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Trump’s Mt. Rushmore Patriotpalooza

There’s the patriotic way. And then there’s Trump's way.
July 3, 2020
Trump’s Mt. Rushmore Patriotpalooza

Donald Trump is heading for an Independence Day rally at Mount Rushmore on Friday. Which is, in a way, fitting. Because it gives us an occasion to reflect on the nature of patriotism and Trump’s relationship to it.

Political scientist Walter Berns said: “Patriotism means love of country and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one’s life for it.” Trump’s infamous shirking in the 1960s needs no elaboration here, except for a question: Has he ever given a moment’s thought to what happened to the young man who took his place in Vietnam?

Love of country has other aspects, too. The Pew Research Center asked people to rate the actions that one a good citizen. The top answer was “vote in elections.” During the pandemic, mail ballots provide the safest way to carry out this patriotic duty. Through threats against state governments, legal action by the Republican National Committee, and bogus claims about ballot security, Trump has been trying to hobble voting by mail.

Trump’s motive here is openly political. On Fox & Friends he admitted why he opposed stimulus funding for mail-in voting: “They have things, levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” He errs about the partisan impact of mail ballots, but for this president, falsehood trumps truth, and perceived self-interest trumps patriotism.

After voting, the action that got the second-highest “very important” score in Pew’s poll was “pay all the taxes you owe.”

Nobody enjoys writing checks to the IRS and people disagree about tax rates. Nevertheless, Americans generally acknowledge that patriots should contribute their fair share. Not Trump. Although he has sought to hide his tax returns, we know of years in which he paid no federal income tax. When this fact came up at a 2016 debate, he said with a smirk, “That makes me smart.”

And Trump wasn’t just taking legitimate deductions. He and his family reportedly took dubious tax dodges that had the side effect of forcing tenants to pay higher rents.

The third-ranking patriotic action on Pew’s list is “always follow the law.” In this, Pew’s respondents were echoing Lincoln, who said that reverence for the law should be ”the political religion of the nation.”

By that standard, Trump is a political atheist. Disregard for the rule of has been one of the few constants of his adult life. As a businessman, he discriminated against African-American renters. As the founder of a fake charity, he had to pay more than $2 million in damages for misusing funds. As president, he committed impeachable offenses. As “Individual-1,” he ordered the illegal hush-money payments that landed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen in prison.

The Pew survey on citizenship lists several other patriotic duties, but one is especially telling: “respect the opinions of those who disagree.” Obviously, Trump has no truck with this:“dumb,” “dopey,” “failed,” “fake,” “sad,” “dying,” “weak.”

Indeed, one aspect of patriotism is so obvious that pollsters don’t ask about it: In times of danger, patriots look out for their fellow Americans. Trump kept telling the troops that “I will have your back,” and then was oblivious as his good friend Vladimir Putin offered bounties for their murder.

Back on February 24, Donald Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” More than 125,000 deaths later, he is headlining a Mount Rushmore event that will not require masks or social distancing.

I’m not quite sure what you call a man who does not care if his fellow citizens live or die. But he isn’t a patriot.

John J. Pitney, Jr.

John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.