By Ernest A. Canning
The intemperate remarks that President Donald J. Trump directed at protesting African-American athletes during an Alabama campaign rally, along with remarks he subsequently posted on Twitter, were wrong on so many levels that is difficult to know where to begin.
Our oft-dissembling president claimed to be offended by the sight of African-American athletes who take a knee in order to protest the fact that black Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from police use of force than white Anglo Americans. The timing of their peaceful assertion that “black lives matter” — “during the playing of our national anthem” — is inappropriate, according to Trump. It “disrespects the flag.” Trump later Tweeted: “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag.”
That’s utter nonsense.
Those of us who served in combat did not risk all for either cloth or musical emblems. Instead, we served to protect the egalitarian rights and freedoms that were the aspirational goals set forth in our Declaration of Independence; aspirations that later became fundamental rights and liberties enshrined in the United States Constitution. Indeed, upon entering military service, each of us held up our right hand and solemnly swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” None of us took an oath to support and defend the American Flag, the National Anthem or any other monument.
Each of us vowed to “obey the orders of the President of the United States.” Unlike Nazi Germany, however, no member of the American military has ever been required to take an oath of personal loyalty to a President.
The fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution include the First Amendment right to engage in peaceful public protests. By verbally assaulting the constitutional right of African-American athletes to peacefully protest the disproportionate number of black Americans who have died at the hands of the police, our president attacked the same U.S. Constitution that he solemnly swore to protect and defend on the day of his Inauguration.
Trump’s decision to single-out peaceful protesting African-American athletes while appearing before an all-white audience in a former slave state, Alabama, is especially poignant given this same president’s unique ability to see “very fine people” amongst the violent mob of American Nazis and Klansmen who descended upon Charlottesville earlier this year.
In many ways, perceptions of what is or is not patriotic can be ascribed to one’s point of view. What may look like liberty to predominantly white elites, like our billionaire president, may look like oppression to underprivileged African-Americans and other minorities for whom equal opportunity appears to be little more than an unattainable myth.
This was the core point made by the former slave Frederick Douglass when, in 1852, he took exception to being asked to deliver a speech celebrating the Fourth of July:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence…”
Historians generally concur that when, in 1775, Samuel Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he was referring to the hypocrisy of those who hide behind patriotic slogans and symbols to conceal deficiencies of their own character and deeds.
There are a multitude of reasons why Trump’s verbal assault on peaceful protesting African-American athletes — a protest subsequently supported by their coaches and team owners — should be seen as simply an effort by a disloyal scoundrel to hide behind the flag.
The Donald, a draft-evading demagogue, has done nothing in his 71-years of life that so much as hints at a commitment to “duty, honor, country.” To the contrary, our oft-dissembling president’s entire existence has been a self-centered quest for wealth, fame and power — a quest that continues as he seeks at every turn to monetize the presidency for personal gain.
While the evidence is still being amassed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, that which has emerged suggests it is more likely than not that a then remarkably dishonest presidential candidate and his campaign illegally colluded with a foreign adversary so as to secure this nation’s highest executive office. And what we do know, for certain, is that once in office, Donald J. Trump engaged in a monstrous betrayal of his oath of office by disclosing some of this nation’s most closely guarded secrets to that adversary’s ambassador during an Oval Office meeting.
A modern-day Benedict Arnold is truly the last person who should be lecturing Americans on the boundaries of patriotism.