On this Fourth of July, Americans live restlessly under a presidential administration hostile to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Most Americans despise the president — a blustering, feckless lout who ignores those documents as he undermines freedom of the press and the free exercise of religion. He has appointed a government of plutocrats, mostly mirroring his own unfitness for office, who appear determined to dismantle the institutions that have made this country humane, strong, prosperous, and respected. Along with his political associates and members of his family, he has encouraged and emboldened the very worst elements in American politics, including so-called white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and neo-Confederates, all echoing his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
They cannot make America great again. Anyone who has studied the past should know that those right-wing extremists, always insisting on their supreme patriotism, are traditional enemies of the nation they claim to love. When a demagogue like Donald Trump wraps himself in the Stars and Stripes, he is defiling the flag and denying our history.
For decades right-wingers have sought to establish a near-monopoly on patriotic expression, all too often assisted by some on the left. But every July 4, I remind myself why that reactionary attitude is so ironic, and so fraudulent. Only our collective ignorance of our history could permit conservatives to assert an exclusive franchise on the flag, the Declaration of Independence, and the whole panoply of national symbols.
We need not imitate their style of politics to argue that liberals are just as entitled to a share of America’s heritage as conservatives — and much more entitled than Trump’s far right. To vindicate that claim, in honor of the national holiday, the place to begin is at the official beginning.
While “right” and “left” were not the terms of political combat in 18th-century America, there isn’t much doubt that behind the Revolution, and in particular the Declaration of Independence, were not only the members of a colonial elite, but a cabal of progressive radicals as well.
How otherwise to describe such revolutionary leaders as Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, who declared their uncompromising contempt for monarchy and aristocracy? Their wealthier, more cautious colleagues in the Continental Congress regarded Adams as a reckless adventurer “of bankrupt fortune,” and Paine as a rabble-rousing scribbler (although George Washington was influenced by Paine and ordered Continental Army officers to read his eloquent “American Crisis” pamphlets to the troops in 1776.) The kind of popular democracy promoted by Paine and Adams was a wildly radical doctrine in the colonial era, tamed in the writing of the Constitution by the new nation’s landed planters and slaveholders.
The right-wingers of the Revolutionary era were Tories — colonists who remained loyal to the British crown, fearful of change and, in their assistance to the occupying army of George III, the precise opposite of patriots. Only after more than two centuries of ideological shift can the republican faith of the Founding Fathers be described as “conservative.”
The Civil War can be likewise framed as a struggle between left and right, between patriots and … well, in those days the leaders of the Confederacy were deemed traitors — and then permitted to escape punishment in the interest of national unity. Academics may argue about that war’s economic origins, but there was a contemporary left-wing movement that sought to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, arrayed against a right-wing aristocracy that fought to preserve slavery and dissolve the Union.
Today, reverence for the Confederacy is an emotional touchstone among right-wing Southern politicians and intellectuals, as well as neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other denizens of the “alt-right.” These fanatics hate Lincoln, founder of the Republican Party, and wax nostalgic for the cultural heritage of the plantation.
At the risk of offending every furious diehard who still waves the Stars and Bars (usually while wearing a #MAGA cap), it is fair to ask what, exactly, is patriotic about all that?
Yet another inglorious episode preceded the global war against fascism. Long before Trump adopted “America First” to express his xenophobia and bigotry, it was a slogan mounted by Hitler’s witting and unwitting allies in the United States. Camouflaged in red, white and blue bunting, the America First movement proved to be a haven for foreign agents plotting against the United States. Perhaps it is again.
The overwhelming majority of conservatives honorably joined the war effort after Pearl Harbor. But the “Old Right” of Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan, the John Birch Society, and yes, the Koch brothers — can be traced to those prewar sympathizers of the Axis.
So when Trump and his far-right supporters swathe themselves in Old Glory, while committing yet another offense against the Constitution, remember: On this holiday, and every day, that flag and the promise it symbolizes are not theirs to abuse, but belong to a nation that will uphold and someday vindicate them.