Beginning in 1980 and throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan appropriated the idea of patriotism and America and planted it firmly with the Republican Party. This week, however, at their national convention and with a big boost from Donald Trump, the Democratic Party and their presidential nominee Hillary Clinton took patriotism back.
The Republicans’ idea of patriotism and America during and since Reagan’s presidency consisted of using the American flag (Reagan “wrapped himself in the flag”), as well as using America’s military, both as a symbol and a tool around the world, sometimes to ill effect. Patriotism and Americanism for Republicans also includes the words “freedom” and “liberty,” sometimes to an absurd degree.
Importantly, Reagan-style Republican patriotism had an optimistic attitude. Reagan talked about America as “a shining city upon a hill”, and about “morning again in America” in his 1984 re-election campaign ads. This upbeat attitude differentiated Reagan and the Republicans from Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who once gave a speech inaccurately referred to as the “great malaise” speech but which was, like other moments of his presidency, a downer. Reagan also talked about America’s enemies — especially that “evil empire” the Soviet Union — but then confidently spoke about how the goodness of America would help us defeat the Russians. Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator,” and was a popular president upon leaving office. It’s no wonder, then, that many Republicans still revere Ronald Reagan today.
Last week, however, Donald Trump and his Republican Party national convention turned Reagan-style patriotism on its head, and they gave away the store in terms of patriotism and Americanism. The Republican National Convention was a doom and gloom fest more suited to Darth Vader than Ronald Reagan. The Vader analogy hit home even more when, after laying out so many ills about America, Trump said “I alone can fix it.” Trump and the Republicans also doubled down on divisiveness against Muslims, immigrants and others.
Then on Wednesday, during the Democratic convention, Trump amazingly transformed the Republican Party’s traditional mistrust of Russia into a subservient relationship to authoritarian ruler Vladimir Putin. After years of repeatedly praising Putin (as well as Iraq‘s Saddam Hussein and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un), Trump called on Russia to hack into American computers to find emails to and from his opponent Clinton. Some Americans say Trump committed treason, and others say he violated the Logan Act. Both Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Trump’s running mate, U.S. Senator Mike Pence, had to come out and say that Russia should not, in fact, meddle in the U.S. election by committing cyber espionage.
The Democrats grabbed this gift from Trump, and infused their convention with unabashed patriotism. However, the Democrats’ notion of patriotism was a bit different from the traditional Republican notion, and could be summed up in one word: Inclusion. This is the same idea behind the Clinton campaign’s two-word slogan: “Stronger Together.” To humanize this theme, the Democratic convention was filled with speakers and guests of all stripes: Black, Latino, Asian, Muslim, LBGT, women, the disabled and others who are part of groups traditionally discriminated against. For example, 11 year-old Karla Ortiz, born in America, told the convention crowd that she fears her parents will be deported and won’t be able to see her school science experiments.
At the same time, however, The Democrats made sure to appeal to White Male Middle America, typically a Republican bastion. In this regard, Hillary Clinton’s choice of U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia (by way of Minnesota and Kansas City), a military dad, is widely seen as a safe and effective choice. Likewise, Vice President Joe Biden, another military dad, with his middle class roots in Scranton, PA, gave a passionate description of the middle class “American spirit,” including U.S. soldiers, teachers, college students, and neighbors who look out for each other. In contrast, Biden said of Trump:
He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class? Give me a break. That’s a bunch of malarkey!
President Barack Obama gave a speech at the convention the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Ronald Reagan. Smiling much of the time, Obama talked about:
… faith in America, the generous, big-hearted, hopeful country, that made my story, that made all of our stories possible. A lot’s happened over the years. And while this nation has been tested by war, and and it’s been tested by recession, and all manner of challenges, I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your president, to tell you I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before.
Obama also took on Donald Trump and the Republicans’ “deeply pessimistic vision” from their convention, and said that:
Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it a divided crime scene that only he can fix.
Other speakers from the Democratic convention made similar remarks about how the Democrats’ inclusiveness equals patriotism. In one stunning moment, Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of a Muslim U.S. soldier who was killed in Iraq while protecting his fellow soldiers, pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution out of his suit pocket and said:
Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country. Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection of law” …. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.
One president who knows about appropriating from Republicans with great success is Bill Clinton. As Clinton used to say, when one side offers hope and the other side offers fear, hope usually prevails.
Photo by Sarah Burris, used under Creative Commons license. https://is.gd/HmOrxg