inferior.
Interestingly, given the surplus amount of patriotism floating around, it's strange that this concept of chauvinism is not better known.
Then again, perhaps it's not all that strange.

De Tocqueville's Distinctions

In de Tocqueville's book, the author noted that there were, in fact, two kinds of patriotism.
One form of patriotism rises from an "instinctive, disinterested, and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace."
This natural fondness is united to a taste for ancient customs, and to a reverence for ancestral traditions of the past; those who cherish it love their country as they love the mansions of their fathers. They enjoy the tranquillity which it affords them; they cling to the peaceful habits which they have contracted within its bosom; they are attached to the reminiscences which it awakens, and they are even pleased by the state of obedience in which they are placed.
By this description, this must be the patriotism of the conservative mind and for those that cling to a past, even when that past is largely idealized or imaginary.

In modern America, it usually exemplified by the idea of taking America back to a better time or a time when the American was the sole unchallengeable power.


It was, de Tocqueville said, a feeling very similar to religious fervor which does not require reasoning, but "acts from the impulse of faith and of sentiment." 
Like religious fervor, this type of patriotism also relies strongly on the endowment of meaning to symbols. The similarities are so undeniable that a few Christian bloggers have claimed, this kind of patriotism amounts a type of dangerous idolatry. That's why Jehovah Witnesses took their case to the Supreme Court back in the 1930s.
In a recent article, Zack Hunt of Relevant Magazine warned:
When patriotism becomes an idol, the poor can become our enemies, the alien among us can become someone to be feared and the outcast can become someone we actively seek to marginalize. When patriotism becomes an idol, the ‘other’ whom we despise is the least of these.”
As with faith, this species of patriotism neither requires nor commends deep questions about, for example, ethics or morality. It entertains no doubts.  Above all else, unequivocal loyalty is most highly prized.
It was, Tocqueville wrote, the ancient basis for servitude to royalty and the pride of conquests and power. And it remains so in the new millennium.

This was something Leo Tolstoy understood when he wrote:
The feeling of patriotism - It is an immoral feeling because, instead of confessing himself a son of God . . . or even a free man guided by his own reason, each man under the influence of patriotism confesses himself the son of his fatherland and the slave of his government, and commits actions contrary to his reason and conscience.
Even though this form of patriotism might be useful in times of crisis- war, for example- it pushes the nation toward decline in the midst of peace. Moreover, being both instinctive and impulsive, it is not an enduring type of feeling. It belongs in the heart and not in the brains of the citizens and the hearts of the mob are often fickle.

There was, however, another kind of patriotism which, de Tocqueville pointed out, is more rational. It has been called "the Patriotism of Reason."
It is perhaps less generous and less ardent, but it is more fruitful and more lasting; it is coeval with the spread of knowledge, it is nurtured by the laws, it grows by the exercise of civil rights, and, in the end, it is confounded with the personal interest of the citizen. A man comprehends the influence which the prosperity of his country has upon his own welfare; he is aware that the laws authorize him to contribute his assistance to that prosperity, and he labors to promote it as a portion of his interest in the first place, and as a portion of his right in the second.
That's an astonishing bit of prose.

Trump and the NFL

Despite the passage of 186 years, Tocqueville's excellent observation is perfectly illustrated in the form of the debate between Trump and the NFL players.

On one side, Trump's kind of patriotism, requiring no careful deliberation. It is being used as an exercise of obedience, rather than an appreciation of national principles. It is the perfect vehicle for the ill-informed and under-educated. One doesn't have to know the complicated details or the history to salute or put one's hand on one's heart during the playing of the national anthem. Follow what the person next to you is doing and you'll be fine.

Trump's definition of patriotism has been smoothly connected to honoring veterans of unpopular wars by sympathetic media outlets, most notably Fox News.    
Bill O'Reilly, appearing for the first time after being fired for sexual harassment allegations, joined Fox News contributor and Trump-supporter Sean Hannity to blast the NFL players. O'Reilly declared:
"I was angry and sad, because I don't believe those players know what they're doing. About 3,000 miles east of you, there are American military people in Kandahar, Afghanistan, whose entertainment revolves around the Armed Forces Network, that broadcasts football games."
He is implying that disloyalty might undermine the morale of the troops. And yet, nobody questioned during the Obama era whether Obama- hating Rush Limbaugh ought to be broadcast over armed forces radio back in 2012.
We should also recall that Limbuagh called Obama, the elected US President, the Commander-in-Chief- "uppity" and claimed that the only reason for his success was because he was black.

Not one person on Fox News called Limbaugh's patriotism and loyalty into question then.

And on the other side, we see the silent and peaceful protests of professional football players, usually African American, against police brutality and racial inequality. They choose to kneel during the playing of the U.S. national anthem rather than standing.  

It began with a single protester, Colin Kaepernick in 2013. Despite the possible, inevitable, career repercussions of that symbolic protest, Kaepernick did not pay his mandatory tribute to the nation that he considered in the wrong. 
The protest has since spread to other players, other teams and even outside the world of professional sports.

A Useful Wedge

Trump, a president in deep trouble, has effectively used the protests as a means to deflect attention and divide the nation. It is extremely doubtful whether Trump has any overriding sense of loyalty to his nation.
That's an understatement. He was apparently willing to make deals with America's enemy to win an election. Hardly the act of a patriotic American.

Given what de Tocqueville noted back in 1831, Trump's ploy to divide and distract has every chance of success.These two forms of patriotism are still very much alive and active in American politics.
Proof of that can be found in recent surveys that show the controversy has nearly perfectly split the nation.
According to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of professional athletes who have protested by refusing to stand during the national anthem, compared with 31 percent who approve. At the same time, 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump's call for firing players who refuse to stand, while 31 percent approve.
And what happens, de Tocqueville asks, when the two kinds of patriotism are perfectly balanced, as they currently are in the US today. When the public is "neither animated by the instinctive patriotism of monarchical subjects nor by the thinking patriotism of republican citizens; but they have stopped halfway between the two, in the midst of confusion and of distress."
In this predicament, to retreat is impossible; for a people cannot restore the vivacity of its earlier times, any more than a man can return to the innocence and the bloom of childhood; such things may be regretted, but they cannot be renewed. The only thing, then, which remains to be done is to proceed, and to accelerate the union of private with public interests since the period of disinterested patriotism is gone by forever.
And that's where we stand at this moment, trapped between two radically different ideas of what it means to be loyal to your country.
And we can thank Donald Trump - possibly the most detested president in American history- and his propagandists in the media for the confusing the public with this cynical tactic.

Yet, a sampling of historical quotes provides us with a bit of hope. 


These quotes show us that what kind of patriotism stands the test of time. And that's not the one that requires blind obedience and instinctive loyalty forsaking all logical thought.
The moment the founding fathers rejected monarchial, patriarchal rule in favor of a rational government which includes the right to petition and a set of checks and balances, the patriotism of reason became the one that should mean anything to American citizens.
It came with the right to reject symbols and to protest against a wrong that has been committed.

That is the kind of patriotism that endures. And it will again long after Trump is out of office and remembered as America's worst case of political heartburn.