Flags, Bibles and Dog Whistles

Donald Trump at CPAC 2019

I don’t follow Donald Trump closely and have devoted little ink to him in the past year. Honestly, I try not to think about him more than I have to. Alas, the President of the United States is difficult to ignore, no matter how much some of us might like to do that, and some of the stuff he says rises (or sinks) to a level which demands a response.

Last weekend Mr. Trump went on a verbal bender at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC 2019. The speech was reported to be the longest of Trump’s presidency so far, stretching over two hours.

Trump’s address was bracketed by the obligatory “God Bless the U.S.A.” on the front end and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the conclusion. Boy, you can say that again.

The entire spectacle, including Trump’s introduction by American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp (in all its self-aggrandizing glory), is available online at c-span’s website here. Personally, I can’t imagine wanting to watch this stuff for any reason other than research, as I find it all profoundly troubling.

There is plenty of coverage on Trump’s CPAC diatribe, so you don’t have to subject yourself to the brain damage of watching the whole thing. Since Trump appeared to be speaking mostly or entirely off the top of his synthetically carpeted head, there’s precious little context to be found anyway.

In his March 4 Washington Post column, Eugene Robinson surmised “If you had an uncle or a grandpa who sounded so divorced from reality, you’d be urgently concerned.” Indeed. Uncle Donald, however, has surrounded himself with people who typically enable and excuse his excesses, rather than attempting to moderate them.

Who were those people within the administration supposedly trying to preserve our democratic institutions and thwart Trump’s “more misguided impulses until he is out of office”? Remember that? It was only six months ago. Have all of those people been purged? Did they ever really exist at all? I digress.

There were two specific aspects of Trump’s CPAC rant that I want to counter.

The first of these is the carefully curated and ever repeated image of Trump as the uber patriot. When Donald J. Trump took the stage at CPAC, with Lee Greenwood’s anthem blaring, he strode to the nearest American flag, clutched it to his bosom, and rocked back and forth.

Trump himself was dressed in his favorite uniform: blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. He wore the omnipresent American flag pin on his left lapel.

Thus the President of the United States, dressed like a flag, wearing a flag, embraced a flag.

It’s been said “when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Something like that statement has been misattributed to Sinclair Lewis, Huey Long or even Thomas Jefferson. There is no credible evidence that any of those people — or anyone else we know of — actually said it. Seriously, look it up. It’s become a modern American myth.

Nonetheless, it is certainly true that people of questionable motives, reasoning or character have posed with patriotic and religious symbols to try to persuade others to their point of view. Over a hundred years ago, a labor activist named Eugene V. Debs asserted “Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both.”

Well, last week at CPAC, Donald Trump virtually WAS the flag. This week, while touring tornado devastation in Alabama, he autographed bibles.

Book of books signing
Donald Trump autographing bibles in Alabama

No kidding, you can’t make this stuff up.

Why is this a problem? Because it’s all style and no substance. The flag itself is but a symbol and the bible a collection of religious writings. People may revere the flag, and it is even defined and protected under federal law. People may revere the bible, believing it to be anything from fiction all the way up to the inerrant word of God.

But Donald Trump is not, in fact, the flag. He’s not the country. Donald Trump occupies an elected office. He heads one of the three branches of the American federal government. Trump is not a king, much less a god.

The second item of particular concern to me is something Trump said in his CPAC rant:

We have people in Congress — right now — we have people in Congress that hate our country. And you know that. And we can name every one of them if they want. They hate our country.

It’s us and them. “We” love our country (as exemplified by dressing up as flags, wearing flags, hugging flags) and “they” — whoever they are — hate it.

This is, perhaps, nothing new. In 2003, Al Franken wrote about this specious argument in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them:

If you listen to a lot of conservatives, they’ll tell you that the difference between them and us is that conservatives love America and liberals hate America. … They don’t get it. We love America just as much as they do. But in a different way. You see, they love America like a 4-year-old loves his mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups.

In an online discussion thread, I wrote that Trump’s they-hate-our-country claim made me think that we had surely hit rock bottom. Within seconds some stranger proved me wrong by replying that there actually are people in Congress who hate America, and they’re all Republicans.

OK, now, perhaps we really have hit rock bottom. Both ends of the political spectrum are claiming that the other side hates the country. We damn and demonize one another. We wreck the chances of working together and enhance the chances that we’ll actually take up arms against one another.

Some fanatics have already done that. The warning signs are there.

Is Donald Trump oblivious to the fact that some of his more fanatic supporters have already mailed bombs to supposed political enemies? Is he aware that an active duty military officer was recently arrested for stockpiling weapons and using government computers to research and plan domestic terrorism against perceived enemies?

Does Trump disbelieve? Or, God forbid, is this actually what he wants?

Are accusations that political opponents hate our country serving as dog whistles to the lunatic fringe on all sides?

The CPAC folks are right, you can’t always get what you want.

But we’d all better be careful what we invite.


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