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Why Are You a Patriot?

The people who most loudly claim to love the country are also those most tarnishing its reputation.
October 20, 2022
Why Are You a Patriot?
A man wearing a patriotic suit and Donald Trump themed tie joins supporters queueing before President Donald Trump holds a rally on October 26, 2020 in Lititz, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

A few months ago, some marketer got hold of my cell phone number and I’ve been deluged ever since with text appeals from MAGA world and the GOP. A sample from just the last few days:

“Mona, you’re the lucky winner of our Trump Rally Blitz. Claim your prize in 10 minutes.”

“It’s Ron Johnson, I have one small request, no $ involved. Can you submit your endorsement of me? Just tap this link now. Thank you.”

“IMPEACH BIDEN POLL DUE TONIGHT! Mona, we’re begging, please take 30 seconds to join fellow patriots and take the official GOP poll.”

All of the texts have links attached, which I did not click on for obvious reasons. And most of them claim that you can be freed from the barrage of dire warnings and pathetic pleas by texting “stop.” I did try that several times and—brace yourselves—it’s a lie.

Watching the midterms play out, and seeing the GOP nominate people like Herschel Walker, Don Bolduc, Doug Mastriano, and Kari Lake, I am struck by a strange incongruity. The MAGA texts on my phone, like the GOP messages more broadly, incessantly invoke patriots, patriotism, and love of America. They seem to think they own the patriotism patent. But it’s worth pausing to wonder what they love.

Their professed love for America leads them to rally around Walker, who seems to be both a mentally unstable and bad man. He has acknowledged his mental illness though claiming to be completely cured. What he has clearly not overcome is stinking dishonesty. It’s not just run-of-the-mill lies such as claiming that he graduated in the top 1 percent of his class at the University of Georgia when in truth he didn’t graduate at all, or giving “inspirational speeches” about overcoming a speech impediment to become valedictorian of his high school class (he wasn’t). Those lies are bad, but differ in degree more than kind from exaggerations we’ve heard from politicians in the past.

No, the more pernicious lies are the ones that bring actual virtues into disrepute. Walker has made promoting responsible fatherhood part of his image. He has gone even further (perhaps in an effort to score points among white conservatives) by calling out irresponsible black fathers in particular. In a 2021 interview with Diamond and Silk, he said: “The father leaves in the Black family. He leaves the boys alone so they’ll be raised by their mom. If you have a child with a woman, even if you have to leave that woman—even if you have to leave that woman—you don’t leave that child.” And speaking to Charlie Kirk, he boasted that he had served as a father figure for young African-American kids in his hometown of Wrightsville, Georgia, but that he should have done more. “I want to apologize to the African American community, because the fatherless home is a major, major problem.” He should, he confided to Kirk, have gone to Chicago and elsewhere to help even more black kids stay on the right side of the law and take care of their own kids when they become fathers someday.

So when the Daily Beast revealed that Walker had not one, not two, but three unacknowledged children he had not raised, and that this advocate for “no exceptions” to laws outlawing abortion had paid for one abortion and encouraged another, it all might have been too much for a party that had even a nodding familiarity with integrity. But no, Senators Rick Scott and Tom Cotton, Republican National Committee chair Ronna (used to be Romney) McDaniel, and Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition rallied behind Walker, calling the revelations of his lies a late hit by desperate Democrats.

Now, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but when someone is caught out in hypocrisy, the response cannot be “We’re cool with it because we want to win.” In order to have any shred of credibility, you need to show that you take the virtue seriously. If you’re caught in hypocrisy, you have to take the consequences, otherwise people could get the idea that you are total cynics who don’t really believe in anything except power.

And this brings us back to patriotism because one of the reasons to love your country is that it elevates certain virtues like integrity, courage, decency, and honor. You don’t love the country for its villains (though sometimes in spite of them). Politics is a tough business that frequently attracts ambitious, less-than-sterling people. That’s a given, but surely one aspect of patriotism is revulsion at seeing your nation’s leadership sullied by flagrant liars, bigots, and cheats. You don’t want to elevate someone who makes a fool of you for believing that he’s serious about the problem of father absence, or someone who sent buses to the Capitol on January 6 and consorts with anti-Semites, or who admires the Unabomber, or who believes that “Mike Pence is a traitor,” or who questions the legitimacy of our elections as a majority of GOP nominees this year do. Yet those are the leaders who get GOP pulses racing.

Another aspect of this faux patriotism is the attraction to autocrats and thugs around the globe. While it’s true that America doesn’t have an unblemished record when it comes to international affairs (who does?), one of the things that always nurtured my own patriotic sentiment was the overall sense that we were the good guys—or at least tried to be. We were a nation that stood for human rights and against totalitarianism. If there was a vote in the UN about, say, condemning abuses in Sudan or Tibet or Iran, the U.S. and Great Britain and Canada and others would vote “Yes” while Russia and China and North Korea and Cuba would vote “No.” Of course we did business with bad regimes and had friendly relations with some very dubious allies (like Saudi Arabia), but we were also the lifeline for struggling democracies like Taiwan, Israel, and South Korea. When the world faces an emergency like a tsunami or a famine or an act of raw aggression, they don’t phone Xi or Putin, they call the White House.

But the GOP today, while draping itself in the mantle of patriotism, is signaling that in the greatest challenge to freedom in the globe today—the unprovoked, imperialist, brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia—they are seriously considering cutting off aid to Ukraine. The chairman of the (ironically named) Freedom Caucus, Scott Perry, accuses the Biden administration of potentially blundering into nuclear war and promises investigations of the Biden/Zelensky relationship if Republicans become the majority in 2023.

Minority Leader and would-be House speaker Kevin McCarthy is saying that a Republican-majority Congress would not “write a blank check” to Ukraine. That’s a red herring, of course, because Ukraine is not asking for a blank check, nor has it ever asked for a single American to risk his life for Ukraine’s freedom. They are merely asking for the means to defend themselves. But more than that, with their courage and sacrifice they are redeeming the idea of liberty at a time when many around the world were losing faith in democracy. Ukrainians are demonstrating that contrary to the propaganda of autocrats everywhere, democracies are actually stronger than dictatorships. And they are showing that some things, like the right to live free—to think what you want, read what you want, worship as you wish, and say what you think—are worth fighting and dying for.

The America I love is wholeheartedly behind Ukraine. McCarthy and big swaths of his party claim to love America, but they make this nation less worthy of patriotism.

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].