WASHINGTON – Here, for me at least, is the comforting paradox of the age of Trump: I have never respected a president less, nor loved my country more.
This sentiment may startle. It may rankle, even. It comes in a week that witnessed the passage of the worst domestic policy legislation of my lifetime, followed by the now ritual but always repulsive lauding of the president. First by the Cabinet courtiers summoned for that purpose; next by Republican lawmakers willing to lay it on just as thick – even more nauseating because they know better than the servile flattery of their words and because they occupy, theoretically anyway, a co-equal branch.
And this patriotic burst comes disconcertingly in a year that has seen the public display of the racist, xenophobic worst that America has to offer. These ugly impulses existed long before Donald Trump’s pursuit of the presidency and will, sadly, outlast him.
But candidate Trump diligently tilled the soil in which this hatred flourishes and, more appallingly, President Trump tolerated its deathly consequences in Charlottesville. “Very fine people on both sides,” indeed. Trump’s own secretary of state, when asked if those comments represented American values, was moved to say, “The president speaks for himself.” How true, in every sense of that sentence.
Has there been a more embarrassing year for the United States? Thinking Americans cringe at what foreign countries and their leaders make of us and our president, with his reckless upending of international agreements, his bigoted and poorly executed travel ban, his unashamed ignorance, his reckless tweets, his endless susceptibility to flattery.
Moral Americans – and the Alabama Senate results suggest there remains, pardon the phrase, a moral majority – recoil at the president’s support for a candidate credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old, at his incessant lies, at his (and his family’s) unabashed willingness to use government service as just another pocket-lining opportunity. This litany is made all the more disgusting by the complicity of so many members of his party.
And yet, I am thankful for Trump in this sense: He has unleashed my inner patriot. I love my country, for all its flaws and for all its flawed leader.
It is worth fighting for. I knew this, always, on an intellectual level. The Trump presidency has made me feel it, viscerally and passionately. The ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and implemented through the careful structures and capacious phrases of the Constitution do not merely compel our respect. In the Trump era, they require our passionate defense.
Once we took for granted, as a given of American democracy, such fundamental values as freedom of the press, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary. Now we have a president who veers between failure to understand their importance and deliberate efforts to undermine them.
He is similarly heedless of the qualities that have always made America great, most notably its willingness not only to enshrine these values at home but to play a leadership role in nurturing them abroad. Trump’s America is bristlingly insular and driven by zero-sum selfishness. Mine is welcoming, idealistic and generous – a shining city, not a walled fortress.
Those of us on the more liberal side of the political spectrum have too often and too easily ceded the mantle of patriot to conservatives. Indeed, there can be an off-putting, chest-thumping aspect to traditional, bumper-sticker patriotism: “My country, right or wrong.” “America, love it or leave it.”
George Washington, in his farewell address, advised fellow citizens to “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” It is hard not to recall that admonition when listening to Trump’s faux-patriotic posturing against kneeling NFL players and his demand that they show “total respect for our national anthem, for our flag, for our country.”
Real patriotism would be to recognize, as the Supreme Court did three decades ago in overturning a criminal conviction for burning the American flag, that “we do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.”
Real patriotism would be not to denounce the “Russia hoax” but to insist that Congress – and for that matter, special counsel Robert Mueller – get to the bottom of what happened in the 2016 election and, even more imperative, that the United States strengthen its defenses to prevent future meddling.
That is the patriotism Trump has awoken, in me and so many others. Because our fundamental fight is not against Trump. It is for America.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post. © 2017 The Washington Post Writers Group