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Donald Trump Ruined Conservatism. Don’t Let Him Ruin Patriotism.

The president discredits everything he touches. His poisonous form of patriotism is a danger to our civic health.
October 22, 2020
Donald Trump Ruined Conservatism. Don’t Let Him Ruin Patriotism.
A participant in the 2019 Women's March in Santa Fe, New Mexico, holds a handmade sign with a satirical version of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance critical of the Republican Party. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has a documented history of driving Americans away from the policies he favors. This is both good and bad.

As Catherine Rampell noted, the president has moved American public opinion toward greater approval of immigration. The percentage of Americans who said that immigration is good for the country bounced around in the 50s and 60s in the first decade and a half of this century. But since 2016, the trend has been up sharply. In 2020, 77 percent of Americans told Gallup that they think immigration is good for the country. Similarly, the percentage who believe that accepting refugees fleeing war or persecution should be a priority has increased from 62 percent in 2016 to 73 percent in 2019. As Linda Chavez has noted at The Bulwark, the U.S. led the world in refugee admissions for decades, but under Trump, the number of refugees has dropped to record lows. The president has set a ceiling of 18,000 for fiscal year 2020, down from 70,000 in 2001. We’ve come a long way from George W. Bush’s admirable insistence on admitting refugees even after 9/11.

Trump has also increased the appetite for government involvement in health care. Since embarking on his quest for the presidency, Trump has denounced the Affordable Care Act, but only because he promised something superior. His specific policy proposal for replacing the law was something “terrific,” “phenomenal,” and “fantastic.” In February of 2017, having been in office a few weeks, Trump tweeted “repeal and replacement of ObamaCare is coming fast!” At the end of March, with negotiations bogging down, he pleaded for more time.

I never said repeal and replace Obamacare. You’ve all heard my speeches. I never said repeal it and replace it within 64 days. [He said 100 days.]  I have a long time. But I want to have a great health care bill and plan, and we will. It will happen. And it won’t be in the very distant future.

It didn’t happen. The Republicans shrugged and moved on to tax reform, and the president turned to important matters like accusing Joe Scarborough of murder and warning America about the imminent danger from caravans of immigrants heading for our border. Health care reform was a dead letter, except that having failed to repeal or replace the ACA through legislation, the administration joined in a legal assault on the law, challenging its constitutionality. If the Trump administration were to get its way at the Supreme Court, millions of Americans would lose health insurance in the midst of a pandemic. Oh, and on August 3 of this year, the president once again promised his own health care proposal “hopefully, prior to the end of the month.”

Amazingly, the public’s response to this clown show was to express increasing support for the ACA, with a solid 55 percent expressing approval of the law this month, up from about 40 percent in 2016.

Trump’s fulminations against trade have convinced some—Republicans are now far more negative about NAFTA than in the pre-Trump era—but most Americans have moved in the other direction, with 74 percent agreeing that trade is an opportunity for economic growth versus 21 percent who view it as a threat to the economy.

As a pro-immigrant free-trader, I’m not sorry that Trump has driven people away from his views, though I do regret that the Republican party, which I once believed was sincere about favoring more free-market approaches to health care delivery, has crumbled into a heap of ashes on the subject. Unable to tackle the one issue they had made the centerpiece of four consecutive elections, they are reduced to attempting to sabotage the law Democrats managed to pass.

Trump has driven people away from the Republican party, and caused them to reject the label “conservative.” I’m inclined to reject it myself, because in the age of Trump, it has become associated with nativism, racism, ignorance, authoritarianism, contempt, and crackpottery. And while it’s no loss for the nation if protectionism and nativism are discredited, there are other things that Trumpism endangers that would be serious losses.

I worry that Trump is contaminating patriotism itself. His blatantly racist appeals combined with his crude and offensive invocations of “America First” run the risk of associating patriotism with whiteness. His fondness for the Confederacy stains his embrace of the American flag.

What Trump’s fans on the right never seem to grapple with as they ceaselessly invoke the specter of socialism, riots, and gun confiscation, is how much Trump drives the left toward extremism. We are in the midst of a left-wing fever of revisionism about American history. From the 1619 Project to the toppling of statues of anti-slavery heroes, there is a movement afoot that Bari Weiss calls a “mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality.” Some of this predated Trump of course, but he has turbo-charged it.

The leftwing challenge to American legitimacy has always stressed racism, colonialism, sexism, and unconstrained capitalism. Trump has lived down to each and every one of those stereotypes. (You may object that he wasn’t a colonialist, but don’t forget “Take the oil!”)

As we look to rebuild in a post-Trump world, we non-leftists must be able to make the case for American patriotism. We cannot respond to the 1619 Project with heavy-handed attempts to limit its reach, but with arguments and context. No, this country would not be lovable if its history were one long chronicle of racism and oppression. It isn’t. We have much to be ashamed of in our history but much more to celebrate and be grateful for. We have been free and a beacon of freedom for more than two centuries. We have welcomed people from all over the globe and insisted that when they become citizens they are the full equals of those born here. We have confronted our past sins, imperfectly of course, but diligently nevertheless. We’ve given the world fantastic inventions like the airplane and the Salk vaccine, but nothing more important than the Declaration of Independence with its ringing invocation of natural rights.

Trump is a shriveled soul and tends to diminish everything and everyone he touches. As we move out of his orbit, we can begin to recapture some of the grandeur of the nation he has led so miserably. Consider the words of Ronald Reagan in his farewell address in January, 1989, ruminating on what America meant to the world:

I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one—a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early ‘80s, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.’

We cannot permit American patriotism to be hijacked by yahoos and bigots. As we start to heal from the past four years, we must rescue patriotism from Trumpism.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].