Donald Trump has given America at least one gift to date. He has induced in many a powerful dose of patriotism. I too have been swept up by it.
This new patriotism is not the version that Trump had in mind when he signed, in one of his first acts on January 20, a proclamation calling for a national day of patriotism (even though we have had, for the past fifteen years, a national Patriot Day—in commemoration of September 11). Trump’s brand of patriotism, like his populism, is xeonophobic, paranoid, and exclusionary, and it is the kind that has always made me uncomfortable. It is embedded in a lugubrious view of America that calls to mind the lawlessness, fear, and chaos of “Blade Runner.” It also encourages an authoritarian streak that disregards some of the vaunted pillars of our democratic system—first and foremost, freedom of the press, which Trump and his associates attack on a daily basis. And let us not be blithe or dismissive. That attack is an early warning sign of the erosion of democracy.
It is deeply disturbing to see supporters and enablers of this undemocratic agenda within our own community. They buy into Trump’s vision of America at its worst, motivated by the unproven thesis that he will be good for Israel, while ignoring the dangers in our immediate environs, including a new bout of antisemitism.
But there is an alternative vision of America, which Trump, through his own disregard, brings into sharp focus. At its best, America symbolizes freedom, hope, and optimism. We are readily reminded of this when we turn to the cornerstone of American democracy, the United States Constitution—of which I bought ten pocket-sized copies last week to give to my family and friends. The Preamble to the Constitution lays out clearly this country’s exalted mission: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
My own awakened patriotism is rooted in these ideals—and in defense of the accompanying rights laid out in the First Amendment: freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. It is this patriotism that accompanied my friend Victor Parra and me as we walked from Silver Lake to Pershing Square on Saturday, joining hundreds of thousands of others at the extraordinary and inspiring Women’s March (and millions more across the country and around the world). Not only did I feel like we were sanctifying the Sabbath by praying with our feet, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described it. I also felt like we were realizing the ideal of “We, the People”–and bringing to life the great American experiment in democracy, both of which are rooted, as were the origins of this country, in protest against injustice.
We cannot and will not forget the many misdeeds of this country, including and especially slavery. Nor can we ignore the unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor issuing from a distinctly American form of capitalism. That said, American is more—much more—than its worst flaws. Alexis de Tocqueville understood this well when he came to observe this country in 1831: “America is great because she is good,” he wrote, “and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” Tocqueville grasped the fundamental goodness at the heart of the American ideal. It is this vision of America, not Donald Trump’s darkly dystopian vision, that anchors my patriotism. And it is this patriotism for which we must all now fight.
David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.