PROSPECT HARBOR — Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) famously wrote that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I doubt Donald Trump has ever read Johnson, and if he has, I doubt that he understands the meaning of Johnson’s famous quotation. Indeed, Americans who are proud nationalists also are likely to misunderstand Johnson.

True, Johnson was a Brit and unfamiliar with American culture, in which patriotism is a word of approbation: To call someone a “patriot” in America is to compliment them.

But patriotism is also frequently confused with nationalism; in fact, the two terms are often conflated. This may explain why Trump criticizes anyone whose views on the fundamentals of what it means to be an American differ from his own, which themselves are far from clear. And only occasionally does Trump let his guard down, abandon the teleprompter and admit point blank that he is a “nationalist.”

Consider that any American can be a patriot without being a nationalist. How?

By being loyal to the democratic ideas that infuse our national charter as well as our culture. President Franklin Delano Rossevelt helped make this point in 1943 when he stated: “Americanism (patriotism) is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.”

Loyalty to country and loyalty to the ideas the nation represents can come into conflict. Trump, and many other young men at that time, did not, for example, want to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Trump was able to get four deferments from his draft board before obtaining a medical exemption for having bone spurs in his feet. Many young people in the 1960s and early 1970s were not so fortunate, so they either left the country, went underground or went to prison. Not all, but certainly many of these youths believed their primary loyalty was to the nation’s commitment to liberty and democracy rather than to the particular U.S. government of the time (Lyndon Johnson, then Richard Nixon). Castigated by some American nationalists as traitors or cowards, they were hailed by other Americans as patriots for putting principle over politics.

“My country, right or wrong” captures the attitude and outlook of nationalistic Americans, while patriots will aver instead, “I support my nation when it lives up to its values of liberty and democracy.” In the first instance, nationalism means blind loyalty; in the second, it means an open-eyed endorsement of basic democratic principles. American humorist Mark Twain put it succinctly: “My kind of loyalty (is) loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions, or its officeholders.”

Nationalists are tribal, while patriots are critical thinkers; nationalists will mindlessly obey orders of superiors, while patriots will not hesitate to question whether orders issued reflect our nation’s values. In 1968, nationalists butchered poor villagers, mainly women and children, at My Lai in Vietnam; in the 1930s and ’40s, they sent Jews to the death camps. Patriots either disobeyed such orders or actively lent assistance to the intended victims.

Patriotism is not about wrapping oneself in the Stars and Stripes, setting off fireworks on July Fourth or telling critics of nationalists to “go back to where you came from.” It is about caring for your neighbors, questioning illegitimate or undemocratic policies and practices and promoting critical thinking in our public schools.

Samuel Johnson was more likely referring to nationalism, not patriotism, as “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Scoundrels tend to glorify the symbols of the nation – flag, military, Pledge of Allegiance, etc. – rather than question whether such symbols mean as much to the nation’s soul as the virtues of democracy and liberty.


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