President Trump tries to hijack the meaning of the American flag by wrapping himself in false patriotism again and again as he tramples the rights embodied by Old Glory — revealing himself and his followers to be star-spangled hypocrites. But our flag should stand for freedom, and Trump can’t take that away.
The day after President Obama left office and White House staff said our farewells as he and Michelle boarded their final flight on Air Force One, I donned my “Captain America” hoodie and joined the Women’s March to show patriotic solidarity. Since then, I’ve joined various progressive protests, including the March for Science, March for Our Lives, and Black Lives Matter.
Unlike Obama, who read 10 letters a day from citizens across the political spectrum, Trump refuses to listen to anyone outside his bubble of yes-men. So progressives took to the streets to raise awareness in ways that are harder to ignore, even in echo chambers. I always wore stars and stripes to show we’re Americans marching for a better America — not “anti-American” like right-wingers try to portray us.
Yet Trump has attacked First Amendment practitioners with violence and incitement of violence. He scapegoated Black Lives Matter protesters by conflating them with “ANTIFA,” which he tweeted he would designate as a “terrorist organization,” without evidence. Antifa isn’t even an organization; it’s just a term loosely applied to “anti-fascists” and “anti-racists” — in other words, anyone who opposes Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump has galvanized white supremacist militias, which the FBI considers real terrorist threats. Last year, Trump defended his moral equivalencies about the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which he referred to violent alt-right militias as “very fine people.”
In May, Trump retweeted a Republican official in New Mexico declaring, “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” because he viewed them as “anti-American.” The danger of Trump’s incitement was highlighted in Albuquerque less than a month later, when a member of a right-wing militia opened fire on protesters trying to remove a statue of a genocidal conquistador. Egged on by conservative media and politicians, Trump supporters have spent the past month physically assaulting peaceful anti-racists in states throughout the country.
Progressives cannot surrender our country or its flag to Trump. If we allow the racists and fascists to co-opt the flag and redefine “America” to exclude Americans, we risk losing our democracy.
The racists already have a flag: the flag of the Confederacy. The fascists already have a flag: the Nazi swastika. The American flag can and should be a flag of anti-racism and anti-fascism: a symbol of our aspiration for the unmet promise of America — that we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.
I recognize my privilege as a white man makes it easier for me to embrace our flag than others who weren’t enfranchised as citizens since America’s founding. I support protesters who kneel to show they won’t stand for our flag until our flag stands for all of us. But I encourage all Americans to understand Colin Kaepernick’s leadership to kneel in reverence was not a rejection of our flag, but a respectful plea, endorsed by a Green Beret, for us to live up to the values it represents.
Suffragists used our flag over 100 years ago to call attention to the gap between the rights promised to Americans and the rights denied to women. Poet Langston Hughes wrote from the perspective of Black Americans and other marginalized groups: “America was never America to me, and yet I swear this oath — America will be!”
Fellow protesters: Please remember that we are the flag. Our government and military are supposed to protect us, despite betrayals — including Trump’s recent use of force to attack us. Like our flag, our military is supposed to represent our people and our Constitution, not a man who abuses power for political purposes.
Laughing about “Bunker Baby” cowering in fear may allow us to shrug away Trump’s use of teargas to desecrate St. John’s Church for a “Christian” photo-op. But it won’t change the hearts and minds of voters whose help we need to elect Joe Biden and remove Trump.
This Independence Day and every day, let’s remember how the American Revolution began against a mad king, and why our fight against tyranny and in pursuit of equality continues as we strive to form “a more perfect Union.” Only when we fill the streets with American flags in support of progressive change will fence-sitters be forced to see with their own eyes that protecting the flag means supporting the rights of all our people.
As President Obama asked on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama: “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
Progressives need to respond to exclusionary negative nationalism with an inclusive positive patriotism in support of our values. We do that by reclaiming the flag as we push for America to fulfill our pledge of “liberty and justice for all.”
Kyle Herman served as an analyst and writer in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence from 2015 to 2017. He is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.