Liberals have not always done well with patriotism, or at least the kind of flag-waving jingoism that passes for patriotism on the American right. While liberals may love their country as much as right-wingers, they see it as a work in progress, rather than a monument set in stone. For this, they have often been impugned. But, in fact, their ambition is a consummately patriotic one, rooted in the Constitution, to make our nation “a more perfect union,” a goal that seeks to overcome the flaws in our history rather than ignore them.
Patriotism is love for, or devotion to, one’s country. It is distinct from nationalism, which exalts one’s nation and culture above others. One can be a patriot without being a nationalist. The current presidential campaign offers three distinct approaches to patriotism by the three men currently running for the White House.
Donald Trump is an avowed nationalist. His rhetoric of “America First” not only puts America’s perceived needs ahead of all other countries, but it implies our nation’s superiority over them as well. We deserve to triumph in the struggle of each against all because of our intrinsic virtues. This was not the watchword that inspired America to lead the Allies in World War II and its postwar aftermath. Rather it was the rhetoric of the enemy whom we defeated.
“America First” also echoes the rightist appeasement movement of the 1930’s, with its anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, isolationist bombast that dismissed the Nazi threat and insisted rather that the real menace lay at home among Hitler’s opponents, most notably the Jews and supporters of besieged Britain. The goal of this movement was to sow confusion and division.
Division is Trump’s calling card as well. His patriotism is limited to the “real” America. He is not the chief executive of us all nor does he pretend to be. He is President of the United Base of America. His country is an imaginary realm of the 1950s. As Trump has made clear, he is perfect, as is his tenure and the exclusive nation over which he presides.
For Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, the nation is far from perfect. Sanders has never left the sectarian dialectics of the 1960s, his own realm of rootedness. Sanders brings to the campaign a righteous sense of injustice. But his accent is invariably on what’s wrong with America, rather than what’s right with it. He does not envision our country as a city on a hill in need of mending but rather as a castle to be stormed. His critique is an angry one, more akin to a jeremiad denouncing Babylon than a lament for Jerusalem. His energies seem to go into condemning America rather than redeeming it, offering his own version of American carnage. Bernie Sanders is, in effect, the flip side of Donald Trump.
Sanders would insist that he demonstrates greater patriotism because he is willing to expose the unfairness and injustice of our current system. But his critiques too often appear as shrill, self-righteous and unforgiving. He is not a socialist but a left-wing ideologue of the counter-culture whose youthful followers today incautiously espouse “revolution.” As George Bernard Shaw observed: “Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder.”
And then there is Joe Biden, whose patriotism may likely be called into question by Trump’s America-Firsters. What kind of a patriot is he? In a speech he made at the Democratic National Convention four years ago, rebutting Trump’s dark picture of American decline, Biden declared: “Never bet against America... We never bow. We never break. When confronted with crisis, we endure.” How, he wondered, would the country fare under the aegis of a man whose emblematic words were: “You’re fired.” We’ve come to find out. But Biden’s speech, however hyperbolic at times, nonetheless expressed a profound faith in the goodness of the American people and the worthiness of the American project—Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth.”
Biden’s patriotism is low-keyed, manifested more in actions than rhetoric. Biden is someone who could have been painted on a New Deal mural, who made his way up from working-class roots. He really believes in the American dream of opportunity and hard work because he lived it. It is central to his patriotism.
True, his speeches may contain gaffes but there is something homespun and forgiving, even in his stumbles. One thinks of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Biden may be corny, but he is sincere. What comes through is the compassion of a man who has himself suffered deeply with the loss of his first family and a son. There is something direct and forthright in his concern for all Americans. If love of country and devotion to its people are the hallmarks of a patriot, then Joe Biden has earned the title.
He is the scrappy kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who made good on his own and came through a crucible of hardships in doing so. He can identify with the American people—all of them. Trump was a privileged playboy who had to be bailed out of his business failures by his father’s fortune and whose talents were not in building but in branding. He is all theatrics and illusion. The mask has come off during the current health crisis as he has revealed a complete inability to show any real empathy for the American people.
Samuel Johnson famously observed that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. More accurately, only a certain kind of scoundrel distorts patriotism for his own nefarious ends. It can be a force for devotion and sacrifice or a source of division and demagogy. Patriotism is only as good as its practitioners. Donald Trump exploits it. Joe Biden will elevate it.
Joe Biden’s patriotism is informed by a basic decency at the heart of the American experiment. It does not entail obeisance to the flag but devotion to the republic for which it stands. It is a throwback to the idea of the goodness, fairness and generosity that represents the best of America. Elites may miss this but, at a gut level, people grasp it, which is why Joe Biden connects with them.
While the current campaign will ultimately pit two candidates against each another, it will actually be a struggle of the ends against the middle. Sanders—out of the race or not—and Trump, represent two extremes of the American spirit. Biden represents the solid middle.
He may not be a great man, but he is a good man. And in our current parlous times, it will suffice to make America good again.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday.